When California was born

Originally published in The Bee's Gold Rush Sesquicentennial edition on Jan. 18, 1998

COLOMA - If you are a Californian, part of you was born here.

Perhaps it's the adventurous part, or the inventive; the inquisitive - or the acquisitive.

If you are a Californian, part of you knows this serene valley, cut by a branch of the American River, where oak gives way to pine and the foothills bow to the Sierra.

Because this is where California was born.

Its father was James Marshall, a dour, paranoid carpenter from New Jersey. Its mother was the natural happenstance of geological and hydrological forces that placed a pea-shaped dollop of gold in a sawmill ditch here on the chilly morning of Jan. 24, 1848.

"Boys, " Marshall told the group of laborers who were helping him build the sawmill, "By God, I believe I have found a gold mine."

What he had really found was the ignition switch for one of the most massive migrations in human history: the California Gold Rush.

It was quite literally a rush. More than 90,000 people made their way to California in the two years following Marshall's discovery, and more than 300,000 by 1854 - or one of about every 90 people then living in the United States.

The stampede of humanity ripped families apart and stripped towns of a large percentage of their young men. It changed the country's view of the relationship between wealth and labor. And it ensured that California would always be a different kind of place in America.

"When California discovered gold, " notes University of Iowa historian Malcolm J. Rohrbough, "the world discovered California. Willingly or not, as a consequence, Americans were about to learn some sobering and exhilarating truths about themselves."

From the beginning, the Gold Rush was different. Unlike other westward movements in American history, the gold seekers came not to settle, but to take. Their trek was not as much a commitment as it was an adventure. In fact, they called themselves Argonauts, after the mythical Greek heroes who sailed in the Argo with Jason in search of the Golden Fleece.

We call them 49ers.

Some were already famous, like explorer and soldier John C. Fremont, who got rich when a land agent bought property for him around Sonora - against his wishes - and the land later proved to be drenched with gold.

Some became famous, like the New York butcher who walked to California, opened a meat shop in Placerville and made enough money to start a meat-packing plant in Milwaukee. His name was Phillip Armour. One of Armour's Placerville neighbors was an Indiana man who made and sold wheelbarrows. Later, his family got into the car business. His name was John Studebaker.

Most were, and remained, obscure strangers in a strange land, hoping to get lucky and go home with enough to make their lives better.

"Jane, " 49er Melvin Paden wrote home to his wife, "I left you and the boys for no other reason than this: To come here and procure a little property by the sweat of my brow so that we could have a place of our own, that I might not be a dog for other people any longer."

Like Paden, most were young American men. The census of 1850 found that 73 percent of California's population was between the ages of 20 and 40, and 92 percent were males. But there were enterprising women as well.

Lucy Stoddard Wakefield, for example, arrived in California, divorced her husband and made her way to Placerville, where she made pies: 240 of them a week, at $1 per pie. Margaret Frink opened a hotel with her husband on K Street in Sacramento in 1850, complete with a distinctive gimmick - free, fresh milk. "This was a great attraction to men, " she wrote, "many of whom had not tasted milk for one or two years."

And not all the 49ers were Americans. In late 1849, the flags on ships in San Francisco Bay included those of England, France, Spain, Portugal, Hawaii, Hamburg, Bremen, Belgium, Sweden, Chile, Peru, Russia, Mexico, Norway and Tahiti. There were Chinese and Irish, Italians and Australians. In the 1850 census, a quarter of those counted in California were from foreign lands. No place on Earth was as racially and ethnically diverse, a California trait that has continued ever since.

Wherever they came from, it was often a wrenching decision to go. Men often left behind their wives and children with little more than promises and hopes.

"Dear wife, " wrote Joshua Sullivan of Michigan, "my heart bleeds within me to think of starting on the west plains to be gone so long from you, but I will do the best I can."

Just getting to California was fraught with difficulty. A 15,000-mile ship journey around the tip of South America could take five months. More than 500 ships did it in 1849 alone. Cutting across the Isthmus of Panama might take "only" three months, if one were willing to risk cholera and malaria. By land, the 2,200-mile journey from trail heads in Missouri or Iowa might also take three or four months, with a lot of luck.

And the trip was often the best part of a 49er's experience. Mining, they soon learned, was back-breaking work. A bucket of dirt, laboriously "washed, " might yield 10 cents in gold. Miners thus needed to wash 160 buckets a day to make $16, the average price of an ounce of gold.

"Went to camp, ate our supper and turned in, " wrote miner John Hovey in his journal after working 10 hours and finding $10 worth of gold. "Thought to ourselves this is a confounded way to make a fortune."

It was also exceedingly dangerous. Accidents, disease, malnutrition and the violent habits of one's neighbors led to an exceedingly high mortality rate. One estimate is that one in every five miners who came to California in 1849 was dead within six months, a rate so high that insurance companies refused to write new policies for people coming to the gold fields.

"It is an everyday occurrence, " wrote a Nevada City miner in 1851, "to see a coffin carried on the shoulders of two men, who are the only mourners and only witnesses to the burial of some stranger whose name they do not know."

It's true the rewards were great for some, and decent for many. A miner making $8 a day (about $160 in 1997 dollars) was doing eight times better than his coal-miner counterpart in the East. But prices were astronomical too. A loaf of bread that sold for 4 cents in New York sold for 75 cents in the mines. An 1849 report from Sacramento said eggs were $1 to $3 apiece; apples $1 to $5; coffee $5 a pound; a butcher knife $30, and boots $100 a pair.

The newcomers also had to adapt to a new way of life, with new rules. Or rather, no rules.

"We are thousands of miles from home, " a newly arrived miner named L.M. Wollott wrote home, "and comfort ourselves by thinking that a knowledge of the indulgence in vice will never reach there. Here there are no parents' eyes to guide, no wife to warn, no sister to entreat . . . in short, all the animal and vicious passions are let loose and free to indulge without any legal or social restraint."

And so they indulged. Alcoholism was a raging storm. Gambling, for many, became as much a religion as a pastime. Suicide rates soared, as did violence of other kinds. And "Judge Lynch" was the presiding law officer.

In just one July week in 1850 in Sonora, two Massachusetts men had their throats slit; a Chilean was shot to death in a gunfight, and a Frenchman stabbed a Mexican to death. Marysville reported 17 murders in one week, and at the height of the Gold Rush, San Francisco averaged 30 new houses - and two murders - a day.

As the easy gold disappeared, xenophobia and racism grew. In San Francisco, Frenchmen were hunted down and killed because of a rumor one of them had started a fire that burned down much of the city. In Sonora, whites burned down the town as part of an effort to get rid of the Mexican and Chilean miners who had settled it. The Legislature passed a $20-per-month foreign miners tax in an effort to drive out non-Americans.

California's Indian population was simply run over. "The best way to handle the Indian problem is to exterminate them, " ranted a Yreka newspaper editorial. ". . . Anyone who argues to the contrary is taking a most traitorous position."

"A residence here at present, " wrote one despairing miner in 1852, "is a pilgrimage in a strange land, a banishment from good society, a living death."

In the end, many of the 49ers came to a sobering conclusion: Hard work did not mean success.

"If a person works his claim himself, is economical and industrious, keeps his health and is satisfied with small gains, he is bound to make money, " noted Louisa Smith Clapp in a letter to her sister from Rich Bar. "And yet I cannot help remarking that almost all with whom we are acquainted seem to have lost."

It was a new and hard lesson for a nation that had always equated the level of success with the amount of effort put into achieving it. Finding gold, America learned, depended far more on luck than good intentions.

"How green I have been, " Joseph Wood wrote home after working for months and finding nothing. "I wrote home great stories about making money in California. Poor Goose! How little I knew of the true state of things."

But the lasting impacts of the Gold Rush were far more pervasive - and positive - than an object lesson in luck.

The admission of California as a free state in 1850, a direct result of the Gold Rush, forever tipped the scales in favor of the Union as the nation slipped toward the Civil War. The Gold Rush spurred long-delayed congressional approval of the proposal for a transcontinental railroad. For all the state's lasting racial and ethnic prejudices, the diversity caused by the Gold Rush contributed to an infusion of ideas and spirit.

It also changed the American psyche. A nation of shopkeepers and farmers woke up to discover there was a place to go when home was not enough.

"The California Gold Rush made America a more restless nation - changed the people's sense of their future, their expectations and their values, " wrote historian J.S. Holliday. "Suddenly there was a place to go where everyone could expect to make money quickly; where life could be freer; where one could escape the restraints and conventions and the plodding sameness of life in the Eastern states."

The Gold Rush, in fact, proved to be a harbinger of similar events in California history that kept the state on the cutting edge. The beginning of the aerospace industry, Hollywood, Silicon Valley and the birth of the biotechnology industry were all gold rushes of a kind.

"As nowhere else, " said Holliday, "you can fail in California. And I think the California Gold Rush taught people that failure was OK . . . and the result is that people accepted failure, which is the equivalent of saying they are willing to take risks. And California has been the most risk-taking society in the nation, maybe in the world."

In the end, perhaps, the impact of the Gold Rush can't truly be measured, at least not quantitatively.

"Examine any phase of California life - agriculture, labor, government, industry, social organization, " argues historian Carey McWilliams, "and the examination invariably involves some consideration of the importance of the discovery of gold. Nothing quite like it has ever occurred, or is likely to occur again, in world history."

Perhaps it is best measured by watching people as they stroll around the 150-acre site that commemorates James Marshall's discovery.

"It's funny to think we might not be here in California if he hadn't found it, " said Helen Morrison of Roseville.

She said it as she walked along the river with her husband Mac. They stopped and peered into the water, looking for a glinting yellow metal.

Gold. California's birthstone.