John Sutter

In 1839, Captain John Sutter, of German ancestry settled in California with the intention of growing a agricultural empire in the fertile hills of the Sacramento Valley. It was here that Sutter built a fort to protect his assets. After ten years Sutter had acquired a great deal of wealth. He owned twelve hundred head of cattle, and had over one hundred men under his employ.

Sutters Fort

His plans were to build a flour mill to provide flour for all the settler’s who were coming out to California from back east.  To build the flour mill, Sutter needed lumber. John Sutter hired a jack of all trades James Marshall to build him a lumber mill. Workers built a large ditch to carry the water through the saw mill. In building the ditch, it had been dug out to exposed  bedrock. It was here on January 24, 1848 that James Marshall found gold on the bedrock. Marshall thought twice about bending over and picking it up, but he did. along with several smaller pieces. He rode forty miles that day to show the pieces of gold to John Sutter.

James Marshall

John Sutter and James Marshall was not sure if it was really gold. They both decided to keep it a secret from outsiders, however, one of the workers went out for a drink at a local saloon, and not having any cash on hand, reached into his pocket and plunked down a shiny yellow nugget that he found in a nearby stream. “That is money. It is gold” he declared. Before long word got around.

Sutters Saw Mill

A Mormon by the name of Sam Brannon (which knew a thing or two about supply and demand), hearing of the gold traveled to San Francisco and bought up everything he could that he thought gold miners might need, such as shovels and picks. Brannon then systematically started the California Gold Rush, by shouting and marching up and down in the streets of San Francisco; “Gold in the American River, Gold in the American River, Gold, Gold!” When news of the discovery reached Oregon two-thirds of all men who were able to work, packed up and left for California. These men who went in search of gold, were now called “Prospectors”.

Sam Brannon

In those days news still traveled fastest by ship. People in China heard about the news, before the people of the east coast. Because the news was slow to travel the prospectors earned the nickname “the 49ers” rather than the name “the 48ers.” For it was 1849, when the influx of men from the east coast showed up in droves.  By 1852, the population of California had multiplied a ten times from the original estimate of 25,000 people who had lived there before the discovery. In 1852, the population was swelled well over 250,000 people, in that short span of time.

The news of the gold strike in California spread suddenly when news reached the east coast. The United States was in the middle of a bad depression. The news and the gold, boomed the economy.

There were three routes from the east coast region to the gold fields of California. By a overland wagon-train, which took over a six months journey, by ship around South America, which also could take six months, or by sea and land across the ismus of Panama, the shortest route, yet the most costly. Many men died of hunger or stricken with disease trying to reach the gold fields. When the first ships docked in San Francisco sailors joined prospectors, abandoned their ships and rushed to the gold fields. For poor people, California gold seemed to be the chance at making something for themselves, an adventure and a chance of a lifetime.

An early image of some of the first Gold Prospectors in California

Once the Gold Prospectors had arrived in California they had to endure the rain, the winter weather, the elements of nature, along side the back breaking work in order to find the gold. A man was his own boss, who did not take orders from some other man, so enduring these things seemed worth it to some. The 49ers traveled to the gold fields and discovered the gold barring rock that later became known as the Motherlode. In 1849, $10,000,000 worth of gold came out of California. In all, the major gold rush of California lasted only ten years. In 1852, more gold came out of California than the whole federal budget of the United States.

James Marshall, the man who found that first gold nugget in the American  River at Sutter’s Mill, searched for another gold strike, but it was in vane. He spent his the rest of his life as a drunk and broke. John Sutter’s agricultural empire was destroyed. Most, if not all of his one hundred employees left for the gold fields. Sutter wrote in his diary of what could have been: “By the sudden discovery of the gold, all my great plans was destroyed. If I’d succeeded a few years before the gold was discovered, I would have been the richest citizen of the Pacific shore. Instead of being rich, I am ruined.”

There were other gold miners who never gave up on finding a strike, and there were other gold strikes all over the world for the next half century. At each strike, the men migrated to the next great prospect.