- Historic Sites
All That Glittered
Save for the Civil War, what occurred after a carpenter glimpsed a flash of yellow 150 years ago was the biggest story of the nineteenth century. RICHARD REINHARDT examines what we think we know (and don’t) about the people who made it happen.
February/March 1998 | Volume 49, Issue 1
It was 150 years ago this January that Jim Marshall, the boss carpenter of a crew of Maidu Indians and transient Mormon settlers who were building a sawmill in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada, glimpsed a metallic twinkle in a freshly dug tailrace. Marshall took it to be the glint of gold, and he was right. From that moment—celebrated and debunked, distorted but unforgettable—Marshall’s life and that of his patron, John Sutter, were effectively ruined; the state of California was prematurely delivered; the current of American history, which had been trickling leisurely westward for a couple of hundred years, surged abruptly across the continent to the Pacific Coast; a hundred thousand men and women left home and went to California to seek a pocketful of gold; and the world was changed.
The current of history surged abruptly; a hundred thousand Americans went West; and the world was changed.
At the village of Coloma on the south fork of the American River, there are picnic grounds and a replica of John Sutter’s mill to mark the spot where Marshall’s exclamation (customarily rendered “Boys, I believe I’ve found a gold mine!”) set off the greatest of all gold rushes. Busloads of schoolchildren swarm the site. Teachers dredge up everything they know about that chilly afternoon in 1848 and retell the story in all its debatable details: how Marshall took his chips of gleaming yellow gravel to the cabin of his foreman, Peter Wimmer, where Wimmer’s wife, Jane (or was her name Jennie?), boiled them in a pot of homemade soap to see if lye would dim their color; how Marshall carried his treasure in a knotted cloth to Suffer, an ambitious immigrant from Switzerland who had obtained a Mexican land grant and was building and fortifying a private empire he called New Helvetia; how Sutter, having bitten and hammered the grains and doused them in nitric acid, concluded that they really were gold and then attempted (or possibly did not attempt ] to keep the secret from the myriad outsiders who were certain to overrun his empire; and how, almost four months later, an enterprising Mormon colonist named Sam Brannan, having figured out what the fuss was all about, quickly built several supply stores to accommodate the anticipated invasion and then rambled through the streets of the village of San Francisco waving a little quinine bottle and shouting, “Gold! Gold! Gold from the American River!”
More than thirty million people now live in California, and most of us, like the schoolchildren visiting Coloma, have a rough idea what happened after Sam Brannan’s famous show-and-tell. In our collective mind the gold rush opens with a swift montage of banjos plinking “Oh, Susanna!” while wagon wheels creak westward. Next we cut to a black-and-white panorama of shack-town San Francisco, swollen from 850 motley adventurers to 85,000 motley adventurers. Abandoned ships from Baltimore and Bremen lie rotting under tangled hawsers on the tidal flats of Yerba Buena Cove. The waterfront is teeming with Tasmanian sheep farmers dressed in cabbage-tree hats and moleskin trousers and carrying bedrolls made of possum fur; Chinese in knee-length breeches and quilted jackets, with pigtails coiled up in hats that look like small, black bee-hives; Peruvians in chocolate brown ponchos; Malays with krises in their belts; and, of course, thousands of adolescent boys from the farms and towns of the East, dazzled by the noise, the smells, the opportunities for sudden wealth and reckless misbehavior. Picking their way along the rickety plank sidewalks slung among the scuttled ships, newcomers encounter peddlers hawking cakes and coffee at incredible prices, cheapjacks selling shirts and underdrawers from the sea chests of the recent dead, tinhorn gamblers rattling metal dice cups, thimbleriggers carrying trays on which to place your bet and guess the cup that hides a pea. Wharf rats from a hundred harbors dart along the rigging of the ships: the gray rats of Valparaiso, Canton, and Singapore; the long, white, pink-eyed rice rats of Batavia; the furtive brown rats of New York, Liverpool, and Boston; and the kangaroo rats of Sydney.
Up in the brick red foothills, under the oaks and cedars, in camps that bear such names as Whiskey Flat, Lousy Ravine, Petticoat Slide, and Piety Hill, thousands of other amateurs are hunkering in the creek beds, washing gravel in frying pans, looking for flakes that glitter. It is the outing of a lifetime. You may dine each day on salt pork, saleratus bread, and beans and dance the polka on Saturday night with a ripe-smelling man from across the ravine. You may die of scurvy, amoebic dysentery, diphtheria, or cholera. For entertainment there are pistol duels in canvas casinos, floozies singing hurdy-gurdy tunes, and impromptu vigilante hangings from the limbs of ponderosa pines. Occasionally someone shouts, “Boys, I believe I’ve found a gold mine!” or words to that effect.