- 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
For more than a year after Marshall’s discovery, most of the hunters—later styled the forty-eighters—came from the neighborhood, the underpopulated Pacific Coast, and most of the gold they found stayed in California. Reports of vast “discoveries” in the tributaries of the Sacramento were being published in newspapers on the East Coast and in Europe, but distance, indifference, and skepticism discouraged most people from leaving home to “see the elephant,” as they put it. Meanwhile, most of the residents of the isolated province, blessed with proximity and exclusive information, took to the mountains. They hacked at the red clay along the American River, the Feather, the Tuolumne, and the Yuba with handpicks, trowels, and knives. They washed their gravel in Indian baskets, dried it on bed sheets, and captured the metal with beads of quicksilver. Although the forty-eighters numbered only a few thousand, they carried off millions in free gold. They were among the few hunters who ever made significant money by mining placers, the visible deposits of fine gold that had been ground out of the quartz rock by centuries of erosion.
Perhaps the most enduring archetype of the gold-rush man was Levi Strauss, who never panned or dug for gold.
Neither in forty-eight nor in forty-nine, however, did a hero emerge to capture the world’s affection—no Paul Revere, Ethan Alien, Davy Crockett, Geronimo, or Daniel Boone. James Marshall was a defective model, an irritable loner, obsessed by strange visions and pursued by demons. Squatters overran his claims, he drank away a pension from the state, and he died in bitter poverty. John Sutter, an exemplary land developer, was an opponent, not a champion, of the gold rush. His empire was invaded, as he had feared, and he lost his fortune in a legal struggle to uphold his property rights. Sam Brannan, a rich and noisy drunk, was disfellowshipped by the Mormon Church. San Francisco’s gold-rush newspaper editor, Edward Gilbert, was killed in a duel; its gold-rush political leader, John Geary, who received every vote cast for mayor of San Francisco on August 1, 1849, saw more opportunity back East, where he became the territorial governor of Kansas, a Union general in the Civil War, and a two-term governor of Pennsylvania. John Frémont, the filibustering explorer, made a fortune in California land but had the good sense not to attack it with pick and shovel.
Perhaps the most enduring archetype of the gold-rush man was Levi Strauss, an immigrant from Bavaria, who never panned or dug for gold but was an itinerant merchant, making and selling trousers of sailcloth, held together with copper rivets and known from that day to this as Levi’s. A gold rush, after all, is a commercial enterprise, not an expedition of discovery, a crusade, or a military campaign. Its enduring marks in California were banks, roads, towns, and the manufacture of blue jeans.
In time, a sense of particularity began to infect all Californians, even those who had come long after ’49.
Without a towering model to emulate, each of the so-called Argonauts cast himself as the hero of a personal saga. He saw himself as a member of an elite fraternity in a nation where the fellowship of language, religion, previous nationality, or shared experience was constantly dissolving in the great American melting pot. Those men (and those few women) who had gone to California before its admission to statehood in 1850 were eager to assert their kinship with other survivors, as do soldiers who have survived a war. To have “seen the elephant” left each of them with an ineradicable sense of his own importance.
Twenty years after the event, two literate saloon-keeps in San Francisco, T. A. Barry and B. A. Patten, observing this kinship, looked back on the Days of Old, the Days of Gold, as “a time when the very sense of remoteness and isolation from the rest of the world brought men closer together; made men who knew each other merely by name, and men who had never spoken together, grasp each others hands and form life-long friendships, born of a sympathy in men so similarly circumstanced, drawn to one field by eager, adventurous enterprise, such a long, weary way from home and loved ones, having something in common, so different from any experience known or read of by men.”
In time this sense of particularity began to infect all Californians, even those who had entered the state long after the defining date. The forty-niner, with his recklessness, his youth, his optimism, became the state’s defining figure, equivalent to Virginia’s chivalrous planter and New England’s puritan pilgrim.