The gold-rush letters and diaries in the margins of this article come from the extraordinary collection of California manuscripts, many hitherto unknown, assembled by Edward Eberstadt & Sons of New York and now owned by the Yale Library.

The California Gold Rush was the biggest and the richest of them all, but it was no different from any of those that followed in providing the majority of its participants with much rushing and little gold. When forty-niners reminisced through beards grown longer and whiter, the strikes of the past became richer and the nuggets bigger, but the mournful truth is that most gold hunters would have done better financially staying at home —anil been considerably more comfortable.

Let there be no misunderstanding, though; the gold across the Sierra Nevada was rich beyond belief, and many miners made strikes that deserve the adjective “fabulous.” It was just that there was not enough gold in the streams to make everyone rich. Hubert Howe Bancroft, historian of the West, estimated that during the peak years of 1849 and 1850 the gold taken out averaged about $600 per miner. Averages are usually misleading: this one, on examination, can mean only that for every miner who struck it rich, there must have been a platoon who hardly got to see what gold looked like.

It all began, as every schoolchild is taught, at the sawmill of John Sutter one January day in 1848. A Swiss immigrant, Sutter at the time ruled, benevolently and graciously, over an estate of 49,000 acres which he had received from the Mexican government and had built into what amounted to a self-sustaining kingdom. It lay in the valley of the Sacramento, still almost empty of settlers, and his settlement, called Sutter’s Fort, was silualed where Sacramenlo now slands.

In the summer of 1847 he sent a carpenter named James Marshall, in charge of a crew of men, up the South Branch of the American River to build a sawmill. Work proceeded through the next several months until January, when Marshall turned water into the millrace for the first time. He let it run all night to wash the race clean of debris; the next morning, January 24, 1848, he saw yellow specks glinting through the running water, and the famous discovery was made.

Sutter was deeply disturbed by the finding of the metal; gold and the pastoral serenity of his pleasant empire were incompatible, and he had a foreboding of things to come—although the results were to be more devastaiing than he could possibly have imagined: his catlle butchered, his fields trampled and untended, his land taken by squatiers, unlil he had nol a thing left. At the moment all he could do was ask the men at the mill Io keep lhe secret for another six weeks, so that his ranch workers would nol desert him to dig gold before spring planting was done. The men at the mill did not leave but continued to work as before, panning for gold only on Sunday, until the sawmill was finished in March.

So far, the discovery had produced no gold fever at the scene, nor did it do so farther afield. The news began trickling into San Francisco within two or three weeks (Sutter’s request for six weeks of secrecy had been ignored), carried by letter and by word of mouth. Both of the town’s two newspapers duly reported the discovery, but no one became excited. The people of San Francisco—there were 850 or 900 of them—were still not convinced that this amounted to anything.

But the reports kept coming in, and with them, samples of gold. Several Mormons were discovered quietly digging about twenty-five miles from the sawmill; their site, which inevitably became known as Mormon Diggings, turned out to be richer than the first. San Francisco was impressed; the gold was more plentiful and widespread than anyone had thought. By the end of April, men who had gone up the American River to see for themselves were returning with fat pouches of gold, replenishing their supplies, and then hurrying back. Now, at last, the town was filled with excitement, though restraint still prevailed. Men talked about gold, but went about their business as usual. It needed a little more to turn the excitement into roaring gold fever, however, and a man named Sam Brannan supplied the extra bit of frenzy.

Brannan was a ubiquitous figure in early California, always on hand when there was a dollar to be made, and shrewd enough to make it. He was in turn a storekeeper, a hotel owner in Sacramento when miners were willing to pay anything for a bed and meal, a merchant in San Francisco so respected that he was elected to head the first Vigilante organisation, a newspaper publisher, and a wealthy landowner. A man of formidable talents, Sam Brannan.

In 1848, he was operating a store in Sutterville, a small settlement near Sutter’s Fort. He was an elder in the Mormon Church and had gone up to Mormon Diggings to look the situation over and talk to his brethren there. Some of the excitement had begun to stir in his own veins, and he felt moved to get his share of the wealth—but not by digging, an activity which had no charm for him. His approach, at first glance, appears completely irrelevant. During the second week of May, he traveled by boat to San Francisco with a bottle of gold dust. It has become folklore that he spent the day walking the streets, waving the vial of gold and shouting, “Gold! Gold! Gold from the American River!” It is more likely that he collected groups on corners and in stores and saloons, passing the gold around and telling how he had seen plenty like it being panned out up at Mormon Diggings. Whatever he did, he left them burning with gold fever.