Gold!

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Brannan came to town about May 12; fleets of boats left on the fourteenth and fifteenth for Sutter’s Fort, where all passengers had to disembark and set out on foot for the diggings. Sam Brannan’s store was right at hand as they left the boats, and Brannan had thoughtfully laid in a large stock of provisions and mining supplies. He was one of the first to demonstrate something that would be proved again and again during the gold rush: the surest way to prosper was to leave the mining to others, and concern oneself with selling the miners what they needed.

San Francisco became almost hysterical. More gold arrived, this time from the Fort, about a week after the first exodus, and another large group of citizens dropped everything and left. It is usually estimated that less than one hundred people remained by the end of June. Doctors, lawyers, bakers, blacksmiths, laborers, schoolteachers—all went. There was no government left; the first and second alcaldes were gone (the Americans had adopted from the recently dispossessed Mexicans the alcalde system, a kind of hybrid mayor-magistrate), and so was the sheriff. Women and children also departed; this first gold-rush year was different in many ways from those that followed.

Now the fever spread to other California settlements: Monterey, San Diego, Sonoma, Benicia, San Jose, Santa Cruz, Santa Barbara, Los Angeles. Walter Colton, alcalde at Monterey, wrote of the way the people of his village disappeared when the first proof of the gold strike reached them in June, leaving little more than women and soldiers at the army post. A crew of carpenters who were at work on a schoolhouse “threw down their saws and planes, shouldered their picks, and are off for the Yuba. Three seamen ran off from the Warren , forfeiting their four years’ pay; and a whole platoon of soldiers left only their colors behind.”

Ranches were deserted or left with only women to tend them, grain went unharvested, cattle and horses roamed wild. Sailors deserted from the U.S. Pacific Squadron in San Francisco Bay and at Momerey, and the Army lost 716 enlisted men in the eighteen months beginning July i, 1848. Said one soldier: “The struggle between right and six dollars a month and wrong and seventy-five dollars a day is rather a severe one.”

By early June ships had carried the news to the Sandwich Islands (Hawaii); by July it reached Oregon; and in August, the neighboring Mexican state of Sonora. In each case there was skepticism at first, then wild-eyed gold mania. In less than four months, nineteen ships left Honolulu with 300 foreigners, most of the Islands’ white colony, and an unknown number of Kanakas, or natives. An estimated 5,000 to 6,000 Mexicans headed north. In Oregon many settlers had very recently refused to do military duty against the Indians because they did not want to leave their families without protection; now, as the gold fever seized them, they said a hasty good-by to families, possibly added a few brief words of caution about locking the doors at night, and were off.

Young Mormons returning home carried news of the discovery east across the mountains to Salt Lake City. Once again the first reaction was tepid, but when a second group of young men came, carrying considerable gold, “the cry was raised, ‘To California—To the Gold of Ophir our brethren have discovered! To California!’ ” (Men gave voice to more rousing cries in those days than now.) Brigham Young tried to hold them, without success; gold had more appeal for many of the young Saints than did building the Mormon garden in the desert.

Sometime between August and September the news got back to the Atlantic states and the Mississippi Valley—and once again was ignored. But as later ships brought increasingly sensational accounts, interest mounted. There were tales of men who had dug out thousands of dollars’ worth of gold in a matter of days. Walter Colton, the alcalde of Monterey, and Thomas Larkin, Navy agent in the same town, laid it on with a heavy trowel in their letters and reports, talking of streams “paved with gold,” and claiming that the mines exceeded “all the dreams of romance and all the golden marvels of the wand of Midas.” That sort of thing made pretty heady reading for a New England farm boy after a day of building rock walls. Once again excitement gradually built up to a point where it needed only a spark to touch it off, and that came on December 5 when President James K. Polk, in his annual message, gave olficial recognition to the stories. They were, he said, of such an extraordinary character as “would scarcely command belief” were they not corroborated by the authentic reports of officers in the public services.

Almost literally overnight, tens of thousands of men were on their way. The overland route, of course, was closed until spring. The Argonauts, as the gold seekers inevitably came to be called, had a choice of two sea routes. One was the all-water route around Cape Horn. The other took the traveler by ship to the Isthmus of Panama, which he crossed; then he boarded another ship on the Pacific side (a small proportion crossed at Nicaragua). In 1849, the Cape Horn passage was by far the most popular; the ratio swung the other way in subsequent years.