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All That Glittered

June 2024
12min read

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.

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.

Among these lantern flashes strides the bearded forty-niner, dressed in knee boots, denim trousers, red flannel shirt, and slouch hat, armed with a pistol or a bowie knife, hefting a shovel on his shoulder. Californians see him, persistently if incorrectly, as the father of their state, a fair-skinned Anglo-American lad from the Atlantic Coast, who came West searching for easy money, made his pile, and stayed on to plant grapevines and orange trees, build roads, plan cities, and found universities. He is an American icon, as familiar as the Cowboy, the Pathfinder, the Whaler, the Pilgrim, the Indian Chief, the Johnny Reb, the Pioneer Mother. He turns up in murals and friezes, statues, and beer labels, at costume parties, and in the municipal seal of the city and county of San Francisco. He is a dictionary entry in Webster’s unabridged, a verse in a song about an awkward girl named Clementine, the mascot of San Francisco’s professional football team.

As for the substance that lured the forty-niner here, it remains the metaphoric symbol of the West, although mining long ago declined into a minor industry in an urban, industrial state. California continues to call itself the Golden State. Its historic entrance is the Golden Gate. The colors of the state university are gold and blue; the state flower is the golden poppy. The motto of San Francisco is “Gold in Peace, Iron in War.” The motto of the state is “Eureka!”—I have found it!


Like many archetypal figures, the forty-niner has no name, no heroic prototype. He is the composite of thousands of humble men, most of whom went home poorer than they came. As a prospector and placer miner, he was a failure and a fraud.

“Few goldseekers stuck with mining for more than a brief time,” according to J. S. Holliday, whose bestseller The World Rushed In has become a standard reference work on the gold rush. Their experience in the diggings was “sickness, foul food, loneliness, the high cost of even the most miserable living, and mining claims that produced more disappointment than gold.”

Most of the few who profited from the gold rush did so hy selling barrels of whiskey, kegs of nails, cords of lumber, bags of flour, bottles of ipecac and liniment and India tonic, portable houses made in Baltimore, tombstones carved in Philadelphia, porter brewed in New York, sherry blended in Spain. They got rich by buying Mexican land cheap and selling it dear or by stealing it from Indians, by opening banks and stage lines and steamboat services, by running saloons, whorehouses, gambling halls, boardinghouses, beer gardens, or private mints.

Briefer and less hazardous than a foreign war, the trek to California also was a splendid opportunity to make a literary reputation. Bayard Taylor, a sometime correspondent and editorial staffer for Horace Greeley’s New York Tribune , seized the day in June 1849 and headed for California, dressed in stout hunter’s boots and a suit of fustian and equipped with a pocket thermometer, barometer, compass, spyglass, sketchbook, journal, blanket, and “a good revolver.” His detailed and candid reportage made Eldorado , published simultaneously in New York and London in 1850, a popular success and an enduring classic of Western Americana. Other correspondence, guidebooks, and memoirs rolled out of the presses of Britain, France, Germany, and the United States while mining companies were still recruiting members and chartering sailing vessels: E. Gould Buffum’s Six Months in the Gold Mines (1850), William R. Ryan’s Personal Adventures in Upper and Lower California in 1848-49 (1851), and James Carson’s Recollections of the California Mines (1852).

(It was two decades later when Samuel Clemens, Francis Bret Harte, Prentice Mulford, and Charles Warren Stoddard—all relative latecomers to California—found the forty-niner a ready-made character and installed him permanently in the gallery of American literary images, even inventing for him a language compounded of Down Eastern, Southwestern, and Sierra Nevada rustic. The resulting outburst of California color was exploited still later by the poet Joaquin Miller. Dressed in high boots, sombrero, and buckskin jacket, which his hostesses took to be characteristic California attire, Joaquin [whose real name was Cincinnatus] invaded the drawing rooms of New Orleans, New York, and London and claimed the entire Sierra Nevada as his spiritual territory.)

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.

Even those forty-niners who had eagerly rushed home continued to re- gard themselves as founders of California. Only a decade or two after the event, fraternities of gold-rush “pioneers” began gathering in cities far from San Francisco, the shrine of forty-niner worship. The New York Society of California Pioneers met in October 1869 for a twentieth-anniversary banquet to which they invited Mark Twain, whose recently published tale of the celebrated jumping frog of Calaveras County had instantly become a part of the gold-rush mythology. Twain declined. He bragged that he could “talk Pioneer like a native” but admitted he was neither a forty-niner nor a California pioneer.

The Society of California Pioneers of New England, formed in Boston in 1888, quickly enrolled 223 members and began planning an excursion to the scenes of the great adventure. Two years later 84 members of the society and 61 assorted wives, offspring, friends, and relatives set out from Fitchburg, Massachusetts, in a chartered train whose sponsors claimed it was the largest and heaviest ever to cross the continent. Two thousand well-wishers came down to the station to wave good-bye.

The excursion train carried six Pullman Palace sleeping cars with such inviting names as Etruria, Eurasia, and Servia, two dining cars, a baggage car, and a “combination car” with a library, barber’s chair, smoking compartment, and bathroom. It rolled west by way of Niagara Falls to Chicago, dropped down to Kansas City, then took the tracks of the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe through Kansas, Colorado, New Mexico, and Arizona, a route that few forty-niners had followed but which led to some favored tourist destinations: the Hotel del Coronado in San Diego, the Hotel Raymond in Pasadena, the orange groves of Riverside County, and the obligatory Southern California ostrich farm.

Nostalgia overwhelmed the old men. At a banquet in San Bernardino, a retired general from Norton, Massachusetts, tottered up to the head table to share his recollections of the day he had landed in San Francisco.

The young Argonaut never ages as he pursues his endless search for gold under the blazing artificial sunset of Belasco’s The Girl of the Golden West .

“It was on Sunday, and I heard there was to be preaching there, somewhere, in the hall devoted to justice—the courthouse, I think. I found it and went in, and there were two ladies there, and I crowded my way up to them until I was within two feet of them, and that was as close as I dared to go, and oh! What a joy it was when one of them asked me to share her hymn book with her, and oh! how we did sing! Oh, such grand old hymns! Ladies were scarce in California then, and you would have to run around two blocks to get a sight of one.”

Bowing and smiling, he returned to his seat, slumped forward, and died. The pioneers shipped his body home, just as a fraternal order—the Masons, the Odd Fellows—would have done in 1849, and the tour pushed on to San Francisco.

On April 28 the San Francisco Examiner reported that the Palace Hotel had been taken over by bald-headed, gray-bearded gentlemen wearing blue silk badges trimmed with gold fringe and inscribed with the totemic number, 49! Several, including one elderly Bostonian who was later described by the historian John Walton Caughey as “an accomplished fictionist,” gave epic interviews. Others were determined to seek out the tiny creek beds where they had painfully rinsed tons of red gravel in flat pans and long-tom washers.

Charles Stumcke, who had come west with a company of Boston boys in 1849, took a train from Sacramento to Auburn, a forty-mile jaunt that had taken him eight days to accomplish behind a four-yoke oxteam.

“When we left the cars, I looked for the spot where I pitched my tent, built a stone chimney at one end, made a mattress of fir boughs, and thought myself well fixed for the winter,” Stumeke wrote in a letter to his son back East. “On the identical spot stood a nice, two-story house with a fine garden, neatly fenced. … It was hard to realize that this was the place where I had dug for gold, and that the hills of red clay we thought good for nothing were really the charming places now covered with grape vines, peach, apple and pear trees and other evidences of fertility. … I thought of all the hardy men who had helped build the place; but, by diligent inquiry, I could not find one of all who wintered here in ’49 and ’50. I suppose most of them have gone to their long home, and that the others are widely scattered. It makes me feel sad as I think of the old days.”

The brevity of his great adventure, the moisture of his nostalgia, the crudeness of his manners often made the old Argonaut, the self-styled California Pioneer, a target of ridicule. Ambrose Bierce punched holes in his pretensions. Hubert Howe Bancroft, the voluminous and respected historian of early California, criticized his greed, prevarication, and profanity. Novelists discovered him, a parvenu whose red flannel shirt was visible under his starched white collar and black dinner jacket. He appears in Joseph Conrad ( Nostromo ), Ivan Bunin ( The Gentleman From San Francisco ), Robert Louis Stevenson ( The Wrecker ), and Bronson Howard ( Aristocracy .)

But the young Argonaut, the immortal forty-niner, never grows old. Fixed forever in time and place, he pursues his endless search for gold under the blazing artificial sunset of David Belasco’s play The Girl of the Golden West . In the libretto of Giacomo Puccini’s opera, the tenor speaks Italian, doubles as a bandit, and narrowly escapes lynching, but he wears red flannel and blue denim, his name is the impeccably Anglo-American Dick Johnson, and his heart is set on taking home his pocketful of gold.

The Price of Gold

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