The California Gold Rush*

Guest Writer Willard W Glazier

“It was not curiosity that killed the goose who laid the golden egg, but an insatiable greed that devoured common sense.” ~EA Bucchianeri

[Willard W Glazier, a Cavalryman, veteran of the Civil War, and successful author, was in 1876, at age thirty-three, traveling cross-country, ocean to ocean, on horseback. His horse was a large Kentucky Black Hawk or Morgan stallion whom he had named Paul Revere. “His color was coal black, with a white star in the forehead and four white feet; long mane and tail; height fifteen hands; weight between ten and eleven hundred pounds, with an easy and graceful movement under the saddle.”, Paul did not do well over the course of daily travel, and Glazier was finally forced to leave him at a livery in Omaha, Nebraska. From there he took a mustang, the “wild horse of the West,” for the second half of his journey. Owing to the energetic mustang, which hardly tired, and the fact that he had fewer stops in the hinterland, Glazier was able to make better mileage. He had started from Boston April, 1876; was only midway by October; but reached California in late November.]

California has the Pacific Ocean for its western boundary. Along the seaboard lies the Coast Range of mountains, while for an eastern boundary of the State stretch the Sierras. Between these two chains lies many a hill, yet, in the main, the whole interior of the State is a great depression, called the Valley of California. The northern portion called again the Sacramento Valley; the southern, the Valley of San Joaquin, both named for the streams that water them. inhabitants are a motley set; English, Celts, Spaniards, Mexicans, Indians, and above all the man from the eastern part of the United States, leaving his impress on all, Americanizing all.

Upper California was discovered in 1538 by a Spanish navigator. In 1578, Sir Francis Drake visited it and gave it the name of New Albion. The Spaniards planted the first colony in 1768.

Sutter’s Fort … was founded in 1839, very near the junction of the Sacramento and San Joaquin valleys, by a Swiss named John A Sutter. It stood on a small hill, skirted by a creek which falls into the American River near its junction with the Sacramento, and overlooked a vast extent of ditch-enclosed fields, and park stock ranges, broken by groves and belts of timber. The settlement consisted of the Fort and an old adobe house, called the hospital. A garden of eight or ten acres, filled with vegetables and tropical fruits, surrounded the Fort, cattle covered the plains and boats were tied to the wharves.

Sutter’s confirmed grant contained eleven leagues.

The Fort, so called, was a parallelogram. Its walls were of adobe, its dimensions five hundred by one hundred and fifty feet. It had loop-holes, bastions at the angles, and twelve cannon.

Inside of the walls were granaries, warehouses, storehouses, shops, and in the centre of it all the house of the commander, the potentate, Sutter. His house was rough, “bare rafters and unpanelled walls.” Many of the rooms were roughly furnished, crude benches and deal tables. Fine China bowls did duty for both cups and plates, and silver spoons were the only luxury which marked the service of the meals.

For his private apartments Sutter obtained from the Russians a clumsy set of California laurel furniture.

In front of his house, yet within the stockade, was a tiny square containing one brass gun, by which, day and night, paced a sentry, stopping only at the belfry post to chime the hours.

The Fort was a business centre. In it was located a blacksmith, a carpenter, and a general variety and liquor store. Prices were booming. Four dollars were charged for shoeing a horse. Wheat sold for one dollar per bushel, peas for a dollar and a half per bushel.

A sort of gravel road led to the spot, over which horses galloped, and heavy wagons rolled.

Sutter owned 12,000 cattle, 2,000 horses and mules, 1,000-1,500 sheep, and 2,000 hogs.

This unique Fort was “the capital of the vast interior valley, pregnant with approaching importance.”

In 1846 Sutter staked out the town of Sutterville, three miles below the Fort on the Sacramento, and built the first house there. His example was shortly followed by a man named Zims, who erected the first real brick structure in the State.

The Fort and town kept up regular communication with San Francisco by means of a twenty-ton sloop owned by Sutter, and manned by a few savages in his employ.

There was a ferry at the Fort, which consisted of a single canoe handled by an Indian.

The strangest of populations gathered about the settlement. Emigrants were there, many Mormons among them. Native Californians were there, wearing sombreros, sashes, and jingling spurs. Half-subdued Indians abounded, wrapped in their blankets, and decked with beads and feathers. While here and there appeared a shrewd Yankee, come across mountains of snow and rocks to seek his fortune.

The climate of Sacramento is charming, the average temperature in winter being 45°; that in summer 69°. The thermometer does not vary ten degrees between night and day. The sea breezes are constant, leaving rarely an uncooled night. Rainfall is a tenth less than on the Atlantic Coast. Early autumn finds this region dry and arid; its small streams dried up, the green fields sere, the weeds snapping like glass.

The winter rain begins in November, after six months of clear weather, and under its grateful ministry the region “buds and blossoms like the rose.” …

John A Sutter, potentate of the region, in 1847, needed lumber, and therefore needed a sawmill. His neighbors wanted lumber, too, and there would be a good market for it in San Francisco. Therefore a sawmill would be profitable; but no trees suitable for this purpose could be found short of the foothills. Consequently the foothills were selected as the spot upon which he would build.

He engaged a motley company of all nationalities to erect his mill, appointing James Wilson Marshall, a native of New Jersey, as superintendent of the venture.

In August they started for their new field of enterprise, taking their belongings in Mexican ox-carts, and driving a flock of sheep before them for food.

By New Year’s Day, 1848, the mill frame was up.

On the afternoon of January 24, Superintendent Marshall was inspecting the tail-race of the mill. There had been a heavy flood, which had previously retreated, and to his surprise Marshall found the ground thickly strewn with a peculiar yellow dust. He stooped down and gathered some of it, remarking quietly, “Boys, I believe I have found a gold mine!” Then he began some simple tests upon the metal. Gold must be heavy. He weighed it. That was all right. Gold must be malleable. He bit and pounded it, and it stood the test. Then he applied aqua fortis to it, and it responded as it should. And so the truth was known at last. It was gold, and the ground was full of it.

Marshall saddled his horse, and dashed over to consult with Sutter, and together they agreed to keep the matter quiet, and, if possible, to buy up the surrounding land. But how to buy it? That was the question! They leased it from its semi-barbaric owners, paying for it in hats and trinkets, but that title seemed insecure. The Mexican government could no longer give grants. The United States government was appealed to in vain. The answer came that California was held as a conquered province, and no title deed could be executed.

[Just days after Marshall found gold, February 2, 1848, the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo was signed, ending the Mexican-American War (1846-48) and ceding much of the West, including Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah, and Wyoming, to the US as conquered land.]

And meantime the precious secret leaked out. Sutter was impelled to write the wonderful news to friends at a distance. All the men at the sawmill knew of the discovery. One of them, named Bennett, while in a store near Monte del Diablo, pulled out of his pocket a bag of gold dust, exclaiming, “I have something here which will make this the greatest country in the world.” The same man took a specimen of the precious metal and showed it at San Francisco. A few days later an intoxicated Swede offered, at a store, to pay for his drink in gold dust. Then a Mormon must tell his fellow-saints of the discovery. So the secret was out, and the precious mystery became public.

Both Sutter and Marshall were backwoodsmen, unsophisticated, childlike, trustful, slow. They hesitated, they faltered, they delayed mining, and they were lost! Before they fully comprehended the matter, the great world had rushed in, and taken possession of the treasure.

In the last issue of The Californian appears this only too true statement: “The whole country from San Francisco to Los Angeles, and from the seashore to the base of the Sierra Nevada, resounds to the sordid cry of gold! GOLD! GOLD! while the field is left half-planted, the house half-built, and everything neglected but the manufacture of shovels and pick-axes, and the means of transportation to the spot where one man obtained one hundred and twenty-eight dollars’ worth of the real stuff in one day’s washing, and the average for all concerned is twenty dollars per diem.”

In the rush Marshall and Sutter were crushed.

Marshall had little or no money to invest. He was particularly unfortunate in locating his small claims. Worst of all, the miners, knowing him to be the great discoverer, followed him en masse, believing that he knew the secrets of the hills and rivers. The crowds so overwhelmed him, that he had no chance to mine. They even threatened to hang him if he did not lead them to the finest diggings. In a few years after, he died, miserable, broken-hearted, poverty-stricken.

Sutter fared but little better. True, he sold a half-interest in his sawmill for $6,000, and he gained something from the mining of his Indians; but Sutter’s Fort was, for the time being, ruined.

Let him tell the story in his own words …. “My grist mill was never finished. Everything was stolen, even the stones. There is a saying that men will steal everything but a milestone and a millstone. They stole my millstones. They stole the bells from the Fort, and gate-weights; the hides they stole, and salmon barrels. I had two hundred barrels which I made for salmon. Some of the cannon at the Fort were stolen …. My property was all left exposed, and at the mercy of the rabble, when gold was discovered. My men all deserted me. I could not shut the gates of my Fort, and keep out the rabble. They would have broken them down. The country swarmed with lawless men. Emigrants drove their stock into my yard, and used my grain with impunity. Expostulation did no good. I was alone. There was no law.”

In face of all these disadvantages he struggled on until farm helpers demanded $10 a day, then, a hopeless old man, he gave up the struggle, and in 1849, with his Indians, he moved into Hock Farm, little dreaming that his Fort was to be the nucleus for Sacramento, the second city as to size in California.

He retired, but his son took the reins out of the father’s feeble hands, and staked out a town around the Old Fort, down to the embarcadero, and along the river front, naming the settlement Sacramento. The streets were laid out eighty feet wide, except the centre one, M street, which was one hundred feet in width. The purchasing of more than four lots by one person was discouraged.

[Sutter’s loss was Sacramento’s and San Francisco’s gain. The golden product of California was $10 million (1848); $40 million (1849); and $65 million (1853).]

At first Sacramento was a “city of tents, with its future on paper;” but by April, 1849, building lots were selling at $1,000-$3,000 a piece; at that time there were twenty-five or thirty stores upon the embarcadero, and, in the vicinity of the Fort, eight or ten more. There was a hotel, a printing office, bakery, blacksmith’s shop, tinshop, billiard room, and bowling alley.

In that month of April, 1849, the city had the honor of becoming a port of entry.

By June of the same year, one hundred houses graced the city.

A few months later the city hotel was completed at a cost of $100,000, and rented to Messrs Fowler and Fry for $5,000 a month.

In 1850, the scourge of cholera broke out, carrying off one-fifth of those remaining in Sacramento. The city was full to overflowing with a transient population. Accommodations were scant and primitive, vice and disorder prevailed. The disease became rampant. Patients at the hospital were charged sixteen dollars per day. Then it was that the order of Odd Fellows came nobly forward, setting to that plague-stricken district an example of charity and philanthropy long to be remembered, and accenting the fact “that simple duty has no place for fear!”

On February 25, 1854, Sacramento was designated as the seat of government of California. The dignity of being the state capital gave new life to the city. Her growth is instanced by the assessment on real estate, which rose from $5.4 million in 1854, to $13 million in twenty years. When I rode through, the population was 21,400.

In 1853 the streets were planked, and provided with sewers.

In 1854 a gas company was formed. The street railroad came in 1870. There were ten churches in the city [in 1876].

The first public school came in 1855, the high school in 1856.

When I was there, the city had sustained from time to time about forty daily papers and twenty-four weeklies.

The state library is a brilliant feature of the place. Various large manufacturing interests thrive in the city. Its commerce is awe-inspiring.

Sacramento sent to the East in one year 90 million pounds of fruit, her entire east-bound shipments being over 130 million pounds.

The annual manufacturing and jobbing trade is over $60 million.

Looking at these statistics, one is reminded of the magic tent of Prince Ahmed. At first it was no bigger than a nutshell. Surely it could hold nothing; but it did. People flocked to it. Surely it could not cover them;—but it did! it did! The army flocked to it;—but the tent was elastic. It covered all; it sheltered all; it welcomed all.

Has not Sacramento proved itself the magic tent of the Golden Age, ready to cover, shelter, welcome the whole world should occasion require?

…. Not very long ago—less than a century—the Pacific Coast was almost an unexplored region. The great State of California—next to Texas, the largest in the Union—now teems with populous cities and new settlements, and produces meat and grain abundantly sufficient for the supply of a large portion of the country. has a coast line on the Pacific Ocean of 700 miles and, extending from the coast, a breadth of 330 miles ….

The progress of California has been of the most substantial character. mining has become a staple industry, but in the agricultural capabilities of her soil lie the possibilities of her greatest wealth. Among the most valuable of her industries in the future will be those of the orchard and the vineyard. The grape growers of the State can now sell their grapes with as much certainty as the farmer his wheat. is sent to the Atlantic coast more wine than is imported from France, the heretofore wine market of the world.

In Central California a little peninsula juts out from the main land, a great harbor is on one side, a great ocean on the other. The lofty mountains, lower just here, form, as it were, a natural gateway to the great interior beyond.

San Francisco was not in the gold region, but it was the gate to that region.

Two weeks after Marshall first discovered the precious metal, a bag of it was brought to the city for analysis, and one day early in May, 1848, “Samuel Brennan, the Mormon leader, held a bottle of gold dust in one hand, and jubilantly swinging his hat in the other, passed through the streets of San Francisco shouting, ‘Gold! Gold! Gold! from the American River!'”

This started the enthusiasm, the fever, the madness for gold.

Carson writes his sensations when first looking upon a well-filled bag of gold dust. He says: “A frenzy seized my soul, unbidden my legs performed some entirely new movements of polka steps …. Houses were too small for me to stay in. I was soon in the street in search of necessary outfits; piles of gold rose up before me at every step.”

All yielded more or less to the subtle influence of the malady. Men hastened to arrange their affairs, dissolving partnerships, disposing of real estate, and converting other effects into ready means for departure.

Stores were rummaged for miners’ tools.

One man offered as high as $50 for a shovel. By the middle of June, San Francisco was without male population. The once bustling little town looked as if struck by a plague. Sessions of the town council were at an end. There were no church services. Stores were closed. Newspapers dropped out of existence. Merchandise lay unhandled on the docks. The sailors deserted the ships that lay at anchor in the bay.

One day a Peruvian bark came to anchor in the port. Amazed at the desolation which he beheld, the captain inquired the cause. He was answered, “Everybody has gone northward, where the valleys and mountains are of gold.” Instantly upon hearing this marvelous assertion his own crew joined the innumerable throng.

The San Francisco Star of May 27, 1848, says: “Stores are closed and places of business vacated, a large number of houses are tenantless, various kinds of mechanical labor suspended or given up entirely, and nowhere the pleasant hum of industry salutes the ear as of late …. Everything in San Francisco wears a desolate and sombre look; everywhere all is dull, monotonous, dead.”

Apparently the Californian of that day was thoroughly imbued with the saying of the Cyclops, “The wise know nothing worth worshipping but wealth.”

The Pacific Mail Steamship Company was incorporated in 1847, to sail from New York to New Orleans and Chagres, and from Panama to such Pacific port as the Secretary of the Navy might designate. Later, when the existence of gold in her mines made California the cynosure of all eyes, San Francisco was decided upon as the western terminus of the route.

On October 6, 1848, the California, the first vessel of this line, steamed out of New York harbor, with but a small number of passengers. As this ship was intended for use on the Pacific coast alone, she was obliged to take the tedious and perilous route through the Strait of Magellan to reach her destination. Arriving at Panama, she found the Isthmus apparently turned into pandemonium. The one time dingy, sleepy city of Panama appeared to have fallen entirely into the hands of the gold-seekers. Cholera had broken out with terrible malignity on the banks of the Chagres. The panic-stricken travelers were fleeing from the disease, some trying to reach the land of their desire by an old trail, others were trying to make some progress in boats called longos, poled by naked negroes. The mass of the worn, weary, eager wayfarers, however, were waiting as best they might, for that vision of hope and comfort, the “steamer.” At last she reached them, with accommodations for about 100. She was mobbed by the frantic men, and at last when she left port, over 400 of them had embarked upon her, many a man braving that adventurous voyage, with only a coil of rope or a plank for a bed.

Steerage tickets for the trip are said to have cost $1,000, or over.

After spending four months in her passage, the California steamed into the Bay of San Francisco, February 29, 1849, a day never to be forgotten at the Golden Gate! The town was crowded with miners wintering there; the ships in the harbor were gay with bunting; the guns of the Pacific Squadron boomed out a salute to the newcomers. Bands of music played, handkerchiefs waved, and men cheered in their enthusiasm, as the first steamship of a regular line entered the Golden Gate, in pursuit of the treasures of the “Golden Age.”

That ship bore to California the new military commander, General Persifor F Smith.

So high ran the fever for treasure, that before the passengers had fairly left the steamer, she was deserted by all belonging to her, save one engineer, and she was consequently unable to start on her return trip.

Nor was it alone the California which was deserted. Five hundred ships lay in the San Francisco Harbor deserted, the crews, wild for gold, carrying off the ship’s boats in their eagerness to reach land; very often the commander leading, or at least joining in the flight. Many vessels that year were left to rot; many were dragged on shore and used as lodging houses.

In the spring, San Francisco seemed deserted, only 2,000 inhabitants being left. The heart of the city began to quail. Thousands thronging through her harbor, yet so few to stay! But winter brought the miners back to civilization again, and the population swelled to 20,000.

San Francisco was at this time mainly a city of tents, although there was a sprinkling of adobe houses, and a few frame buildings. It was a community of men. The census of 1850 showed that only eight percent of the population were women. It was, moreover, a community of young men; scarcely a grey head was to be seen in it.

Men were there from all the European nations, together with Moors and Abyssinians from Africa, Mongols, Malays, and Hindoos from Asia and Australia. Turks, Hebrews, and Hispano-Americans jostled the ubiquitous Yankee, in the new streets of San Francisco ….

They were a buoyant race, brave, intrepid, light-hearted—above all things free from restraint.

They had braved all hardships and dangers to reach the land of their desire. They had reached there safely, however, and they exulted. They overflowed with activity; they worked jubilantly and untiringly.

They shouted, they fought, they gambled, in their moments of recreation, intoxicated with the bracing climate, with their excitement of success, and with that rollicking freedom which threw off all shackles of custom or self-restraint.

They worshipped success, and greatness with them meant “fitness to grasp opportunity!”

In their eyes the unpardonable sin was meanness.

Fifty cents was the smallest sum which could be offered for the most trivial of services.

Laborers obtained $1 an hour, artisans $20 a day. Laundry expenses exceeded the price of new underwear.

They loved grandeur. Bootblacks carried on business in prettily fitted up recesses furnished with cushioned chairs, and containing a liberal supply of newspapers.

It was over such a San Francisco that the frightful plague of cholera swept in 1850, carrying with it a lesser plague of suicide.

Doctors’ fees were $16-$32 a visit [cf $5 a visit in 1960], while for a surgical operation $1,000 was the usual price.

In spite of plague and death, that part of San Francisco which escaped continued to be jubilant.

Bullfights were in high favor, and the stage, though crude, was very popular, but the great, enchanting delight of the city was gambling. Money, gold, jewelry, houses, land and wharves were all put up to be gambled for. The city abounded with men of elegant manners and striking dress, who were professional gamblers. It was indeed an advance in civilization and morality when in September, 1850, a law was passed forbidding this pastime on the Sabbath day.

In 1850 [a mere two years after its acquisition], California, without ever having been under a territorial government, was admitted into the Union as a State. The news … reached San Francisco on the morning of October 18, 1850, when the Oregon entered the harbor, flying all her bunting, and signaling the good news. Business was suspended; courts were adjourned; and the whole population, frenzied with delight, congregated on Portsmouth Square to congratulate each other. Newspapers containing the intelligence from Washington sold for $5 each! The shipping in the harbor was gaily dressed with flags; guns boomed from the heights; bonfires blazed at night; processions were formed; bands played; and the people in every way expressed their joy ….

The awakening of San Francisco during the five or six years following the discovery of gold was wonderful. “Hills were tumbled into the bay, and mud flats were made solid ground.” Streets were graded, handsome buildings were erected, and San Francisco began to rank among the first cities of the land. So valuable was her waterfront that, in 1853, four small blocks on Commercial street sold for over $1 million. assessed valuation of property that year was about $10 million over that of the previous year ….

[The Mint at San Francisco, built 1874, was, at the time of Glazier’s visit (1876), the largest mint in the United States. Its architecture was Doric; constructed of freestone and California granite, it was known as “The Granite Lady.” It survived the earthquake of 1906.]

What words could more aptly describe the career of San Francisco than those lately written by Governor Markham? “Originally San Francisco consisted of windswept hills, the shifting sands of which seemed to defy either stability or cultivation. Now those hills, graded by pick and shovel, are gridironed by streets and railways, and crowned with the magnificent buildings of a populous city, or transformed by the magic of water and patient tillage into miles of verdant park, dotted by miniature lakes, ribboned with gravel drives, crowded with grottoes, statuary, conservatories, and ornamental buildings, enriched by luxuriant shrubbery and brilliant flowers, the wonder of the tourist, and a delight to her contented people.”

“Wealth stays with us a little moment if at all: only our characters are steadfast, not our gold.” ~Euripides

Copyright © 2012 Alexandra Lee

Photo Credit: A Replica of Sutter’s Mill

* Willard W Glazier, Ocean to Ocean on Horseback / Being the Story of a Tour in the Saddle from the Atlantic / to the Pacific; with Especial Reference to the Early History / and Devel (Philadelphia: Edgewood, 1899), chapters 29, 30. Photos, quotes, emendations added.


About Christseekerk

Minister, Editor, Writer, Senior Citizen, Grown Children, Grandchildren. Interests travel, writing, reading, walking, golf.
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