They went digging for their fortunes. But most found only poverty, mud, cholera and racial hatred. One hundred and fifty years later Sasha Abramsky reveals how the Californian Gold Rush of 1849 shaped modern America
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The Independent Culture
"YOU KNOW not my feelings. I cannot live if you go any further. Oh return home. Sell your things and return to me. Save oh save my life. I cannot live if you go to California ... I fret and weep day and night ... I'm almost heartbroken," Sarah Nichols wrote from Buffalo, New York, to her husband, Samuel, and her son, George, on 7 April 1849. Thirty days later, on 6 May, Samuel wrote back from the tiny river town of Glasgow, on the Missouri frontier. "Dear affectionate wife," he began. "After becoming a little composed, I embrace the first opportunity to communicate to you this sad and afflicting intelligence. Our lovely George is no more, but is numbered with the dead. I have not language to express my grief. I abandon my enterprise and journey and return with the remains of my lovely son whose soul is now in the mansion of peace."

George had, like thousands of others that spring, died of cholera, his body wracked by vomiting and diarrhoea. He breathed his last on the Mary Laurel, a boat heading from St Louis to St Joseph. Twenty-one people died on that one ship alone. Hundreds of thousands of others, such as Massachusetts-born Charles Starkweather, eventually made it west, some to indeed strike it rich, most to simply struggle to stay afloat in the raucous, violent, alcohol- saturated American west, some to remain in the Pacific territories, others to return home disillusioned.

They were part of one of the most multi-ethnic migrations in history. In the summer of 1849, 150 years ago, an immense deluge of fortune-seekers poured into California: Americans, Chinese sailors, Peruvians, Mexicans, Australians, Europeans, Sandwich Islanders from the archipelago later known as Hawaii; up to 1,000 free blacks and slaves; slave owners and Free Soilers (members of an abolitionist political party who merged with the Republicans in 1854).

The Forty-Niners came to find their piece of El Dorado, to pick up the gold nuggets that were, they'd been told, sitting atop the Californian soil. It was the biggest, craziest gold rush in history, part reality, part speculative bubble. And it altered America forever.

On 24 January, 1848, 18 months before the "world rushed in", as the historian J S Holliday put it, gold in abundance had been discovered in northern California, on ranch land owned by a maverick Swiss emigre named John Sutter.

Several years previously, Sutter had come to what was then the farthest outpost of the country of Mexico, fleeing a series of business failures in the Old World. He had received permission from the Mexican authorities in the pretty capital town of Monterey to begin farming in the wilderness, and had established himself in a fertile inland valley, where the Sacramento and the American rivers joined. He built a large adobe fort, with walls 3ft thick and 15ft high, guarded by a private militia of around 60 people; and, using the labour of local American Indian tribes, he began cultivating 172,800 acres of land.

There were perhaps 15,000 people of European descent in the whole enormous territory - Mexican heirs to the Spanish conquistadors, Anglos who had headed west along the newly-hacked Oregon and Mormon Trails, sailors who had settled along the Californian coast, French trappers, a handful of Russian colonists who had built Fort Ross north of the San Francisco Bay - and perhaps 100,000 semi-nomadic Shoshone and Oleone Indians. Monterey existed primarily as a trading post, where leather hides were exchanged for foods, farming equipment, clothing and the like. The settlement that later became San Francisco was a tiny trading hamlet called Yerba Buena. Los Angeles, nearly 400 miles to the south, had been established by the Spanish colonial government in 1781, prior to Mexican independence, when the 13 eastern colonies were busy wresting independence from Britain. In addition a string of imposing adobe missions, set up by Father Juniper Serra in the 1770s, ran up the coast, their purpose to Catholicise the natives.

When Sutter set up shop, the decrepit Mexican government was rapidly losing control of its northern territories. Quixotic plots abounded: the Russians had only recently abandoned hopes of sneaking south from Alaska to monopolise the American Pacific; French and English dreamers talked of claiming the vast land as their own; and, of course, the government of the United States, its land reaching 1,000 miles to the east, in the state of Missouri, wanted to fulfil the promise of "Manifest Destiny" and create a unified country that stretched from the Atlantic to the Pacific, to the town that residents were beginning to call San Francisco.

In 1846 Mexico and the United States went to war, and over the next two years, Mexico lost close to half its territory. The rugged expanse that is now made up of the states of Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, Colorado, Nevada and California fell under American control. On 2 February, 1848, a week and a half after the discovery of gold on Sutter's land, the two countries signed the Treaty of Guadaloupe Hidalgo. Mexico had lost the war, but the US had not yet colonised the West. It was, for the moment, largely a no man's land, officially belonging to America but without enough non-Indian inhabitants to be divided into states and incorporated into the civic structure.

GOLD CHANGED that, creating boom towns such as Sacramento City - where Sutter's Fort had stood - and San Francisco practically overnight. Within three years, it had siphoned over a quarter of a million people into California, and rushed the region into statehood on 9 September 1850. It created embryonic new markets that grew at unprecedented rates. Prices and wages were driven sky-high by the initial shortage of labour and produce. In the early days, apples sold for over a dollar in the mining towns, and mechanics could earn up to $100 daily, this at a time when US wages averaged about $1 per day.

The towns were raucous, violent, almost exclusively male places. Miners found their entertainment in the myriad taverns, gambling joints and the hurdy-gurdy houses (brothels) that housed most of the few females in the vicinity. Hucksters found that "mining the miners" was frequently an easier way to make quick money than breaking rock and panning for gold in the mountains. One prostitute boasted of making more than $50,000 in a year.

Conditions were filthy, and tuberculosis and dysentery were rife. Lacking even the basics of a sewer system, the streets were frequently knee-deep in mud and refuse. Canvas tents, wooden shacks and the occasional stone dwelling were all jumbled together. Fires broke out monthly. The centre of San Francisco burnt down three times in the space of a year. And always it was rebuilt - finer, grander, larger - as money poured in from the mines.

San Francisco's 1846 population of less than 500 grew to about 2,000 in 1848, and to 30,000 by 1850. For a simple Yankee from rural America, it was the strangest place on earth. Wrote one who arrived by sea from Panama and never left: "It is a most wonderful town, sprung up, as it were, by magic. On every street we found halls, brilliantly lighted, where men of every description were gambling at monte, twenty-one, faro, roulette and dice. Such piles of money I never saw before ... Every establishment is furnished with a bar at which liquors are sold at 25 cents a glass, and instrumental music is performed during the whole evening. I have seen men clinking their hands full of gold to the tune which was playing. As much as $160,000 has been ventured and lost on the turn of a single card." Charles Starkweather wrote to his family that "the whole world seems to flock here. The town is full of people, and full of goods, stowed anywhere, everywhere, on board vessels and piled in the streets. This is the dirtiest place in creation, so sandy and windy."

BACK IN 1848, rumours had quickly circulated within California, Oregon and Mexico that precious metal had been discovered. The towns of Monterey and San Francisco were deserted as residents flocked north-east into the mountains to the gold mines. Soldiers abandoned forts to "pan" for gold, to "rock" large quantities of mud through wooden contraptions, and to dig for the rare ore. Sailors coming into California beached their ships and hurried inland. Oregonian pioneers headed south through the redwood forests. For these early Gold Rushers the pickings were often spectacular. Huge gold nuggets could be found on the surface in some places. Stones of gold weighing many pounds were found, and with gold selling at $16 an ounce, fortunes were there for the taking. In Butty County, over $100,000 of gold was mined, the largest stone weighing a staggering 54lb. In Sierra City a stone rumoured to weigh 148lb was plucked from the earth. California, it seemed, was truly the mythical island Califia, of eternal wealth, mythologised by Spanish writers hundreds of years previously.

Word spread east slowly. Communications were abominable; no roads had yet been carved out of the wilderness. No railtracks, bridges or telegraph wires existed within 1,000 miles. The trails that did exist were muddy, rutted wagon and mule paths over mountains, through enormous arid deserts, over endless prairies. Sailing ships and the occasional steamer had to sail either all the way around the Cape, at the tip of Chile, or dock at Panama City, where passengers would alight, trek three days through dense jungle to Chagres on the Atlantic, and then board another boat to the US or Europe. A journey from New York to San Francisco, or vice versa, took somewhere in the region of six months.

But by the summer of 1848, newspapers back east had finally got word from California and begun reporting that gold had been discovered. Adventurers from Latin America began heading north. Young men in the US and in Europe started preparing to head west; they were, however, laughed at by their more sober peers. But still the reports came in, and eventually so did large amounts of gold dust, shipped by California's military governor to the government in Washington.

On 5 December 1848, President Polk addressed Congress. The discovery, he declared, was a fact. His speech created a sensation. Within days Gold Fever had descended on the country. The news was telegraphed to every village, to every town. Hundreds of thousands of people, the overwhelming majority of them men, began to prepare for their epic voyage west. They sold possessions, mortgaged farms, borrowed money, banded together with others from their towns to form joint stock companies. Charles Starkweather joined the Holyoke Mining Company, in Northampton, Massachusetts.

They bought oxen and mules, wagons, vast amounts of salted food, all sorts of cumbersome mining gear, barrels of liquor and guns in abundance. They waited for the approach of spring, and in February, March and April, leaving their women behind as "California widows", they set off. A few thousand pioneers had headed to Oregon since 1843, a few thousand Mormons to the desert town of Salt Lake. But for most, impressions of the West were vague at best.

MODERN California is arguably the most suburbanised, strip-malled place on earth. Despite being rugged, it's a safe, easy land to visit. When my flight from New York to LA was delayed by three hours, making my voyage last an entire day, I was horrified. But in 1849 it took up to 100 days to get from the Missouri frontier to California. On a good day, mule and oxen wagons would go 25 miles. When the Californians had to cross a river - such as the rushing torrent of the North Platte, in what is now Wyoming - they either had to rely on Mormon ferrymen, who charged exorbitant rates, or create their own makeshift rafts by roping several canoes together and floating the wagons across. Often vessels would fall into the torrent, and wagoners would drown.

Along the way, they passed pioneer landmarks such as the immense rock they called Independence Rock. Everyone who passed this rock would carve, paint, or tar their name upon it. To leave messages to those coming behind them, they left cryptic notes on bleached buffalo and elk bones along the trail. At some points, the gold rushers set up makeshift "post office" barrels, and dropping hundreds of letters into them.

Many of the newly formed companies were almost destroyed by the back- breaking journey, their members dying in droves. Thousands of Californians took the Lassen's Cut-Off "shortcut" near the end of their journey, and found themselves lost deep within the Sierra Madre mountains as the first snows of winter began to fall in late October. (One company, the Jayhawkers, ended up trapped in Death Valley, well south of the main trails, where summer temperatures can soar to over 130 degrees.)

Many hopefuls ran out of food, and although most - including the 49-year- old Englishman Harry Wade (a onetime coachman to King George IV) - eventually found their way over the mountains and lived to tell the tale, starvation was common, and the bodies of several remained to be fed on by the coyotes and vultures. According to the Reverend James Brier, one captain, Asa Haynes, "took out a five-dollar gold piece and offered it to the men for one biscuit, but they refused it. The captain wept."

Many others died of gunshot wounds - the mob heading west was ferociously armed, both for hunting and for war with Indians, and frequently sloshed out of their minds on rotgut liquor. Often oxen would drink poisonous water, start bleeding from the nose and die. The wells became blocked with their carcasses.

Some of the companies trekking westward might have seen drawings of the plains and deserts, but all would have been stunned by the immensity, by the biblical grandeur of the West. From late June onward, ragged, bearded and hungry, they began flooding from this wilderness into northern California.

Some, like the 30-year-old Starkweather, by sea via the tropical Panamanian isthmus, often after spending months trapped in Panama waiting for ships to arrive to take them north. The members of the Holyoke Mining Company eventually had to buy their own ship, the Capiaco, from a Peruvian Spaniard for $20,500, and recoup their costs by selling tickets to other travellers at hundreds of dollars a pop. Starkweather was lucky, for although his voyage lasted 95 days and was marked by several gales, on 14 August, he reached San Francisco.

Others never even glimpsed the promised land. Several of the overcrowded, verminous boats that left Panama were becalmed in the treacherous waters off Central America. On a few, as hunger took hold, cannibalism occurred. On most voyages, numerous passengers died, their bodies unceremoniously dumped overboard.

Many of the goldseekers kept diaries and wrote long, detailed letters home - now preserved in the archives of the Society of California Pioneers in San Francisco and the Huntington Library in San Marino. Some, like J Goldsborough Bruff, kept remarkable sketchbooks of their journey.

Charles Starkweather was one of the most copious letter-writers, scribbling hundreds of missives to his three brothers, three sisters, and parents back home in Northampton, Massachusetts. He left during a cold, snowy, East Coast winter, with Boston harbour frozen solid. He wrote to his sister, Almira, from Panama, talking of how he had sailed into a tropical summer, describing the senoritas in their beautiful silks and jewels, and the peasants working the land without ploughs to help them. He described fandangos [dances] and bloody knife fights, candle- lit festivals and wanton gambling. In return, his family wrote back to inform him of local gossip, and their loneliness following his departure. He described life on the ships - the mate attempting to harpoon turtles, fights between weary passengers, picking up supplies in the pretty southern Mexican port of Acapulco, a Fourth of July celebration with a "splendid plum duff dinner".

THE MEN who arrived in California headed inland, to the mining regions of Canyon Creek, Hudson's Gulch, Michigan Flat, Park's Bar, Rich Bar and camps such as Murderer's, Drunkard's, Mud Canyon, Nigger, Yankee Slide, and the emphatically named Poverty. Some found gold enough to last them a lifetime. One English commercial house alone shipped $873,000 of gold dust back home on the ships Inconstant, Driver and Dadalus.

They called themselves "argonauts", attracted by the Greek myth of Jason and the Golden Fleece. A popular "illustrated letter sheet" of the period quoted the following miners' poem: "Like Argos of the ancient times,/I'll leave this modern Greece:/I'm bound to California mines/To find the golden fleece./For who would work from morn to night,/And live on hog and corn:/When one can pick up there at sight/Enough to buy a farm."

In August 1849, Starkweather reported to his brother Haynes that "people are pouring in from every corner very fast ... Small vessels are going up and down the river every day [to Sacramento], charging $16 for fare and board, or $25 in cabin ... We start at two o'clock on the schooner Eclipse." By the end of the month, the Massachusetts boy was panning for gold at Roses Bar, in the mountains along the Yuba River. "I sit down in our tent to write," he reported to his family, "with my apparatus consisting of paper and ink, on a tin pan on my knee, while I sit on a bag of clothing scarcely knowing what to say ... When we came here there were some 250 people working here and they have nearly doubled since and are coming every day, living in tents if they have any house at all."

Contrary to expectations, by late 1849 most of the surface gold had been picked. Slaving away, the miners, most of them lacking any previous mining experience, dug down into the hard earth, and - in the spring, as the winter waters fell - they began damming the ice-cold rivers to get at the bedrock below. Thousands of miners worked these dams, some finding gold, others - as the first autumn rains swept away the dams on 8 September 1850 - only heartbreak. They moved from one camp to another, always hoping that the next camp along would bring them the "pockets of rocks" they dreamt of. Many of them, forgetting how recently California had been a foreign land, began charging Mexicans, Indians and "foreigners" in general with stealing the gold away from them. Race riots and pogroms occurred in several camps. In many regions, vigilante committees went on killing-sprees against the local Indians. A culture of racial strife grew up that arguably still patterns California to this day.

By the autumn of 1850, just as the second wave of gold rushers was streaming in, large numbers of miners, having worked the mines for a full year, began heading out.

Many of those who failed at the mines made it as businessmen and farmers, providing supplies on which the gold could be spent, creating a durable society that would last in California long after the boom years were over. Starkweather was one of them. He quickly realised that the mines were not for him, and began working at a hotel in Sacramento. Having accumulated some money, he started a cattle operation out of the little town of Stockton. In 1851, his brother Alfred joined him, and the following year Haynes came too. Charles and Alfred began ranching 600 acres on the Calaveras river, Haynes opened a drugstore in Stockton. Alfred wrote home that they "lived in a cabin about as good as our fat hogs' pen at home but not so substantially built, sleep on the floor, on a bed filled with wild oat straw ... We now consider ourselves Californians."

Within a generation, the "argonauts" and their heirs had crafted a new world for themselves on the ruins of the old California, and the slaughter and death by imported diseases of tens of thousands of Native Americans. For better or for worse, they had reoriented America forever. Says Peter Blodgett, curator of Western Historical Manuscripts at the Huntington Library, "Californian society grew out of both good and evil. It was built on the destruction of the Californio [Mexican] society, the near extermination of the native population - a nasty, brutal extermination of Indians, often by small, informally organised groups of civilians. You cannot deal with what has happened in modern times without understanding these roots. The state's origin," Blodgett concludes, "was out of this incredible era of boom. The Gold Rush remade America. The conquest of California made America a truly transcontinental power. And it set loose this army of people always looking for the next California."

It was a land where, until the early years of this century, Blacks, Chinese and Native Americans were denied most civil rights, prevented from voting and from testifying in courts against whites. For Mexicans, protected in theory by the Treaty of Guadaloupe Hidalgo, life was often little better. It was a land of frontier justice, where trials were held inside saloons, where thieves were whipped first time round, their ears cut off the second time, and they were swung from a tree if they stole again. But it was also a land of poetry, song, and a very real longing for freedom.

Out of the Gold Rush emerged the great metropolis of San Francisco, a wealth of new phrases - such as "it panned out" - and songs ("My Darling Clementine"). In exchange for the gold mined from the earth, a landscape of farms, mining towns, saloons, opera houses, theatres, brothels, railways, roads, schools and churches was created: the classic Western landscape.

But the Rush also left a startling amnesia about California's past, and a legacy of racial hostility and xenophobia. Gold created a multi- ethnic society ruled over by an Anglo elite. And it imprinted on the American psyche a grasping need for instant riches and fame, an impatience with the past, and a psychology of plunder. But it also instilled a marvellous inventiveness and sense of possibility. The legacy of 1849 is the best and the worst of the American experience. It is, in short, California.

The Gold Rush, an exhibition of sketches, diaries, letters, clothing is at the Huntington Library, San Marino, California, until September 2000


Above: Miners at Taylorsville, California, 1849. Mexicans, Native Americans, Peruvians, Chinese, and Europeans added to the influx of North American fortune-hunters

Above, left to right: a notice for the packet ship 'Josephine', offering passage to the the gold fields; three sketches by the fortune-hunter J Goldsborough Bruff (rafting over the River Platte; prospectors' wagons corralled at Independence Rock; the long trek west, which proved lethal to many travellers); a British songsheet satirising Californian gold fever

Below, left to right: a young miner's optimistic portrait for the folks back home; the streets of San Francisco in 1856; disillusioned goldseeker Charles Starkweather, whose letters record the joys and horrors of the Gold Rush

Above: gold prospectors working a sluice. Below: hunting for gold, equipped with pistols and pack-mule