Incredible things we learned about the California Gold Rush from Ed Allen and Holly Thane:
On October 26, 2023, Tennessee History for Kids hosted a Zoom inservice broadcast from Marshall Gold Discovery State Historic State Park in California. The information told to us on that day by park historian Ed Allen and park interpreter Holly Thane was SO GREAT that we put it together in this question-and-answer format.
First, here are questions we posed to Ed Allen:
How was it that James Marshall originally found gold?
“John Sutter was trying to build an agricultural empire. First, he built Sutter’s Fort where Sacramento is today, and then he needed a water-powered sawmill to cut down the huge ponderosa pine trees in this area and cut them into lumber. He brought in James Marshall to build the mill as partner.
“Marshall hired a few Mormon men who were veterans of the Mexican War to help him, and these men are often referred to as the ‘Mormon Boys.’ He also hired Peter and Jennie Wimmer. Peter was in charge of Native American laborers who worked there, and Jennie was the camp cook.
“In any case, they built the mill and they decided to test it out. They opened the gate and water came rushing through the mill race. Everything seemed fine; the mill was cutting nice straight timber. But water was backing up in the tail race (which was that portion of the ditch that runs back to the river), because they hadn’t cut it deep enough. So they cut off the water and started digging the tail race deeper.
“Then, on the morning of January 24, 1848, Marshall was standing down at the tail race and he looked down at his feet and he saw something very shiny in the water. He picked it up and it appeared to be a small gold nugget.
How was Marshall sure he had found gold?
“The first thing he did was smash the nugget with another rock to see if it was malleable. It was. Then he showed it to the ‘Mormon boys,’ and didn’t believe it was gold, so they did a test by putting it in the fire to see if it would melt.
“Then Jennie Wimmer, who had panned for gold at the Georgia gold rush, put the nugget in lye water to see if it turned green. Marshall’s gold nugget passed all three tests. A couple of days later, Marshall took a bag of gold nuggets and dust to show Sutter at the fort.”
So who really started the Gold Rush?
“Sam Brannan, a San Francisco man who owned a newspaper and two stores, probably did more to really started the gold rush than any other person.
“As soon as Brannon heard that there was gold at Sutter’s Mill, he came up here. He prospected for a couple of days, then went back to San Francisco with a bag of gold dust. He knew that since he owned a story in San Francisco and another one in Sutter’s Fort that he would benefit if everyone came to California and had to buy things from him. So he took the bag of gold dust to Portsmouth Square in San Francisco and started yelling ‘gold, gold, gold from the American River!’
“Brannon became California first millionaire by mining the miners, and by selling them supplies, equipment and food –at really high prices.”
How fast did people rush in?
“The non-native population of California at this time was about 14,000, and about 6,000 of those people immediately came up here. We estimate that these 6,000 people found about $10 million in gold. That averages $20 per person per day, and this at a time when people made about a dollar a day.”
“Then, in 1849, ninety thousand people show up in California. They found $50 million in gold and that works out to $10 per person per day.”
“In 1850 another 90,000 people came out here, and California become a state.
“By the way, we estimate that only about 5 percent of the people who came to the gold mines struck it rich. What was more common is that people would find some gold – enough to stay here and keep trying – but not enough to go home. So we think about 75% of the people who came to California stayed in California.”
What are some of the bizarre stories about the gold rush?
“Ship captains who brought people to San Francisco had a hard time keeping their crews, because once they arrived in San Francisco, their deck hands would desert because they had gold fever. So ships would come into San Francisco and never leave. Most of them never did; they just rotted there and then eventually sank. That’s why there are photos of all those abandoned ships in San Francisco Bay.”
Now for questions we posed to Holly Thane:
How did the miners deal with land ownership rights?
“People just came, panned for gold, and took what they found.
“Technically, this was federal land, but the U.S. government could not stop people from panning for gold and keeping what they found. They simply didn’t have the troops.
“It was the wild west. A miner would find gold in the river, and then he would claim a stretch of the river. He’d put up stakes with tin cans on it on the four corners of the land he claimed, and other miners had to respect that. There was nothing official about it. Until the state caught up, this was the miner’s legal system.
“And, yes, men shot each other arguing about land claims.”
What happened to the Native Americans living the area at that time?
“There were three tribes of Native Americans in this part of Northern California – the Maidu, the Miwok and the Nisenan. They were peaceful, even welcoming, and for this they paid a heavy price.
“The Nisenan were at the Sutter’s Mill site, which is why we have evidence of them at the state park, such as the holes in the rocks where they ground up acorns. These Nisenan men worked for Sutter, and everyone got along okay. But after gold was discovered, large numbers of miners came in here and some awful things happened. Some miners came in from Oregon and raped a Native American woman, and then some Native Americans killed three of them in retribution, and then some miners hung a lot of the Native Americans in retribution for that. Eventually the Native Americans had to move to parts of California where there were no miners, and eventually they began losing their culture.
“There are still Native Americans who live in this part of California. Some of them come here and even helped us build the Native American shelters that we have here, since they knew so much about it. But some of them stay clear of the state park because of what it represents.”
Whatever happened to the sawmill?
The mill operated for about two years, but eventually they had to stop it because everyone wanted to just pan for gold. The mill was eventually abandoned, and people took a lot of the wood from it to build houses. It was only after a flood that took place many years later that people realized where it had been.”
What were some of the environmental impacts of the gold mining?
“Some of them are obvious. This part of California used to be a forest of huge ponderosa pine trees, for instance and now most of them are gone.
“More to your point: After the initial gold panning stage, the miners and the mining companies moved on to different techniques to find gold, such as hydraulic mining, which is sort of a water cannon that washed away hillsides and trees to get to the rocks below. Hydraulic mining changed the course of rivers and sent a lot of stuff downstream, altering the landscape and killing a lot of crops. It was made illegal in 1884.
“Then, after they had found most of the gold bits in the river, companies started mining gold ore from the ground, where gold has to be separated from other bits of rock chemically. This process released a lot of mercury into the rivers of Northern California during the last 170 years, and a lot of this mercury has made its way down to San Francisco Bay. That’s why you still have to be careful eating fish caught in Francisco Bay.”
Are there any interesting stories about people who came to California enslaved during the Gold Rush?
“Many. For example, there was an enslaved couple named Peter and Nancy Gooch, who were brought here from Missouri. When she got to California, she ceased being a slave, and she worked here and did laundry and saved her money. A few years later, she spent $700 to purchase the freedom of her son, who was still back in Missouri. He came out here, he had children, and they ended up owning an orchard. That orchard is called the Monroe Orchard, and some of the trees there still produce pears and peaches.
“Also, a large number of the people who came to California to mine gold were Chinese. Many of those Chinese miners returned to China, but many of them stayed here and eventually brought their families to stay.
“So remember, when the gold rush was at its peak, this was a real melting pot — a lot of different languages and backgrounds.”