Gold: The Great American Rush for Wealth
By: J. MarlandoCredit: www,smithsonianmag.com
When I was a young man my cousin, Don, and I spent much of our time hiking and climbing the Rocky Mountains just outside Colorado Springs, our home town. We had a touch of gold fever so we did our share of prospecting. The best we ever did, however, was to bring back amazon stone which we made some dating money on. And so, gold or no gold, we always had a great time on our gold prospecting adventures.
Gold has an obvious magnetism for most people for obvious reasons but even for those who have no interest in gold prospecting, gold necklaces, gold chains and all kinds of gold jewlery is worn by both men and women. Certainly gold is a status symbol and has been since very ancient times. Indeed, it was the want of gold and spices that inspired Spain to send Columbus off on his long sail.
Columbus’s first landing was on an island in the Bahamas where Arawak Indians lived. They were a peaceful people raising corn, yams and other vegetables and living life in village communes. When Columbus and his men went ashore they also noticed that the people wore gold earring. This led Columbus and his sailors to believe that they had hit a “golden jackpot.” Because of this belief he left nearly thirty men to stay behind and find the gold while he sailed back to Spain.
In Spain he reported that the Indians were so “naïve and so free with their possession that no one who has not witness them would not believe it.” He also told the queen and king that he would bring them back all the gold and slaves they desired.
For Columbus’s second “long” voyage, he was given seventeen ships and more than a thousand men. He returned to the Caribbean islands with high hopes only to discover that the 29 men he had left behind had been killed by the Indians. Actually his men had become a gang that began going from village to village seeking the gold fields they were sure existed while taking the women and children for sex slaves and killing the males who objected.
When Columbus did not find gold that he hoped for, he rounded up over fifteen hundred Arawaks to transport back to Spain as slaves. Once in Spain, the Indians begin dying in captivity and his benefactors were disappointed that his promises of gold had proven to be empty. So Columbus returned once again to tghe Bahamas and ordered all Indians fourteen and older to collect a certain amount of gold and bring it in every three months to exchange for copper tokens to wear around their necks. Thereafter any Indian discovered without a token around his neck had his hand cut off and bled to death.
The real problem was that there wasn’t much gold on the island so the villagers began running away. When they did,, Columbus ordered them hunted down and killed.
Gold and currency have been the cause behind countless murders and bloody wars since the advent of so-called civilization. Gold, however, is no doubt the most cherished of precious metals; it is, after all, the most beautiful and has always been given value by human beings.
This article sets out to share the story of America’s great Gold Rush, a tale I hope the reader finds as intriguing as I have.
James Sutter was one of those persons who had the Midas touch. In California, 1848 he had 50,000 acres of rich farming land and orchards; a fort and an army of Indians to defend his property. He also enjoyed a sloop for sailing up and down the Sacramento River. He wanted more, so in January of that year he sent his foreman, James Marshall and a crew of men to build a sawmill at the end of a fork in the American River. His goal was to produce lumber for more projects.Credit: www.wn.wikipedia.org
Marshall was working when he noticed something shinning in the ditch he was working in. It was a small gold nugget around half the size of a pea. He reached in again and found another. Being an honest man he quickly rode back to Sutter’s Fort to show his employer what he had found.
Being a shrewd businessman John Sutter wanted to keep Marshall’s discovery a secret until his sawmill was up and working and he was sure that he had clear title to the land. However, during that time his crew members were finding more and more gold and word crept out. Soon enough the newspapers were writing about it which actually started an international rush to the river. By the middle of June 1848, three quarters of all the men in San Francisco had left to seek their fortunes in gold. And indeed, gold seemed to be just about everywhere in the area of the mill—in pools, in sandbars and along the banks of the American River, the Trinity River and Feather River.
Soon enough it was estimated that four thousand men were at work pocketing the precious metal dug or panned out of those regions earning between $30,000 and $50,000 a day. When the news hit the press even soldiers began deserting to try their luck in the gold fields. The rush was on!
Actually, it was impossible to cross the plains and mountains before the spring thaw but, in the meantime, a great many men and women wanted to get to California as soon as they could so they took water routes.
One route went all the way around South America, 18,000 nautical miles taking approximately two and half months. The other way was by way of Panama, then crossing the isthmus
The Isthmus is the narrow strip of land that lies between The Caribbean
Sea and the Pacific Ocean linking North and South America.
on mule-back and canoe and boarding another ship for San Francisco. There were dangers along the way and especially from deadly tropical diseases. The accommodations aboard those ships were terrible, the food often worse. History reports that sea-sickness was everywhere and to make matters worse the ships reeked of vomit. They were packed however during those winter months by people with gold fever.
Then in April of 1849 another estimated 30,000 Americans started for the goldfields. They traveled in wagons pulled mostly by oxenCredit: txtransportationmuseum.org but also a few were horse- drawn wagons made the trip. All followed trails charted by mountain men such as Kit CarsonCredit: www.biography.com and John FremontCredit: www.commonswikimedia.org and others who had mapped out the Oregon and California trails.
The trip began by crossing over 300 grueling prairie miles which meant passing through Potawatomi and Shawnee lands. The fertile soil did not go unnoticed by the farmers then on their way to the gold fields. “Won’t be long ‘till this land is for sale,” many said and of course they were right. The Indians had other ideas however, but for the most part they left the wagon trains alone. There was a reason for this: adding to the hardships of the gold seekers, cholera shot through their wagon trains causing a horrible sickness and often to a terrifying death. The Indians wanted no part of that for their villages so they permitted the wagons to pass in peace.
Cholera was raging through America at the time and had been killing thousands since the 1830s. As we know now, the disease is caused by contaminated water and flies that find their way to raw sewage. It was suspected that immigrants from Europe brought the illness to the U.S. with them as it is highly contagious. In any case, cholera be-damned, it was not about to stop most of the fortune hunters rushing to find their futures in them thar hills.
With today’s air travel and freeways it is difficult to imagine that in the mid-1840s California was a world away from the Eastern states. And so, it is no wonder, that there were those who simply gave up went home. Thousands kept going, however: they trudged on against the weather, the illnesses, the Indians and the slow, tiring pace of moving forward. Ten or so miles a day would have been “fast.” In spite of it all they kept the dream of gold in the foremost of their minds. Gold, after all, would change their lives…forever.
After weeks of dry, hot weather they reached the PlatteCredit: www.nebraskalife.com where Mormon entrepreneurs offered a ferry to cross the river for a fee. By then the trail behind the wagon trains had emptied all they deemed unnecessary and would hinder the climb up into the Rockies. Fort LaramieCredit: www.wikipedia.org in Wyoming was the last stop before the flat lands began rolling upward into distant peaks.
At Laramie Credit: www.wyomingtradingpost.commany of the gold seekers sold or simply left their wagons to ride mules into the mountains. For one thing they feared that there might not be enough grass for the oxen and another thing was wagons would be extremely taxing on the oxen in the awaiting mountainous terrain Nevertheless, many also chose to stay with their wagons since dumping all the heavy items such as packed boxes, saddles and even cast-iron stoves; everything and anything not absolutely necessary.
In regard to this, there was a man by the name of John D. Lee, a Mormon who ran the Ferry on the Platte Credit: www.wyoshpo.state.wy.us When he decided to return to Salt Lake, he began picking up the discarded items left behind by the 49ers. He listed such discarded items as: Cooking utensils, nails, sacks, tools, axes and harnesses; even bacon, coffee, trunks packed with clothing. He specifically mentions a stove that he valued at around $50.00 so he made out quite well. He also carried a cool $10,000 on his ride back home that had been earned from the ferry-crossing venture, delivering it to Brigham Young, the Church’s president at the time.
Incidentally, a new experience for the travelers had been eating buffalo meat. Most of those folks had never even seen buffalo before Credit: www.athecreation.com but they seemed to have found the meat sweet and tender. Anyway, after crossing the Platte the trail suddenly turned barren and difficult for at least 50 miles. Such unexpected hardships were expected, however, and the wagon trains continued on.
After Laramie some continued south toward the Rockies while others chose to risk crossing the Black Rock Desert.
One of the actual trailsCredit: www.octopup.org
The Black Rock Desert trail was already lined with abandoned wagons and the carcasses of rotting oxen but in spite of that, the 49ers pushed forward toward the distant mountains.
One party reached Sierra Nevada Mountains in early October facing the steep climb to the summit. That was an extremely difficult for the animals even though, as said, nearly anything heavy had been tossed out of the wagons along the way.
As for the 49ers it was like the last great push out of hell headed for heaven. After all, from the summit they expected to see Sacramento and from there the journey would be “a hop and a jump” to San Francisco and their way to the gold fields. Tired and worn they finally reached the summit but instead of seeing Sacramento, they only saw rows of more mountains.
Some seekers abandoned their wagons there and then, walking away with only a back pack while others continued on with their oxen and other belongings. Then, snow began to fall. For especially those few who had brought their wives and children with them, winter became all the more to contend with. With that aside, however, the wagons reached Antelope Creek and so the last leg of a very long and exhausting journey—by then a great many were suffering from scurvy in addition to everything else. Nevertheless those thousands that survived eventually reached their destination—the gold fields of Californ-i-a.
The Gold Fields
Not all but most prospectors made it in to San Francisco to purchase supplies, to get drunk, to have a fling with the ladies, maybe gamble some and rest up before heading back to their digs. It was a shocking town to some in that it had a wild and dangerous side. As a seaportCredit: www.docentcouncil.blogpost.com it was used to hosting foreigners and all sorts of people not excluding conmen, killers and ordinary thieves. And, by 1850 there were no less than 75 thousand miners swarming the city like worker ants swarming a honey jar. As for the hills and riverbanks around two-thirds of the prospectors were American but others included Mexican, Chinese, free blacks, whites, French, Germans, Russians and Italians. Among them were even African slaves and local Indians who were no doubt “breaking their backs” to make someone else rich.
High in the mountains though settlements much like this oneCredit: www.uesteryearsnews.woodpress.com seemed to rise overnight and many businesses were created in tents including saloons. And so, a great many merchants made fortunes without ever finding a nickel’s worth of gold themselves. Indeed, Levi StraussCredit: www.federlcodecalifornia.blogpress.com began his jean business during the gold rush. He was a 24 year old German immigrant who had traveled to the gold country with a wagon full of dry goods. Once settled in he began making canvas jeans that sold but caused the miners to complain that the material would often chafe. Levi substituted a cotton cloth that he had imported from France. That cloth would eventually be called “denim.” They were nicked named blue jeans and, of course, the rest is history.
Prices were sky high in the camps. Remember this was in the middle 1800s, a single pound of potatoes cost a dollar; eggs sold for 50 cents apiece, a bottle of rum or whisky $20.00. Woe to the many that weren’t making a day’s pay out of the rivers or mountain sides. There were those too of course and yet the gold-seekers kept pouring in. By 1952 20,000 Chinese prospectors had entered the area. It is said that they worked so hard and with such diligence that they took gold from gold-pockets that other prospectors had left for “dry.”
Of the Chinese who did not make it, most went to San FranciscoCredit: www.understandinggrace.org to start businesses of their own and many did extremely well especially opening restaurants. Indeed, a man by the name of Wah Lee opened the first large laundry in San Francisco and made himself a very rich man from the endeavor. On the other hand, the Chinese were looked down on just as blacks and Mexicans were. In fact, a group of American miners began pressuring the government to heavily tax those who were not United States citizens (for more than they could afford to pay). The nepotisms send many Mexicans and other foreigners home or at least away from the gold fields but there were some French and a lot of Chinese that nevertheless held on.
The Chinese lived in their own area, had their own ways, food and religions; they worked and bothered no one but mobs of white miners burned down their shacks, beat and murdered them. Mexicans were not treated much better. It is known that a Mexican woman awoke to find a strange, white man in her bedroom so she grabbed a knife and killed him. It is also said that had she been a white woman she would have been applauded but, because she was a Mexican, she was hanged.
Living in the camps was not safe for anyone really—the area was crawling with thieves, shysters of all kinds including lawyers; professional gamblers and rot-gut bootleggers. And not every miner was to be trusted either. In fact, some miners made it a hobby to kill “squaws” and papooses. Many bandits became rich by simply stealing the gold that others had panned or dug from the ground.
There was plenty of stress between the miners and the Indians in any case. On the hunting grounds the herds of prospectors had scared away the buffalo and killed such a vast number of deer and other game that the Indians were beginning to starve.
Finally there was a meeting called at Fort Laramie on the North Platte between the tribes and the American military authority. Over ten thousand Lakota, Cheyenne, Arapaho, Crow, Gros, Ventre, Blackfeet, Shoshones and others made camp in the field just outside the fort adding a great deal of stress to the 270 soldiers inside. Indeed, the Fort could have been easily overrun but it wasn’t, the Indians were there to make peace and ask for compensation for what the many thousands of prospectors had done to their hunting grounds.Credit: www.legendsofamercia.com
After debating, the government offered the Indians a total of $50,000 worth of supplies each year in exchange for the Indians not harassing or attacking the wagons moving through their territories. As far as “their” territories, they were shown a map of how the land would be divided up. The Lakota leadership understood and would have nothing to do with it and so, in order to keep the peace, the government made a bargain with Black Hawk that gave the Lakota tribes the right to hunt south of Platte and to own the land between the Bighorn Mountains and Black Hills.
The meeting eventually ended well with treaties signed and agreed upon. That didn’t matter much because the government broke the treaties and agreements anyway.
Miners and Indians
Many of the tribes did not receive even the first delivery of supplies promised them and soon enough the hungry Indians began raiding the camps and stealing horses and cattle. This in turn angered the miners and they began retaliating.
While the California constitution outlawed slavery, there was a loophole: In order to accommodate the miners, there was a new law that declared that any Indian who was jobless could be considered a vagrant and therefore a person could auction off the “vagrant’s” services for four months. That of course was slavery in the guise of punishment. It was also permitted whites to force Indian children to work for them IF they had their parents’ permission. And so some of the miners began hunting Indian families and kidnapping their children. A seven or eight year old was worth $100.00 at the time.
The Indians were victimized but they could not complain in the white man’s court. There was a California statue that forbid Indians, blacks and mulatto persons to give evidence against any white person so they were at the mercy of the “good hearts and gentle” miners who, in vast numbers, hated them anyway. The men who had made the treaties with the Indians were typically not guilty of breaking them—they broke them because the government would not permit them to follow through with their promises. As historian Geoffrey C. Ward says, “There was no longer room in California for the original Californians.”
Around this time a group of men formed an association in the town of CottonwoodCredit: www.geocities.ws
calling themselves the Squaw Hunters. They spent weekends assaulting and raping Indian women and killing the Indian males that objected.
During all of this it was discovered that a large group of Indians were hiding at a place known as Roff’s Ranch and so a brave gang of volunteers snuck into the camp and immediately killed 9 Indian men. The rest of the Indian men fled believing that the Americans would not kill their wives or children. The volunteers took hatchets to the heads of the Indian women and children killing around 40 in this gruesome way.
The hostility between the miners and Indians continued while the miners continued seeking their fortunes from the land and rivers. Many had actually struck it rich but a great many more did not. Indeed, some prospectors never found an ounce of gold and ended up going home broker than they had arrived. As for the Indians, before the 49ers there were around 150,000 in California alone. By 1970, there were only around 30,000. A the Historian Geoffrey Ward also tells us that it was the worse slaughter of Indian people in the United States and the slaughter at Wounded Knee was still ten years away.
Gold is a beautiful metal and has been extremely valuable most virtually since the dawning of so-called civilization itself. The desire for it and its value in money along with land has caused more human death and suffering than anything else.
As a quick aside, I have written much about World War Two’s holocaust but what else was the constant attempt at Indian genocide by the government? Indeed, the fundamentals of germ warfare even began on early U.S. soil when the government began offering contaminated blankets from measles and small pox patients to the Indians as gifts. Those diseases wiped out countless Indians.
Certainly we all have at least a touch of gold fever in our souls and the “fever” extends to power and money. In our own times we are deemed intelligent and scientific but how can that be so when war remains the world’s answer to expansionism and wealth? How can that be so after 5,000 to 10000 years of man’s inhumanity to man?
Can there ever be peace on earth?
I believe it was the American Indian who answered this questioned best and one that should apply to all the peoples of the world: “If the white man wants to live in peace with the Indian, he can live in peace. Treat all men alike. Give them all the same law. Give them all an even chance to live and grow. All men were made by the same Great Spirit Chief. They are all brothers. The Earth is the mother of all people, and all people should have equal rights upon it. Let me be a free man, free to travel, free to stop, free to work, free to trade where I choose my own teachers, free to follow the religion of my fathers, free to think and talk and act for myself, and I will obey every law, or submit to the penalty."
References and Suggested Further Readug
Ward, Geoffrey, C. * The West * Little Brown and Company
Zinn, Howard * A People’s History of the United States * HarperPerennial
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