Picture in your mind the rocky hillside of a New England farm in the springtime of the year 1848. A clear-eyed, sturdy young man, his cheeks aglow with health, his hands to the plow, is breaking the stubborn glebe for the seedtime of hope, and all there is to his hope is that when comes the harvest in the golden autumn his household in the little farmhouse yonder may face the coming of the always rigorous winter with sufficient fare, and perhaps a few scant, hard-earned dollars. The young plowman is following in the footsteps of his father before him, and his father’s father, through many generations of hard, wholesome, honest yet unremunerative toil. To the young man the attainment of wealth, and especially its sudden attainment, has been a dream with which to pass an evening by the fireside reading of Aladdin and his lamp or another tale as wonderful.
Picture now the young man lifting his head from his toil to answer the hailing shout of a neighbor who has come from the near-by village and is approaching the stony hillside,flaunting excitedly in his hand a newspaper fresh from the mail bag of the village postoffice. The plowman halts his team and wonderingly awaits his neighbor, who comes on apace, quite breathless with some visible and strong excitement. Soon the two men are standing face to face, the newspaper trembles in their hands, and now with heads together they read with glowing eyes the thrill of the announcement that gold has been discovered in far-away California.
Perhaps the furrow in that stony hillside field was neyer finished by the hand that began it in dull hope and apathy of spirits at the dawn of that springtime morning. Perhaps the team was left standing till fell the shades of night, as these two friends fed themselves to the full on the dream of that golden land that waited for their coming in a golden clime.
They thrilled with the thought that they might, in one thrilling adventure, cross the sunlit plains, or set forth by sea around the Horn, throw off their heritage of poverty and clothe themselves in the raiment of kings.
Not only to the stony hillside farms of New England, but to all the farms of the Atlantic seaboard, to the shops, the mills, the countinghouses and the schools of that region, and, farther still, to every region of the whole civilized world, spread the news of the discovery of gold in California in that memorable springtime of 1848. By every fireside and on every spot where men gathered together, from lip to lip was passed the tale that in the shining streams of the new Eldorado on the shores of the Sunset sea, gold dust and gold nuggets lay almost as plentiful as the sands themselves.
And the tale was true. Never before in history and never since was so much gold gathered in so short a time by so many men who were, the year before and all their lives before, the slaves of poverty, as was gathered by those who participated in the gold rush of 1849. These men came to be called “The Argonauts.” Like Jason, of old, they went in search of the golden fleece. And they found it. No such days as these were ever known before, nor shall the like of them be known again. Even though virgin gold-fields equal in wealth to the virgin gold-fields of California were to be discovered in these days or in days to come, the railroads, the telegraph, the ocean greyhounds, the automobile and not unlikely the airship, would rob the opportunity of the romance and glamor that cling to the “Days of Forty-nine” in California.
Moreover, if a discovery of this nature were to be made in these times, the wealth which the discovery represented would be seized upon by syndicates and other combinations of capital before the discovery was a week old. Poor men in large numbers had their great day in California during the years that followed the finding of the first gold nugget on the American River, in 1848. It is a day that is past and can not come again. No doubt many poor men will become rich men in times to be, but it will not happen in the way that it happened when the Argonauts sailed the sea and the transcontinental trails were thick with overland pioneers. With the passing of the people who made those days what they were, Romance has shot its brightest arrow and ends with a sigh the most fascinating tale it has ever told.
Almost in the very footsteps of the first Franciscan missionaries, American white men began to drift into California. It is certain, at least, that they made their appearance there soon after the Revolutionary war. But it is true that their numbers were very small during several generations. A New England trading schooner would now and then put into a California port to trade with the Missions and the Indians, and occasionally leave behind it an adventurous passenger or a sailor who had wearied of the sea. From across the great Rockies came also now and then a wanderer upon some vague quest, to find at last “The Land of Heart’s Desire.” So, in this way and that, there was quite a considerable number of American white men, as well as white men of other races than the Latin race, located in California in 1848.
It is a strange fact to contemplate, that the Spanish race, which was preeminently a race of gold-seekers, was in full and undisputed possession of California for a period of four-score years without making the discovery that it was the richest gold-bearing region that has ever been known on the face of the earth. In other words, the same people that had penetrated to the farthest recesses of South America in search of gold, which they took away with them to Spain by the shipload, and the same people that had wrung from the Incas of Peru and the Montezumas of Mexico untold treasures, possessed the hills and the valleys of a far richer country for more than three-quarters of a century without ever knowing that there lay shining at the bottom of the streams and locked in the bosom of the mountains of California a wealth of gold that was to make the wealth of the Aztecs appear paltry and insignificant. Even as the Bay of San Francisco was destined to be discovered by a landsman and not by a mariner, as would seem natural, so was it destined that gold in California was to be discovered, not by a Spaniard nor the son of a Spaniard who with his people before him had long occupied California, but by an American who was neither a prospector nor a miner, but an everyday working millwright.
It has been authenticated that gold had been discovered in California prior to 1848, but the discovery was unimportant and without results. It remained for James W. Marshall, a native of New Jersey and a Californian by choice and adoption, to make the discovery in January, 1848, which set the whole civilized world on fire with excitement. The historic spot was on the South Fork of the American River, where the present little town of Coloma, in El Dorado County, now stands. The spot is permanently marked by a magnificent, towering monument, capped by a lifelike, sculptured figure of Marshall, the discoverer.
The incidents which led up to Marshall’s presence at Coloma are interesting, as well as important. Marshall was a good timberman and well informed as to milling operations. Owing to his skill in these matters he found employment in California with Capt. John A. Sutter, a Swiss, but a naturalized citizen of the Republic of Mexico. Captain Sutter owned large land grants from the Mexican Government and he was a sterling man of great business capacity and enterprise. He built a fort which was located within the present municipality of Sacramento, the capital of California, a short distance from which he operated a flouring mill. He also engaged on an extensive scale in lumbering and agriculture, securing from his fields large harvests for his mill. The fort was for the protection of himself and family, his employes and the residents of the place generally, against the Indians. The Bear Flag war and the Mexican war considerably upset Sutter’s business, but in August, 1847, he nevertheless determined to make some expansion. With his keen foresight he saw that peace would inevitably arrive and that with it there would come a great many new people to California. To enlarge his business to meet the demands that he knew would be made upon it, he arranged for new operations.
Consequently, Sutter entered into a partnership with Marshall for a sawmill to be built on the South Fork of the American River. According to the agreement, Marshall was to select the site for the mill and to operate it for one-fourth of the lumber. The capital was furnished by Sutter and it was further agreed between the two men that if the war should end in favor of Mexico the whole ownership of the property was to divert to Sutter, because of his citizenship in the Mexican Republic; but if, on the contrary, the war were to end in favor of the United States, Marshall, as an American citizen, should be-come sole owner.
It appears that Marshall favored the location of the new mill on Butte Creek in the present County of Butte, but Samuel Kyburz, Sutter’s outside fore-man, prevailed upon his employer to locate the new enterprise at Coloma.
Marshall and Kyburz, accompanied by a German millwright named Gingery, and a few Indian laborers, began work at Coloma during the summer. With the approach of winter they had erected a double log cabin in which to live. To this cabin came Peter L. Wimmer, his wife and family. Wimmer was to work at the mill and Mrs. Wimmer was to cook for the men. Upon her arrival she found Marshall very ill and she immediately proceeded to nurse him back to health.
At the close of December, 1847, the mill was thought to be ready for operations, but a trial brought out the fact that the mill-wheel was not properly placed and the deepening of the tail-race became necessary. In order to accomplish this necessary greater depth, the Indians were directed to pick out the large rocks during the daytime; the water, which had been dammed, was released at night in order to sluice out the earth. During this process the first little handful of gold that awakened a whole world to an intense state of excitement was discovered in the now historic millrace at Coloma.
There is plenty of evidence to prove that James W. Marshall was a rather erratic man and that his memory for facts was not the best in the world. Many contradictory statements have been made regarding his discovery; Marshall even contradicting himself on several occasions. Fortunately, however, very sufficient, unassailable testimony exists to prove that Marshall is entitled to the honor which must remain his till the end of time.
Mrs. Jane Wimmer, the good woman who cooked for the men at the mill and who nursed Marshall back to life from his serious illness, made at one time an authoritative statement in regard to the discovery, the truth of which is not doubted.
“Work on the mill-race, dam and mill had been going on for about six months,” said Mrs. Wimmer, “when one morning along the last days of December, 1847, or the first week of January, 1848, the discoyery was made. Mr. Marshall and Mr. Wimmer went down to see what had been done while Mr. Marshall had been away at Southern ports. The water was entirely shut off from the tail-race, and as they walked along, talking and examining the work, just ahead of them on a little rough, muddy rock, lay something looking bright like gold. They both saw it, but Mr. Marshall was the first to pick it up, and as he looked at it, doubted its being gold.
“Our little son Martha was along with them, and Marshall gave it to him to bring up to me. He came in a hurry and said : `Here, mother, here’s something that Mr. Marshall and Pa found and they want you to put it in salaratus water and see if it will tarnish.’ I said, `This is gold, and I will throw it into my lye kettle (which I had just tried with a feather), and if it is gold, it will be gold when it comes out.’
“At the breakfast table one of the work hands raised his head from eating and said: `I heard some-thing about gold being discovered. What about ? Mr. Marshall told him to ask Jenny, and I told him it was in my soap kettle. Mr. Marshall said it was there if it had not gone back to California. A plank was brought to me to lay my soap onto, and I cut it into chunks, but it was not to be found. At the bottom of the kettle was a double handful of potash, which I lifted in my two hands, and there was my gold as bright as it could be. Mr. Marshall still con-tended that it was not gold, but whether he was afraid his men would leave him, or really thought so, I don’t know.”
Mrs. Wimmer was a Georgia woman and had seen gold mined in her native state, which accounts for her display of knowledge on the historic occasion of Marshall’s discovery.
On January 28, 1848, Marshall appeared at Sutter’s Fort and in an excited manner demanded a private audience with Captain Sutter. The audience was cheerfully and promptly granted and the account of what then transpired has been told in Sutter’s own words.
“Marshall asked me if the door was locked,” said Captain Sutter. “I said, `No, but I will lock it.’ He was a singular man and I took this to be some freak of his. I was not in the least afraid of him. I had no weapon. There was no gun in the room. I only supposed, as he was queer, that he took this queer way to tell me some secret.
“He first said to me : `Are we alone,’ I replied yes. `I want two bowls of water,’ said he. The bowls of water were brought. `Now, I want a stick of red-wood,’ said Marshall, `and some twine and some sheet copper.’ ” What do you want of these things, Marshall V said I. `I want to make some scales,’ he re-plied. `But I have scales enough in the apothecary’s shop,’ said I. l did not think of that,’ said Marshall. I went, myself, and got some scales.
“When I returned with the scales I shut the door, but did not lock it again. Then Marshall pulled out of his pocket a white cotton rag which contained something rolled up in it. Just as he was unfolding it to show me the contents, the door was opened by a clerk passing through who did not know that we were in the room. ‘There!’ exclaimed Marshall, `did I not tell you we had listeners?’ I appeased him, ordered the clerk to retire and watch the door.
“Then he brought out his mysterious secret again. Opening the cloth he held it before me in his hand. It contained what might have been about an ounce and a half of gold dust, flaky and in grains, the largest piece not quite as large as a pea, and from that down to less than a pinhead in size. `I believe this is gold,’ said Marshall, `but the people at the mill laughed at me and called me crazy.’ I carefully examined it and said to him : `Well, it looks so ; we will try it.’ Then I went down to the apothecary’s shop and got some aqua-fortis and applied it. The stuff stood the test.
“Marshall then asked me if I had any silver. I said yes, and produced a few dollars. Then we put an equal weight of gold in one side and silver in the other, and dropping the two in bowls of water, the gold went down and outweighed the silver under water. Then I brought out a volume of an old encyclopedia, a copy of which I happened to have, to see what other tests there were. Then I said to him : `I believe this is the finest kind of gold.’ ”
The fact that Captain Sutter kept a careful diary of events and that he was a man of great reliability of character render his account of Marshall’s visit entirely trustworthy. Sutter’s diary and those kept by Henry W. Bigler and Azariah Smith fix the date of Marshall’s discovery of gold at Coloma as having been January 24, 1848. Marshall remained over at the fort on the night of January 29, returning next day to Coloma. Upon his arrival at the mill, he exacted a promise from the Indians and the white men there that they would keep the discovery secret for a period of six weeks, until a new flour mill then under construction could be completed.
But, of course, the promise was not kept. The men at the mill could not restrain their excitement and eagerness, and immediately the great news fled down the ripples of the American River, taking California by the ears and spreading like wildfire into all the highways and byways of the world.
In the great rush for wealth which ensued and out of which, during the first short five years of its existence, $1,200,000,000 in California gold was flung into the coffers of the world, a natural curiosity will arise to learn what became of James Wilson Marshall, the Jerseyman who started it all going. It is a pathetic story.
Standing there with the wealth of the New Eldorado at his feet, and before the mighty hosts that were coming across land and sea to put eager hands upon it were able to arrive, Marshall’s opportunity to amass immeasurable wealth in an incredibly short space of time was greater than any man ever had before in the history of the world.
He made a good start by putting a number of white men and Indians at work for him digging out gold here and there, and paying him large tribute. Even when the creeks and benches were covered with miners, he still remained in possession of two legal claims which were alone sufficient to make him very wealthy. But, instead of attending to his own business, he took the queer notion in his head that nobody had a right to dig gold in California with-out his consent. So he went about from place to place interfering with all whom he met, until finally he lost everything he had except his old cabin at Coloma. Here in later years he planted yines and for a while conducted a successful vineyard, but his erratic habits again mastered him and, worse than all, he became an habitual inebriate. About the year 1870 he went on a lecturing tour from which he realized very handsome returns, all of which he squandered in drink and upon the human parasites who steadfastly fastened themselves upon him. From 1872 to 1876 he was in receipt of an appropriation from the state legislature sufficient to keep him in comfort. Ultimately this appropriation was cut off. In the later years of his life he became a common sot and a charge upon the charity of the community where he existed.
Like the salmon to its native waters, Marshall drifted back at last to the scene that made his name immortal. There in his squalid cabin, one day, they found him dead, lying fully dressed on his miserable couch, his hat pulled over his eyes. Thus died the man who had stood one fateful hour basking in the full sun of Fortune, a darling of the gods, with a golden world that was all his own spread around him.
It is astonishing with what rapidity the news of the discovery of gold in California spread to all quarters of the globe, especially when we consider the fact that the means for the dissemination of news in the year 1849 were really very crude and inefficient. But the fact remains that the word traveled practically everywhere in an astoundingly short space of time and that the effect of it all was to set in motion a migration which seems to be without parallel in history.
Not only was every available sailing vessel on the Atlantic seaboard of America chartered and overloaded with passengers headed for the gold fields, but the harbor of San Francisco soon beheld also within its portals ship after ship from every sea in all parts of the earth. And while it is true that the hosts which came were composed largely of Americans, the muddy streets and hillsides of the old Mission town of Yerba Buena were colorful with the Oriental stranger, the Celt, the Teuton, the yellow-haired Scandinavian and men of every race and clime.
Then ensued a wild, free-handed life that was with-out precedent to guide it and that, when it passed at last, vanished to return no more. The farmer boys of New England and of the Eastern states, the clerk, the lawyer and even the adventurous clergy-man, found themselves suddenly relieved from the staid provincial restriction which had hedged them in from birth. They had left their mothers, sisters and sweethearts behind them. Sunday came and the bell of the meeting-house no longer rang in their ears. The few women that the exodus had gathered with it were bedizened and painted and not the best company for unsophisticated villagers for the first time set free from a century of accumulated decency.
Yet it is to the great credit of these men that of themselves they soon established rude, but effective, law and order out of the chaos in which they found themselves. Without the authority of government to uphold them, they made it obligatory upon the thief to keep his hands hi his own pocket and the murderer to stay his bloody hands in fear and dread of the summary vengeance that was sure to be visited on him. These men, with the traditions of generations strong upon them, came soon to establish a code for the guidance of themselves and others which, while it left the gambler free to ply his avocation, still compelled him to deal square. And it came to pass that the miner in the “diggings” could leave his cabin unlocked by day or night, to find his store of gold dust untouched and safe upon his re-turn.
The San Francisco to which the Argonauts came through the Golden Gate in 1849 was a squalid and entirely unimportant place. The old Mission establishment, and the commercial and social life which clustered around it, was located some distance back from the shores of the Bay. The little Spanish village located where is now the business activity of San Francisco and where the ships put in to land their passengers was called Yerba Buena, meaning good herb, the name springing from an herb which grew in profusion there and which possessed certain medicinal qualities. Yerba Buena village was located on a small cove which has long since been filled up and occupied by the great Ferry Building and other structures. In 1849 Yerba Buena contained probably not more than fifty insignificant houses.
It will be seen from this that San Francisco in 1849 was in no way prepared to receive and care for an influx which numbered many thousands of people. – Fortunately, however, there came with the Argonaut the inevitable trader and merchant. The hillsides were soon covered magically with the tents of the wanderers, and new buildings sprang up like mushrooms. The butcher, the baker and the candlestickmaker had set up their thrones and were driving a trade that was phenomenal both for its volume and the measure of its profits. Candles sold at $3 apiece, salt pork at $1 per pound, ham at $2 per pound, flour $1 a pound, socks $3 per pair, and a white shirt for $20.
These were the prices at which the men bound for the mines, outfitting themselves and buying in bulk, could purchase things. The prices of food were even higher in the restaurants to customers sitting down at meals. An old bill of fare at one of these restaurants shows that a plate of soup cost $1. A piece of pork with apple sauce, $1.25 ; California eggs, $1 each ; curlew roast, or boiled to order, $3 ; one sweet potato, 50 cents; a piece of mince pie, 75 cents; a rum omelette, $2, and so on, showing that a man could get most anything to eat if he had the money to pay for it. It frequently happened that a tenderfoot landing from the ship with his last five-dollar bill in his pocket, went into one of these restaurants and ate a hearty meal on the theory that it would cost him about the same that he would pay at home, only to find that he had squandered his last cent on the first meal he ate in the new Eldorado.
Everything was hurly-burly and chaos in San Francisco in those early days of 1849 and, indeed, throughout the first few years of the great rush. One of the first men to sail around the Horn with the Argonauts afterward wrote vividly of his recollections of those days, in the manner of many other Argonauts. He tells of one of the sights which particularly attracted his attention on his arrival in San Francisco.
“‘There was,” said he, “a newly constructed side-walk, commencing at the building at that time occupied by Simmons, Hutchinson & Co., and extending in the direction of Adams & Company’s express office for a distance of about seventy-five yards, I think. In any other portion of the earth except California, this sidewalk would have been considered a very extravagant piece of work, hardly excelled by the gold-en pavements of the New Jerusalem. The first portion of the walk was constructed of Chilean flour in one hundred pound sacks, and which in one place had been pressed down nearly out of sight in the soft mud. Then followed a long row of large cooking stoves over which it was necessary to carefully pick your way, as some of the covers had accidentally been thrown off. Beyond these again, and which completed the walk, was a double row of boxes of tobacco of large size. Although this style of walk may seem very extravagant, even to an old pioneer, yet at that time sacks of Chilean flour, cooking stoves, tobacco and pianos were the cheapest materials to be found, for lumber was in the greatest demand, selling in some instances at $600 per thousand, whilst the former articles, in consequence of the great sup-ply, were of little value.”
But it was not to live that wild life in San Francisco that the Argonauts and those who had survived the terrible journey across the plains over trackless wastes and encounters with savage peoples, had come. The “diggings” were further on among the valleys and along the streams of the great hills which beckoned in the distance. The goldseekers remained in San Francisco only long enough to more fully equip themselves for the task before them, and this out-fitting they performed in feverish haste. They leaped from the decks of the ships to the shores of the cove of Yerba Buena and were followed in almost every instance by the ship’s crew, boatswain and mate, captain and all, till the great harbor was filled with abandoned and deserted vessels which the hard-pushed merchants afterwards lashed to the shore, using them as warehouses for the goods and supplies which they were selling hand over hand to the embryo miners.
It seemed that the news of the discovery of gold in California carried with it some information as “to the lay of the land.” As a consequence, the Argonauts who came around the Horn had prepared themselves to a certain extent to meet the conditions they were to face. They brought picks and shovels and other tools as well as blankets in which to sleep, and suitable clothes to wear. They were also informed that in order to reach the “diggings” from San Francisco, their best route was by the river to Sacramento. Not a few managed to bring with them material sufficient to build small boats, rafts or scows. Others who had not thus prepared themselves, managed to secure passage on the boats which plied a regular trade up and down the river; or else they made the journey on mule or horseback, with burro or some other land conveyance. If all else failed they could walk. Sacramento was the distributing point for the mines where everybody gathered prior to spreading out into the mountains and along the creeks in search of fortune. The pioneers who crossed the plains came, of course, from an opposite direction from that taken by the Argonauts, till it came to pass that these two great migratory tides met under the shadows of the great Sierras and their minarets of snow in the Land of Gold.
The first rush was, naturally, for Coloma, where Marshall had found the first nugget. This was a stampede of Californians who heard the great news before it had drifted beyond the mountain peaks and across the seas to the outer world. But with the arrival of the Argonauts and the pioneers the same year the whole section of the country which is now the counties of Calaveras, Nevada, El Dorado, Tuolumne, Trinity, Amador, and some other northern California counties, was covered with gold-seekers whose rewards were beyond the dreams of avarice. Such famous camps as Hangtown, Poverty Flat, Columbia Bar, Kelsey, Jacksonville, Pilot Hill and others sprang into existence. Grass Valley, Nevada City and Placerville (“Hangtown”) became important communities, while Sacramento remained the great distributing center and San Francisco the metropolis and the great port to which came the eager ships and from which they sailed with spoils to the old homes far away, where waited anxious and eager hearts for the wanderers’ return.
How intense the excitement was and how eagerly men responded to the call of California in 1848 are eloquently demonstrated by the fact that six months after Marshall’s discovery there were four thousand miners at work hunting for gold on the Sacramento, the San Joaquin, the American and Feather Rivers and all their branches. The rude log cabins and the little camps of the miners were flung under the snow peaks of the Sierra Nevada from the upper waters of the Feather River southward for a distance of four hundred miles. And day after day, week after week and month after month, every vessel that entered the Golden Gate brought hundreds upon hundreds of new gold-seekers, while the now beaten trails of plain and desert were vibrant with endless caravans. The population at the beginning of 1848 was not more than 150,000 souls, all told, but the influx of newcomers was so large within the next two years that California had grown sufficiently peopled to be entitled to take her place in the sisterhood of the states.
The mind can easily picture the frenzy of excitement with which the Argonauts were seized as they came into the realization of actual success. The man from the stony New England hillside farm, heir to generations of grinding and unremunerative toil, and all those who had come from lives of little things everywhere on earth were now swarming over the creeks, ravines and gulches of California like an army of ants, overturning boulders and shoveling up the sand in their endless quest for the shining dust and yellow nuggets which meant sudden and almost unbelievable fortune. Let any man of the present day who toils and strives incessantly throughout a lifetime to amass, as best he may in the fierce and bitter struggle of life, the merest competency, imagine himself as coming suddenly in some wild and out of the way place where by overturning a boulder or stemming the tide of the waters, he secures between daylight and sundown of that one day alone an independent fortune, and he can best understand by this exercise of his imagination what were the feelings of the first gold-diggers in California. The picture can be no better portrayed than by quoting one of the old Argonauts who thus describes his own feelings when he made his first “strike.”
“I shall never forget,” says he, “the delight with which I first struck and worked out a crevice. It was the second day after our installation in our little log hut: the first having been employed in what is called `prospecting’ or searching for the most favor-able place in which to commence operations. I had slung pick, shovel and bar on my shoulder and trudged merrily away to a ravine about a mile from our house. Pick, shovel and bar did their duty, and I soon had a large rock in view. Getting down into the excavation I had made and seating myself upon the rock I commenced a careful search for a crevice and at last found one, extending longitudinally along the rock. It appeared to be filled with a hard, bluish clay and gravel, which I took out with my knife ; and there at the bottom, strewn along the whole length of the rock, was bright, yellow gold, in little pieces about the size and shape of a grain of barley. Eureka ! Oh, how my heart beat ! I sat still and looked at it some minutes before I touched it, greedily drinking in the pleasure of gazing upon gold that was in my very grasp and feeling a sort of independent bravado in allowing it to remain there. When my eyes were sufficiently feasted, I scooped it out with the point of my knife and an iron spoon, and, placing it in my pan, ran home with it much delighted. I weighed it and found that my first day’s labor in the mines had made me thirty-one dollars richer than I was in the morning.”
But such were the opportunities at hand and that were to follow that no doubt this same prospector afterward saw the time that thirty-one dollars as the result of one day’s work looked very small to him.
As will be seen from the above statement, the first gold-seekers washed out the gold dust by means of the “pan.” This was to catch the finer particles of gold, or “dust,” as it was called. The larger particles or nuggets were, of course, picked up without resorting to this process. “Panning” consisted of using with a sort of circular motion, under water, a sheet-iron dish, shallow and with sloping sides, filled with earth. The motion of the pan washed the lighter earth over the edges, while the gold, of greater specific gravity, became precipitated at the bottom. It was on account of this very crude and primitive process that the saying came about that this claim or the other, would “pan out” so much or so little, and if a man told another that he was working a certain claim in a certain district he would usually be asked the question : “How does it pan out?” meaning to ask whether it was a rich claim or not.
In line with this we come across the order of an-other world-wide saying, namely, “How much can you raise in a pinch ‘” In the days of ’49 and after-ward, when the placer mine was in its glory in California, debts were discharged in gold dust instead of the coin of the realm, and it often happened that when a man was paying a small grocery bill, or more particularly when he was buying a drink of liquor at a bar, the attendant who was delivering the goods would not take the trouble to weigh the dust, but would, instead, insert his thumb and forefinger in the miner’s buckskin bag and lift a pinch of gold dust. So it came to pass that if a man were applying for a position as bartender, his ability would be tested by the proprietor of a place asking the applicant, “How much can you raise in a pinch?” The more he could raise, of course, the more valuable he would become as an employee.
Of course it was not to be supposed that ingenius Americans would long be satisfied with so crude a contrivance as the pan. It was not long before the “rocker” made its appearance, a contrivance that consisted of a wooden box or trough, something like a child’s cradle, open at the lower end. At the upper end was a hopper, or sieve, or perhaps a piece of rawhide in which holes were perforated. Little strips of wood were nailed across the wooden bottom of the rocker about a foot apart, the gold-bearing earth or sand was shoveled into the hopper and, while water was poured on it, the contrivance was rocked like a cradle. As the dirt and gold dust percolated through the sieve at the head of the cradle and flowed out the other end, the little wooden cleats caught the gold while the water carried the lighter earth away with it. Still later “sluicing” came into play on a large scale, the earth being moved hydraulically, and mercury was employed to take up the gold in the form of amalgam.
In a wide open country such as California was in 1849, and into which thousands of all sorts and conditions of men were rushing from the four corners of the earth in frenzied hunger for gold, the wonder is that the strong did not totally overpower the weak and that any man, single-handed and alone, was able to maintain his rights and the possession of his property and the fruits of his labor against a superior force which might desire to supersede him on the ground which he held and even go so far as to take his life in case of the slightest show of resistance on his part. It is to be remembered, however, that among the hordes of gold-seekers the dominant force was that of American men, born and reared in an atmosphere of law and order and decency in distant portions of the continent. These men soon placed themselves in touch with one another, called public meetings and formed mining laws and other laws to govern themselves and the alien as well. They also created a crude but effective code of punishment for crime. The thief was flogged in public and murderers and horse-thieves were hanged to trees. The size of a mining claim was fixed to average sixty by one hundred feet and every man locating ground was obliged to stake it out and regularly have the claim numbered and registered. He was then as fully protected as though the regular army of the United States were at his back, no matter how weak he might be physically, or how unable in any other way to create his own protection. One of the pioneers of ’49, who afterwards returned to his old home and became Governor of the State of Illinois, wrote as follows concerning law and order in California in the “Days of Forty-nine”:
“There was very little law, but a large amount of good order ; no churches, but a great deal of religion ; no politics but a large number of politicians ; no offices, and, strange to say for my countrymen, no office-seekers. Crime was rare, for punishment was certain. I was present one afternoon, just outside the city limits (Nevada City) and saw with painful satisfaction, as I now remember, Charley Williams whack three of our fellow citizens over the bare back twenty-one to forty strokes for stealing a neighbor’s money. The multitude of disinterested spectators had conducted the court. My recollection is that there were no attorney’s fees or court’s charges. I think I never saw justice administered with so little loss of time or at less expense.”
While it is true that large numbers of the Argonauts were disappointed and failed to make their fortunes, the fact remains that there was no excuse for any man who was in the goldfields of California at any time from 1848 to 1851 not to have made money in some way or other. A great many who did make it, squandered it and afterwards were as poor as when they began. All too many of them were rolling stones that gathered no moss. They would settle down upon a claim which, though not extremely rich, would have paid them well for the working, yet as soon as a tale of some richer find reached their ears, they would abandon the ground to go in search of vaster and more sudden returns. In this manner thousands of men wasted their opportunities. Many more to whom the chance of fortune at mining did not come could have amassed sure and very handsome competencies at other occupations, even by working as hired laborers for those who were successfully prosecuting claims, wages at the time being very high. Hundreds of these men returned to their eastern homes no better off than when they left them, while others of the army of the unsuccessful remained to grow up into gray “old-timers,” trading on their memories of the great days for a shelter at night, a bite to eat and a little something to warm them on the inside.
But it still remains true that never in all the history of the world, since the world began, were so many absolutely poor men made opulently rich in such an incredibly short space of time. Instances to prove this statement are endless. One day a miner picked up a nugget at Kelsey which he sold for $4700. Not far away from the same spot a nugget worth $5236 was found; another worth $5000 was discovered near by, and it is well authenticated that a nugget worth $9500 was found near Knapp’s ranch in El Dorado county. Aside from these “lucky finds,” and taking the record only of what was produced in the legitimate operations of the placers, there is still left a record so opulent in its results that it fairly staggers the imagination. There is instance after instance of a production of $5000 a day made with a single rocker. Nine acres of ground at Coon Hollow yielded $9,000,000 in gold, or a million dollars to the acre. There were a great many large areas of land which equaled this yield and a large number of smaller areas which exceeded it. In 1848, the year of Marshall’s discovery, the California gold fields added $5,000,000 to the gold supply of the world. This amount was increased the next year and each succeeding year until, at its climax in 1853, the record for the twelve months was $65,000,000, making a total of $1,200,000,000 for the five years succeeding the discovery.
In the midst of this widespread and unprecedented prosperity, and taking into consideration the fact that human nature has been the same at all times and in all places, it is not to be wondered at that throughout the gold diggings many bad characters were in evidence and that many crimes were committed. Even to this day the crumbling skeleton of some lost miner who met a foul death is found in those old hills and in lonely ravines.
While Sacramento and Stockton grew into importance as distributing centers, and while Nevada City, Grass Valley, Placerville and other camps assumed the proportion of settled towns and villages, San Francisco naturally took its place as the metropolis of California. It was invariably referred to as “The City,” a reference which still applies to it in all the section of northern California. As in the case of all cities, it became the rendezvous of toughs and thieves and murderersmen who preferred to lead dishonest lives when it would have profited them more to have been honest and industrious. As the diggings became the lodestone of the fortune-hunters of the world, San Francisco became the mecca of the parasites who went thither to fasten themselves upon the industry of others in order that they might profit thereby without exerting themselves. Blacklegs, thugs, gamblers, thieves and cutthroats of every description foregathered within the portals of the Golden Gate and banded themselves together for strategy and spoils. Vagabonds from the States, out-casts and outlaws from Australia, escaped felons from the British Isles were there, soon finding one another out and organizing themselves as well for mutual protection as for the prosecution of their nefarious aspirations.
These unclean vultures and vampires in human form became at once successful in the new El Dorado and at length grew so emboldened that they formed an organization of their own which bore the entirely appropriate title of “The Hounds.” The organization directed its efforts in the beginning mainly to-wards the looting of foreigners from the South American countries and the native Mexican population of California. The women who cohabited with them, and who were their partners in crime, plied their trade of prostitution in order that they might the more successfully render assistance. The new city, busy by day and night with the business of money-making, gave little time to civic organizations and thus the better element of its citizenship “stood” for the crimes committed by “The Hounds” without murmuring to any great extent and continued to do so until the outlaws, in their vast impertinence, began to attack, to rob and to murder Americans.
On the fifteenth day of July, 1849, a large band of “The Hounds” returned to San Francisco from a marauding expedition in the hills of Contra Costa. They paraded the streets of the city in military order, armed with firearms and heavy sticks, their leader dressed in a showy uniform, marching at their head.
As they approached a quarter of the town in which were encamped in tents a large party of Chileans, “The Hounds” savagely attacked the settlement, robbed the inmates of everything of value that was in their possession and tore down and destroyed the tents over their heads. Then as a fitting climax to the dastardly outrage, they opened fire with their guns and pistols, shooting down and murdering in cold blood, men, women and children, indiscriminately. This awful outrage was committed in broad daylight. “The Hounds” made no attempt to even cover their tracks but swaggered vauntingly through the streets in the most insulting and threatening manner imaginable.
This latest, most cowardly and bloody outrage of “The Hounds,” threw San Francisco into a state of great excitement. The leading business men, lawyers and other substantial citizens among the American population waited upon the Alcalde or Mayor, and urged him to take steps to put an end to these deplorable conditions. The Alcalde took prompt action by issuing a proclamation in which it was commanded that the people of the city were to report forthwith in Portsmouth Square, at which point the whole population seems to have gathered within a few hours in response to the command. The meeting was duly organized and one of the leading citizens addressed the people in no uncertain words. At the suggestion of some one a fund for the relief of the Chileans was at once organized. Next came the organization of a police force. Two hundred and thirty men among those present enrolled themselves as con-stables, with one man in general command and ten others accepting appointments as captains. A hard-ware firm of the town furnished the volunteers with muskets and on that same afternoon twenty of “The Hounds” were arrested and placed under custody on a United States warship then lying in the harbor, there being no other safe place in which to hold them. The leader of “The Hounds,” who had fled the city, was apprehended and arrested on the way to Stockton.
The people then organized their own court of justice and proceeded to try the offenders with due formality of law. There were many men of fine legal attainments then in San Francisco who had abandoned the practice of their profession in the States to join the great rush for gold. Several of these men were appointed to prosecute the criminals on behalf of the people and others were appointed to defend them. The trials were conducted with the strictest regard to legal procedure and in due course of time a regularly organized jury brought in its verdict. “The Hounds” under arrest were sentenced to terms of imprisonment and subjected to fines. They were later sent to such prisons as were available in California at the time under Mexican rule, but they were soon afterwards released, and many other sentences that were imposed were never carried out, but the organization of “The Hounds” was effectively and completely broken up.
For a time following these trials something like law and order held sway in San Francisco, but towards the close of 1849 and a year later, also, there were tremendous influxes of immigration, carrying with them, of course, their quotas of cutthroats, murderers and general all-around bad men. For a couple of years, then, San Francisco again became a very undesirable place of residence. The same state of affairs existed in Sacramento, Stockton and other communities. Murder, arson . and robbery became most terribly common. The organization that had broken up “The Hounds” no longer existed and no other organization had come to take its place. Now and then feeble attempts were made to punish of-fenders by law, but the criminals invariably escaped. Although murder after murder had been committed not a single execution was reported. For the fifth time San Francisco was burned down at the hands of incendiaries. Stockton and Nevada City had also suffered in like manner. Things went from bad to worse until at length a condition of affairs existed which could no longer be endured.
In June, 1851, to meet this frightful situation, there was organized in San Francisco the world-famed “Vigilance Committee.”
Into this organization, which was born of dire need, the best men of San Francisco entered with alacrity. They met in secret and their operations were con-ducted in secret. They bound themselves by oath to restore law and order to a stricken city. A room was selected for their meeting-place in which it was agreed that one or more of their members should be in constant attendance day and night to receive the report of any member of the association or any other person or persons whatsoever, of any acts of violence done to the person or property of any citizen of San Francisco. They further bound themselves that if in the judgment of the member of the committee present, the acts reported justified the interference of the committee or the prompt and summary punishment of the offender, the whole committee was at once to be assembled for the purpose of taking such action as the majority determined upon.
The signal agreed upon to call the Vigilantes together was two strokes made upon a bell, which was repeated with a pause .of one minute between each alarm. A full board of officers was elected with a sergeant-at-arms who kept his constant residence in the committee room. There was a standing commit-tee of finance and a committee of five on qualifications of members to the end that none but respectable citizens should become members of the “Vigilantes.”
This wonderful organization, which has been the recipient alike of both the highest praise and the strongest condemnation for its acts, soon found plenty of work to do. In June, 1851, a man named John Jenkins entered a store on Long Wharf and stole a safe with which he put out upon the bay in a boat. He was promptly caught and tried and at midnight the bell of the Vigilance Committee on the California engine house was tolled. In a few moments afterwards, before the assembled populace, Jenkins was taken from confinement and promptly hanged. Later on all the members of the Vigilance Committee boldly published a defense of their action in hanging Jenkins, each member affixing his full and proper name to the statement. The coroner’s jury implicated the leading Vigilantes in their verdict of the inquest but no action was taken against them. While they had no authority of law, they were the leading men of the community and there could be no dispute about the fact that if they did not restore law and order to San Francisco, there was no one else to do it.
From that time on, the Vigilance Committee assumed authority in San Francisco and ruled with an iron hand for the city’s good. Thieves and murderers, one after another, were promptly hanged, imprisoned or driven from the country. In Sacramento, Stockton, San Jose and other towns, similar Committees of Vigilance were organized and acted with the same grim determination. The result was that California again became a safe place in which to live, with the rights of every man fully restored. The year 1851 was the year which marked the greatest activity of the Vigilantes and, in the light of history, the men who formed the organization stand entirely justified. They were, themselves, men of the highest integrity and morality, and the service they performed was to them not a pleasant but a necessary duty.
Long years after the golden days had faded and their memories lingered only in the hearts of men grown gray, the stirring events of “The days of ’49″ were themes for camp-fire stories and for Old Pioneer re-unions. The following verses, which were sung in the mining camps and the “diggings” long before they appeared in print, are perpetuated in these days by the Californian society known as “The Native Sons of the Golden West,” the members of which have officially adopted the poem as the song of their organization :
We have worked our claims, We have spent our gold Our barks are astrand on the bars; We are battered and old, Yet at night we behold Outcroppings of gold in the stars.
Tho’ battered and old, Our hearts are bold, Yet oft do we repine For the days of old, For the days of gold, For the days of ‘Forty-nine.
Where the rabbits play, Where the quail all day Pipe on the chaparral hill; A few more days, And the last of us lays His pick aside and all is still.
We are wreck and stray, We are cast away, Poor battered old hulks and spars; But we hope and pray, On the Judgment Day, We shall strike it up to the stars.
After each stanza of the song, the chorus is repeated. The words make an eloquent and a true picture. There will be such days no more on this earthor, perhaps, such men. Doubtless there will be a little corner of the New Jerusalem set aside especially for the Argonauts who made California wonderful in the days of ’49.