“One morning in January —it was a clear, cold morning; I shall never forget that morning—as I was taking my usual walk along the race after shutting off the water, my eye was caught with the glimpse of something shining in the bottom of the ditch. There was about a foot of water running then. I reached my hand down and picked it up; it made my heart thump, for I was certain it was gold.”
.....James W. Marshall
Although Marshall’s discovery of gold on the South Fork of the
American River has been called
“the most momentous event in all of California History,” it was not the
first such discovery in
California. Some historians maintain that as early as 1812, native
Californians were working
placer deposits near the Spanish mission of San Fernando. The first
verifiable discovery of gold
in California; however, occurred in 1842 when Don Francisco Lopez
discovered the precious metal
at Placeritas Canyon in the San Fernando Valley, about forty miles
northwest of Los Angeles.
GOLD MINE FOUND: “In the newly made raceway of the Saw Mill recently erected by Captain Sutter, on the American Fork, gold has been found in considerable quantities. One person brought thirty dollars worth to New Helvetia, gathered there in a short time. California, no doubt, is rich in mineral wealth, great chances here for scientific capitalists. Gold has been found in almost every part of the country.”This announcement alone didn’t seem to have much effect on the population of San Francisco. What did get their attention was Sam Brannan arriving in town a few weeks later, waving a quinine bottle full of gold in the air, and shouting, “Gold! Gold! Gold from the American River!” He was quickly surrounded as people rushed to see the gold and hear the news. Gold fever struck and within days the city was nearly empty. Mr. Buckelew, publisher of the Californian, suspended publication on May 29 as there were no readers left in town. In his last, curtailed issue he states: “The majority of our subscribers and many of our advertisers have closed their doors and places of business and left town....The whole country, from San Francisco to Los Angeles and from the seashore to the Sierra Nevada, resounds with the sordid cry of ‘gold! Gold!! GOLD!!!’ while the field is left half planted, the house half built, and everything neglected but the manufacture of shovels and pickaxes.” Mr. Buckelew thence went upon the mountain to have a look around for his own prospecting self.
The news reached Monterey on May 29. The Alcalde, Reverend Walter Colton, made note of it in his California Diary, “Our town was startled out of its quiet dreams to-day, by the announcement that gold had been discovered on the American Fork. The men wondered and talked, and the women too; but neither believed. The sibyls were less skeptical; they said the moon had, for several nights, appeared not more than a cable’s length from the earth; that a white raven had been seen playing with an infant; and that an owl had rung the church bells.” Colton dispatched a messenger to the mines to determine for himself and the people of Monterey if the astounding reports were true. And on June 20, the messenger returned.
“He dismounted in a sea of upturned faces. As he drew forth the yellow lumps from his pockets, and passed them around among the eager crowd, the doubts, which had lingered till now, fled. All admitted they were gold, except one old man, who still persisted they were some Yankee invention, got up to reconcile the people to the change of flag. The excitement produced was intense; and many were soon busy in their hasty preparations for a departure to the mines....The blacksmith dropped his hammer, the carpenter his plane, the mason his trowel, the farmer his sickle, the baker his loaf, and the tapster his bottle. All were off for the mines, some on horses, some on carts, and some on crutches, and one went in a litter.”
By early July the news had made it to the Sandwich Islands (Hawaii), and from there trading ships carried the word to Oregon. Settlers in the Willamette Valley, some just recently arrived from the States, began pulling up stakes and making preparations for the long trek south to the mines.
Military Governor Colonel Richard Mason and his chief of staff, Lieutenant William T. Sherman, arrived at the Mormon Island diggings on the 5th of July. On a mission to prepare a report on the placer mines for the War Department, the officers had come up from Monterey via San Francisco and Sonoma. Along their route they found everything abandoned. Mills were idle, crops left untended, houses empty. The mines were another story. At the Mormon Island diggings they found two hundred men working with pans and rockers, standing knee deep in icy water under the blistering summer sun. The next day Mason moved upstream to Coloma where he examined the various tributaries and innumerable gullies and ravines which, combined with the Mormon Island mines, were yielding an estimated $30,000 to $50,000 per day, to approximately four thousand miners, two thousand of whom were Indians. Before leaving the mines to return to Monterey, Mason purchased several specimens of gold to supplement the report he would later send to Washington.
On July 18, Los Angeles received its first word of the discovery. To the soldiers stationed there, the lure of gold proved to be an irresistible temptation, and many men deserted their posts to race northwards for the mines. “Laboring men at the mines can now earn in one day more than double a soldier’s pay and allowances for a month,” Mason stated in his report. Army records show that 716 enlisted men deserted between July 1 of 1848 and December 31 of 1849.
News of the discovery reached “The States” by the end of July. On August 8, a St. Louis newspaper reported from an article brought overland from San Francisco, that gold was being “collected at random and without any trouble” on the American River. Soon other major newspapers were printing similar letters and reports from “the gold regions.” While these first few reports may have been enough to start a few adventurous spirits westward towards the gold mines, it’s likely that most potential gold-seekers needed more tangible evidence to justify the dangers and expenses of the long journey to California. They would bide their time and await further developments.
While the States were watching and waiting for some kind of official confirmation to this California madness, back in the mines news of bigger and greater strikes seemed to surface every day, sending the growing population on a thorough search of the countryside. There wasn’t a river, creek or tiny stream that wasn’t prospected. Miners were everywhere. Gold was everywhere. Colton writes on August 16, “Four citizens of Monterey are just in from the gold mines on Feather River, where they worked in company with three others. They employed about thirty wild Indians, who are attached to the rancho owned by one of the party. They worked precisely seven weeks and three days, and have divided seventy-six thousand, eight hundred and forty-four dollars, nearly eleven thousand dollars each. Make a dot there, and let me introduce a man, well known to me, who has worked on the Yuba river sixty-four days, and brought back, as the result of his individual labor, five thousand three hundred and fifty-six dollars. Make a dot there, and let me introduce a boy, fourteen years of age, who has worked on the Mokelumne fifty-four days and brought back three thousand, four hundred and sixty-seven dollars.”
On August 17, Colonel Mason’s report of his visit to the mines was ready to be delivered to Washington. Mason selected Lieutenant Lucien Loeser to deliver the report and a Chinese tea caddy that contained slightly more than 230 ounces of California gold. Loeser arrived at New Orleans on November 23, whereupon he immediately telegraphed the War Department of his arrival and then set out for Washington.
After reviewing Mason’s report and examining the dramatic evidence that accompanied it, President Polk was prepared to speak with authority on the question of gold in California. On December 5, in his final address to Congress, Polk put the matter to rest: “The accounts of the abundance of gold in that territory are of such an extraordinary character as would scarcely command belief were they not corroborated by the authentic reports of officers in the public service...”
The newspapers reported the President’s words and added to the growing excitement by citing reports of immense gold nuggets and rich paying claims. Letters home from the mines were reprinted which told how easy it was to find gold in California. On December 6, the Hartford Daily Courant wrote, “The California gold fever is approaching its crisis....By a sudden and accidental discovery, the ground is represented to be one vast gold mine. Gold is picked up in pure lumps, twenty-four carats fine. Soldiers are deserting their ranks, sailors their ships, and everybody their employment, to speed to the region of the gold mines.”
The President’s confirmation of the richness of the gold fields and the wild, imaginative reporting of the newspapers combined to banish any remaining skepticism concerning the gold mines. Now it was time to go. Companies and associations were formed, businesses were closed, men said good-bye to their families. Setting sail or breaking trail, it didn’t matter how you traveled or when you arrived since there was gold enough for everyone. The Gold Rush was on!
With the northern Sierra passes snowed in, no one could reach the mines that way in winter. Therefore, the first few gold seekers began to trickle into California via the Santa Fe Trail, making their way across the southern deserts and up through the small town of Los Angeles, thence northwards to the mines. But something special was waiting for those who had chosen the sea route. On February 28 of 1849, the Steamship California passed through the Golden Gate with a shipload of argonauts, and was greeted by a thunderous salute from Commodore Jones and his Pacific Naval Squadron which was anchored in the Bay. They were the first 49’ers to arrive in California. And before the year was out, they would be joined by better than one hundred thousand other gold seekers, all in search of their own private El Dorado.
The gold that Marshall discovered, some six or eight miles west of the actual Mother Lode, was placer gold, eroded from the lode and washed down the watercourse of the South Fork of the American River. It was rich placers like these scattered throughout the Gold Country which first attracted the 49’ers, giving rise to literally thousands of mining camps during the first two decades of the Gold Rush.
Prentice Mulford, one of the best narrators of the Gold Rush wrote: “The California mining camp was ephemeral. Often it was founded, built up, flourished, decayed, and had weeds and herbage growing over its site and hiding all of man’s work inside of ten years.” Once the gold played out, there was no reason for anyone to stay, and the buildings and camps were left to the elements and the stray ghost or two. But if a mining camp chanced to be located on rich gold deposits, or had some reason other than gold to exist, perhaps being a supply center, or located at an important crossroads or river crossing, it may have been able to maintain a continuous existence and have survived to this day.
There was one thing that all the mining camps had in common, whether they lasted a month, five years, or to the present day. And that was people. The people who discovered, settled, and built the mining camps of the Gold Rush. They were of the same breed, tough and resourceful, pioneers in a new land. They brought the attention of the world to a place called California.
This is their story, the saga of those early prospectors and miners, the storekeepers and innkeepers, the tradesmen, the bankers, the doctors, the lawyers, the express agents, the teachers, the preachers, the printers, the lawmen and the badmen, and all the others who made their mark during the Gold Rush by what they did and what they built. And while we can only read about their deeds, we can still see some of what they built. For even though the years have taken their toll on the buildings, mines, and camps of the Gold Rush, there are still many sites, buildings and places of historical interest to be seen today, if you know where and how to look for them.
Of the thousands of mining camps which arose during the years of the Gold Rush, the greater number have long since disappeared, often without a trace. We know their names today, names such as Hell-out-for-Noon City, Slumgullion, Delirium Tremens, Bogus Thunder, Graveyard, Mugfuzzle Flat, Hell’s Delight, only as memories from the pages of old diaries and newspapers, and the maps drawn during those years. However, the mining camps you will soon be reading about (should you click in the right spot) are places that exist today, places with items of historic or esoteric interest demanding your presence. It may be a pile of rusty old mining machinery, an unrecognizable ruin, a building from the 1850’s, or a simple stone monument. Regardless, each has its story and must be visited soon, before they disappear, for the world is moving on.
The best route for visiting the mining camps of the Gold Country is via State Highway 49, officially named the “Mother Lode Highway” by the State Legislature in 1921. From Oakhurst in the south to Sierra City in the north, Hwy 49 crosses eleven counties, traveling through some of the most beautiful and historic areas of the state, including La Veta Madre, California’s Mother Lode.
As the mining camps, towns, and sites described herein generally surround Hwy 49 on its route north, so are they arranged here. Imagine this, if you will, sitting in front of your svga monitor. You are in an automobile, in Oakhurst, Cal., heading north along Hwy 49. After a short, half-hour drive through several small communities and some fine stands of tall timber, you arrive in Mariposa, thus beginning your virtual tour of the California Gold Country. And as you continue your “drive” north, I’ll provide a brief history of the mining camps you’ll encounter, along with pictures of historic sites and structures located in each town. To begin your tour, click on The Mining Camps.