The First Official Report of the Discovery of Gold in California

The First Official Report of the Discovery of Gold in California Made by Colonel R.B. Mason, U.S.A., to Headquarters, Washington, D.C., August 1, 1848.

I have the honor to inform you that accompanied by Lieutenant W.T. Sherman, Third Artillery, acting assistant adjutant-general, I started on the 12th of June last to make a tour through the northern part of California. My principal purpose was to visit the newly discovered gold placer in the valley of the Sacramento.
We reached San Francisco on the 20th, and found that all, or nearly all, its male population had gone to the mines. The town, which a few months before was so busy and thriving, was then almost deserted. On the evening of the 24th the horses of the escort were crossed to Sausalito in a launch, and on the following day we resumed the journey, by way of Bodega and Sonoma, to Sutter’s Fort, where we arrived on the morning of July 2. Along the whole route mills were lying idle, fields of wheat were open to cattle and horses, houses vacant and farms going to waste. At Sutter’s there was more life and business. Launches were discharging their cargoes at the river and carts were hauling goods to the fort, where already were established several stores, a hotel, etc. Captain Sutter had only two mechanics in the employ—a wagon-maker and a blacksmith, whom he was then paying $10 per day. Merchants pay him a monthly rent of $100 per room, and while I was there a two-story house in the fort was rented as a hotel for $500 a month.
I proceeded twenty-five miles up the American fork to a point on it now known as the lower mines, or Mormon diggings. The hillsides were thickly strewn with canvas tents and bush arbors. A store was erected, and several boarding shanties in operation. The day was intensely hot; yet about 200 men were at work in the full glare of the sun, washing for gold, some with tin pans, some with close-woven Indian baskets, but the greater part had a rude machine known as a cradle. This is on rockers six or eight feet long, open at the foot, and at its head has a coarse grate and sieve; the bottom is rounded, with small cleats nailed across. Four men are required to work this machine. One digs the gravel in the bank close by the stream, another carries it to the cradle and empties it on the grate, a third gives a violent rocking motion to the machine, while the fourth dashes on water from the stream. The sieve keeps the coarse stones from entering the cradle, the current of the water washes off the earthy matter and the gravel is gradually carried out at the foot of the machine, leaving the gold mixed with a fine heavy black sand above the first cleats. The sand and gold mixed together are then drawn off through auger holes into a pan below, and dried in the sun and afterward separated by blowing off the sand.
A party of four men thus employed at the lower mines averaged $100 a day. The Indians and those who have nothing but pans or willow baskets gradually wash out the earth and separate the gravel by hand, leaving nothing but the gold mixed with the sand, which is separated in the manner described. The gold in the lower mines is in fine bright scales, of which I send several specimens.
On the 7th of July I left the mill and crossed to a small stream emptying into the American fork, three or four miles below the sawmill. I struck this stream (now known as Webers Creek) at the washings of Sunal & Co. They had about thirty Indians employed, whom they pay in merchandise. They were getting gold of a character similar to that found in the main fork, and doubtless in sufficient quantities to satisfy them. I send you a small specimen, presented by this company, of their gold. From this point we proceeded up the stream about eight miles, where we found a great many people and Indians; some engaged in the bed of the stream and others in the small side valleys that put into it. These latter are exceedingly rich, and two ounces were considered an ordinary yield for a day’s work. A small gutter not more than a hundred yards long by four feet wide and two or three feet deep was pointed out to me as the one where two men, William Daly and Perry McCloon, had a short time before obtained in seven days $17,000 worth of gold.
I might tell of hundreds of similar instances; but to illustrate how plentiful the gold was in the pockets of common laborers, I will mention a simple occurrence which took place in my presence when I was at Weber’s store. This store was nothing but an arbor of bushes, under which he had exposed for sale goods and groceries suited to his customers. A man came in, picked up a box of seidlitz powders and asked its price. Captain Weber told him it was not for sale. The man offered an ounce of gold, but Captain Weber told him it only cost 50 cents, and he did not wish to sell it. The man then offered an ounce and a half, when Captain Weber had to take it. The prices of all things are high and yet Indians, who before hardly knew what a breech cloth was, can now afford to buy the most gaudy dresses.
Every day was developing new and rich deposits and the only apprehension seemed to be that the metal would be found in such abundance as seriously to depreciate its value.
The principal store at Sutter’s Fort, that of Brannan & Co., had received in payment for goods $36,000 worth of this gold from the 1st of May to the 10th of July; other merchants had also made extensive sales. Large quantities of goods were daily sent forward to the mines, as the Indians, heretofore so poor and degraded, have suddenly become consumers of the luxuries of life. I before mentioned that the greater part of the farmers and rancheros had abandoned their fields to go to the mines; this is not the case with Captain Sutter, who was carefully gathering his wheat, estimated at 40,000 bushels. Flour is already worth at Sutter’s $36 a barrel, and soon will be $50. Unless large quantities of breadstuffs reach the country, much suffering will occur; but as each man is now able to pay a large price, it is believed the merchants will bring from Chile and Oregon a plentiful supply for the coming winter.
The most moderate estimate I could obtain from men acquainted with the subject was that upward of 4000 men were working in the gold district, of whom more than half were Indians, and that from $30,000 to $50,000 worth of gold, if not more, was daily obtained. The entire gold district, with very few exceptions of grants made some years ago by the American authorities, is on land belonging to the United States. It was a matter of serious reflection with me how I could secure to the Government certain rents or fees for the privilege of procuring this gold; but upon considering the large extent of country, the character of the people engaged and the small scattered force at my command I resolved not to interfere, but permit all to work freely, unless broils and crimes should call for interference.
I was surprised to learn that crime of any kind was very unfrequent, and that no thefts or robberies had been committed in the gold district. All live in tents, in bush houses or in the open air, and men have frequently about their persons thousands of dollars’ worth of this gold; and it was to me a matter of surprise that so peaceful and quiet a state of things should continue to exist. Conflicting claims to particular spots of ground may cause collisions, but they will be rare, as the extent of country is so great and the gold so abundant that for the present there is room and enough for all.
The discovery of these vast deposits of gold has entirely changed the character of Upper California. Its people, before engaged in cultivating their small patches of ground and guarding their herds of cattle and horses, have all gone to the mines, or are on their way thither. Laborers of every trade have left their work benches and tradesmen their shops; sailors desert their ships as fast as they arrive on the coast, and several vessels have gone to sea with hardly enough hands to spread a sail; two or three are now at anchor in San Francisco with no crews on board. Many desertions have taken place, too, from the garrisons within the influence of the mines; twenty-six soldiers have deserted from the post of Sonoma, twenty-four from that of San Francisco and twenty-four from Monterey. For a few days the evil appeared so threatening that great danger existed that the garrisons would leave in a body.
Many private letters have gone to the United States giving accounts of the vast quantity of gold recently discovered, and it may be a matter of surprise why I have made no report on this subject at an earlier date. The reason is, that I could not bring myself to believe the reports that I heard of the wealth of the gold district until I visited it myself. I have no hesitation now in saying that there is more gold in the country drained by the Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers than will pay the cost of the present war with Mexico a hundred times over. No capital is required to obtain this gold, as the laboring man wants nothing but his pick, shovel and tin pan, with which to dig and wash the gravel; and many frequently pick gold out of the crevices of rock with their butcher knives in pieces from one to six ounces.
A soldier of the Artillery Company returned here a few days ago from the mines, having been absent on furlough twenty days; he made by trading and working during that time $1500. During these twenty days he was traveling ten or eleven days, leaving but a week in which he made a sum of money greater than he receives in pay, clothes and rations during a whole enlistment of five years. These statements appear incredible, but they are true.