Riches to Rags: The Men Who Found Gold

1849 poster ad for ship to California Gold Rush

1849 poster ad for ship to California Gold Rush

Anyone who has ever studied history of the United States will associate the words, ‘Sutter’s Mill,’   in connection with the California Gold Rush of 1849.   They may know John Sutter as owner of that mill, and they may even know that it was James W. Marshall, Sutter’s foreman at the mill, who made the actual discovery of gold. After that, most history books go off into the gold rush itself, and its effect on the expansion of the United States, and the development of California in particular. Sutter and Marshall, now as then, get pushed aside.   And the truth of the matter is the men who went into the history books, who really made money out of the gold rush, were the merchants who supplied the 49ers—men like Leland Stanford, Mark Hopkins and Levi Strauss. Sutter and Marshall just got trampled on…

John Sutter, a German Swiss immigrant, had made money in trade and received a large land grant from the Mexican government, who had possession of California at the time. Making a deal with the disbanding Russian colony at Fort Ross, Sutter obtained various livestock and implements, and built his own fort called New Helvetia.   With dreams of starting an agrarian community, he employed a decommissioned battalion of Mormons, who had come to California with the army of General Kearny.

James W. Marshall at Sutter's Mill, 1850

James W. Marshall at Sutter’s Mill, 1850, from a daguerrotype by R.H. Vance

He set them to work building a sawmill on the south fork of the American River under the management of his foreman, James W. Marshall, to whom he purportedly gave a half-interest in the mill.

On 24th January, 1848, Marshall discovered what he believed to be gold. Being a good partner and faithful employee, he showed the metal to Sutter, the men ran tests, and they ascertained that the metal was, indeed, gold. Shortly after, on 2 February, 1848, the United States and Mexico signed the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, thereby bringing the Mexican American War to an end, giving the U.S. half of all Mexican territories including, of course, California, and eventually ruining the two men’s lives.

Although Sutter obtained promises from his Mormon workforce to keep the gold a secret, it wasn’t long before they discovered they could make more money mining the gold than the wages Sutter was paying them. Naturally, rumors spread and, despite the spread being rather slow in those pre-telecommunication days, and the rumors somewhat enhanced with the telling, the California Gold Rush had begun.

Anglo and Chinese miners  circa 1852. Daguerrotype by J. B. Starkweather

Anglo and Chinese miners circa 1852. Daguerrotype by J. B. Starkweather

Forty per cent of enlisted men in California deserted, two-thirds of homes in San Francisco stood empty and John Sutter’s land was invaded.   And this is where the history books veer off into American expansionism, fortunes won and lost, wagon trains heading across the great plains, and possibly even the building of the Panama Canal—or at least the building of the Panama Railway, which preceded it. But what happened to Sutter and Marshall?

Sutter’s agrarian community was decimated by the influx of miners, who killed his livestock for food and stole everything in sight. When he appealed to the courts for restoration of his land, the title was declared invalid because it was a Mexican land grant. Three years later, in debt, Sutter retired to his Hock Farm and deeded the remains of his land grant to his son (who would subsequently initiate the building of Sacramento). He did eventually receive a stipend of $250 a month for the taxes he had paid, and moved to the Moravian community in Pennsylvania. He continued to petition the United States government for fifteen years; in fact, two days before his death, Congress adjourned without action on yet another bill that would have given him reparation.

James W. Marshall

James W. Marshall

As for Marshall, who actually discovered the gold, he, too, had his land claim overrun and his belongings stolen. He, too, sought restitution through the courts to no avail and ended up with just the clothes he stood up in. Joining the hordes looking for gold, crowds would surround him when he would try to find another lode because they believed he had powers of divination. This apparently went on for some seven years until he returned to the small town near his lost mill and earned money by doing odd jobs. Eventually, he was able to own land again and started growing grapes, but such a high tax was levied on the resulting wine that he went bankrupt. In 1871, Marshall started a lecture tour, which eventually took him to Salt Lake City. There, Brigham Young declared he was a liar because it was in the Church records that Mormons had discovered the gold… The California State legislature did, in time, give him a small pension, which they discontinued two years later due to his drinking. Marshall lived until 1885, existing by woodworking and carpentry.

Panning for gold, California, 1850. Photo by L.C. McClure.

Panning for gold, California, 1850. Photo by L.C. McClure.

Of course, as the Present has a way of making cack-handed amends for the Past, the Society of California Pioneers and the Native Sons of the Golden West buried Marshall on a hill overlooking the original site of Sutter’s Mill. They spent a great deal of money for a monument to the man no one supported in life, and now pay a salary to a caretaker for this important site. And Sutter? Over the years, various streets, schools and other geographic places—as well as a rose—have been named after him. And California rebuilt his vandalized fort for the tourists—and maintain it, no doubt, at great cost.

 

Main source: Brown, Dee: The Westerners, London, 1974

All photos are public domain

 

 

 

 

 

Before They’re Gone–The Work of George Catlin

George-Catlin-frontispiece-200There are many artists known for their paintings of the West, but the one whose work enthralls me the most is George Catlin.  Working somewhat in the ‘naive’  style, Catlin’s life work was to capture the American Indian before they vanished, and this he did:  his subjects came from over fifty nations. Continue reading

BE IT EVER SO HUMBLE: LIFE IN EAST HAMPTON, THEN AND NOW

Map in my possession showing the village on its 300th anniversary, 1948

Map in my possession showing the village on its 300th anniversary, 1948

It’s a source of some amusement to me that John Howard Payne, lyricist of the immortal ‘Home Sweet Home’ (“Be it ever so humble, there’s no place like home…”) spent his youth in East Hampton. In fact, the small colonial residence of his grandfather, where he lived, is now a museum, sitting on Main St. amongst a line of colonial and Victorian properties. But East Hampton is hardly known for its history. Programs such as ‘Royal Pains’ and ‘Revenge’ as well as a plethora of films, including ‘Something’s Gotta Give,’ continue to perpetuate the image of ‘The Hamptons’ as the enclave of the rich and famous. That’s hardly true of the entire population! And it certainly wasn’t always true… Continue reading

A Question of Bounty

Back in October 2012, Paul Colt visited this blog with a post about Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid.  Paul’s latest book, A Question of Bounty:  The Shadow of Doubt is published this month by Five Star.  Here he takes a second look at the death of Billy the Kid.

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Paul Colt

Paul Colt

Two years ago Andi gave me the opportunity to share one of my favorite historical controversies. Pat Garrett claims he killed Billy the Kid, July 14, 1881. John Poe, Garrett’s deputy on the scene that night—and others—question Garrett’s claim. They suggest he killed the wrong man and covered it up. Continue reading

Romancing the Vaquero

Anne croppedAnne Schroeder writes about the West in short stories, essays and two memoirs, Ordinary Aphrodite and Branches on the Conejo. Cholama Moon is her first published novel. The second novel in the series, Maria Ines, will be released later in 2014, both by Oak Tree Press. Continue reading

The Role of Newspapers in Kansas Territory

I felt an immediate affinity for my guest this month, Linda S. Johnston.Pub photo 2 copy  Not only are we the eastern stronghold of Women Writing the West, but we have both lived in Great Britain and have both moved house an inordinate amount of times. While I beat Linda in years spent in the U.K., she certainly outdoes me in moves—more than fifteen, including places as diverse as Margate,  England; Seattle, Continue reading

Springtime in the Rockies & the Oysters are Here!

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Thanks so much to everyone who joined in.  The winner of the free digital copy of LOVELAND is Kathy O!

Continue reading

They Don’t Drive Pickups in New York

photo-4I was leafing through Frank Leslie’s Popular Monthly of April, 1892, in the hope of finding some material with which to greet the (hopefully) coming spring when I happened upon a romantic story entitled, ‘The Owner of LT Ranch.’ Continue reading

What is Sharing and why do you need to encourage it?

I’m pleased to have literary promotion experts Babs Hightower and Barb Drozdowich with me today to give a little insight into the world of social media. Continue reading

KIT CARSON: ‘GREAT AMERICAN HERO’ or ‘VILLAIN OF NAVAJO HISTORY’?

I met Steven Kohlhagen through the American Westerns group of Goodreads. Steve kindly complimented me on the article I had written regarding posterity and memoirs, one of which was Buffalo Bill Cody’s Story of the West.  Steve’s latest book, Where They Bury You,WhereTheyBuryYou_v1 partially concerns Kit Carson, and Carson was one of the men Cody had memorialized.  Carson’s scorched earth policy, used to remove the Navajo from their homeland, is something that, today, denigrates the man’s other accomplishments as a frontiersman.  Yet, Cody claimed that the policy had actually saved lives. I therefore approached Steve to find out what his own research had uncovered. Continue reading