Chapter VII. At the Touch of King Midas

It was by chance that gold was discovered in both northern and southern California, and by chance that many great fortunes were made.

Juan Lopez, foreman of the little ranch of St. Francis in Los Angeles County, one morning in March, 1842, while idly digging up a wild onion, or brodecia, discovered what he thought lumps of gold clinging to its roots. Taking samples of the metal, he rode down to Los Angeles to the office of Don Abel Stearns, who recognized it as gold.

Soon Juan and his companions were busy digging and washing the earth and sands in the region where the little wild flowers grew. These mines were called "placer," from a Spanish word meaning loose or moving about, because the metal was loosely mixed with sand and gravel, generally in the bed of a stream or in a ravine where there had once been a flow of water which had brought the gold down from its home in the mountains.

From these mines Don Abel Stearns sent, in a sailing vessel round Cape Horn, the first parcel of California gold dust ever received at the United States mint, and it proved to be of very good quality.

The San Fernando mines, as they were called, because they were on a ranch that had once belonged to San Fernando mission, yielded many thousand dollars' worth of gold dust. It is on record that one firm in Los Angeles, which handled most of the gold from these and other mines of southern California, paid out in the course of twenty years over two million dollars for southern gold.

The true golden touch, however, was to come in a different part of the territory among people of another race and tongue. It was to transform California from an almost unknown land with slight and scattered population to a community so rich as to disturb the money markets of the world; a community sheltering a great host of people, all young, all striving eagerly for the fortunes they had traveled thousands of miles to find.

After the signing of the treaty of Cahuenga between Colonel Fremont and General Pico, the Spanish-speaking people settled down quietly and peacefully. The only disagreements were between the American leaders, General Kearny and Commodore Stockton, and between Kearny and Fremont, who had been appointed by Stockton military governor of the territory. This appointment General Kearny disputed. General Vallejo tells in one of his letters of having received on the same day communication from Kearny, Stockton, and Fremont, each signing himself commander-in-chief.

Whoever was right in the quarrel, Fremont was the chief sufferer, for General Kearny, after Stockton left, ordered him to return East under arrest and at Washington to undergo a military trial or court-martial for mutiny and disobedience of orders. Although the court found him guilty and sentenced him to be dismissed from the army, the President, remembering his services in the exploration of the West, and quite possibly thinking him not the person most to blame, pardoned and restored him to his position. Fremont, feeling that he had done nothing wrong, refused the pardon and resigned from the army. The next year the new President, Taylor, showed his opinion of the matter by appointing Fremont to conduct the important work of establishing the boundaries between the United States and Mexico.

General Kearny, when he departed for the East, left Colonel Mason, of the regular army, as military governor of California. Mason chose as his adjutant, or secretary, a young lieutenant named Sherman, who, years later, in the Civil War, by his wonderful march through the heart of the South, came to be considered one of the greatest generals of his time.

Soon after the Mexican war many settlers were gathered about Sutter's Fort and San Francisco Bay. There were about two thousand Americans, most of them strong, hardy men, all overjoyed that the territory was in the hands of the United States and all eager to know what would finally be decided in regard to it. Reports kept arriving of parties of emigrants that were about to start overland for California.

"They are as certain to come as that the sun will rise to-morrow," said genial Captain Sutter, "and as the overland trail ends at my rancho, I must be ready to furnish them provisions. They are always hungry when they get there, especially the tired little children, and the only thing for me to do is to build a flour mill to grind my grain."

"Well and good," said James Marshall, one of his assistants, an American by birth, a millwright by trade; "but to build a flour mill requires lumber, and lumber calls for a sawmill."

"We will build it, too," said Sutter. "Take a man and provisions and go up toward the mountains; there must be good places on my land. I leave it all in your hands." The place was found on a swift mountain stream. Near the present site of Coloma, in the midst of pine forests, on the water soon to be so well known as the American River, the sawmill was located. Marshall also marked out a rough wagon road forty-five miles long down to the fort. Captain Sutter was delighted.

"Set to work as soon as you like, Marshall," he exclaimed. "This is your business." Soon the mill was built and almost ready for use.

"You may let the water into the mill race to-night," said Marshall to his men. "I want to test it and also to carry away some of the loose dirt in the bed."

Down came the water with a rush, carrying off before it the loose earth; all night it ran, leaving the race with a clean, smooth bed. The next day, Monday, January 24, 1848, - wonderful day for California - James Marshall went out to look at the mill race to see if everything was ready to begin work.