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.

"To-morrow," thought he, "we will commence sawing, and put things through as fast as possible. The men are waiting, we have plenty of trees down, there is nothing to hinder;" but at that moment as he walked beside the bed of the tail race he saw some glittering yellow particles among its sands. He stopped and picked one up. The golden touch had come.

The following is Marshall's own description as published in the Century Magazine (Vol. 41). "It made my heart thump, for I was certain it was gold. Yet it did not seem to be of the right color; all the gold coin I had seen was of a reddish tinge; this looked more like brass. I recalled to mind all the metals I had seen or heard of, but I could find none that resembled this. Suddenly the idea flashed across my mind that it might be iron pyrites. I trembled to think of it."

Finally, to make sure, Marshall, like Juan Lopez, mounted his horse and rode away to find some one with more knowledge than himself. That some one was Captain Sutter, who looked in his encyclopedia, probably the only one in the territory at that time, and by comparing the weight of the metal with the weight of an equal bulk of water found its specific gravity, which proved it to be gold. Still Sutter thought that he should like better authority. General Sherman, in Memoirs, tells how the news came to Monterey, where, he was the governor's gay young military secretary: -

"I remember one day, in the spring of 1848, that two men, Americans, came into the office and inquired for the Governor. I asked their business, and one answered that they had just come down from Captain Sutter on special business and they wanted to see Governor Mason in person. I took them in to the colonel and left them together. After some time the colonel came to his door and called to me. I went in and my attention was directed to a series of papers unfolded on his table, in which lay about half an ounce of placer gold.

"Mason said tome, 'What is that?' I touched it and examined one or two of the larger pieces and asked, 'Is it gold?' I said that if that were gold it could be easily tested, first by its malleability and next by acids. I took a piece in my teeth and the metallic lustre was perfect. I then called to the clerk, Baden, to bring in an ax and hatchet from the backyard. When these were brought, I took the largest piece and beat it out flat, and beyond doubt it was metal and a pure metal. Still we attached little importance to the fact, for gold was known to exist at San Fernando at the south and yet was not considered of much value."

About this time some of the business men who had settled in the little town of Yerba Buena, finding that all ships that entered the harbor were sent by their owners not to Yerba Buena, of which they knew nothing, but to San Francisco, persuaded the town council to change the name of the settlement from Yerba Buena to San Francisco, which was already the name of the mission and presidio.

"Gold! Gold!! Gold!!! from the American River," cried a horseman from the mines, riding down Market Street, waving his hat in one hand, a bottle of gold dust in the other.

When words like these dropped from the lips of a messenger in any of the little communities, the result was like a powerful explosion. Everybody scattered, not wounded and dying, however, but full of life, ready to endure anything, risk anything, for the sake of finding the precious metal which enables its owner to have for himself and those he loves the comfortable and beautiful things of the world.

The result at San Francisco is thus described in one of its newspapers of 1848: "Stores are closed, places of business vacated, a number of houses tenantless, mechanical labor suspended or given up entirely, nowhere the pleasant hum of industry salutes the ear as of late; but as if a curse had arrested our onward course of enterprise, everything wears a desolate, sombre look. All through the Sundays the little church on the plaza is silent. All through the week the door of the alcalde's office remains locked. As for the shipping, it is left at anchor; first sailors, then officers departing for the mines."

And how was it at the logging camp where Marshall made his great discovery? The new sawmill, built with such high hopes, was soon silent and deserted. No more logs were cut, and no lumber hauled down for the flour mill. There were no men to be found who were willing to cut and saw logs, build mills, or put in the spring wheat when they might be finding their fortunes at the mines.

The newly arrived emigrants suffered no doubt from hunger; maybe the children cried for bread; but most of the men, as soon as they had rested a little and knew what was going on, got together money enough to buy the simple implements of knife, pan, pick, and cradle, which were all the tools necessary for the easy placer mining of those days, and joined the endless procession of those who were pushing up toward the streams and canyons round Sutter's famous sawmill.

As summer came on, the excitement became intense. Not only from the region around San Francisco Bay, but from San Diego and Los Angeles, people came flocking to the mines. Reports were current of men finding hundreds of dollars' worth of gold a day, gaining a fortune in a few weeks. It was almost impossible to hire laborers either in San Francisco or on the ranches. Even the soldiers caught the gold fever and deserted.

In the summer, Governor Mason and Lieutenant Sherman visited the mines. Upon their return to Monterey, having seen for themselves that many even of the wildest rumors were true, they made arrangements to send on to Washington official announcement of the discovery.

How this was accomplished is interesting. A lieutenant of the army was appointed by the governor for the important office, and a can of sample gold was purchased.

The only vessel on the coast ready for departure was a boat bound for Peru. On this ship the lieutenant with his pot of gold and the governor's report embarked at Monterey. He reached the Peruvian port just in time to catch the British steamer back to Panama. Crossing the Isthmus on horseback, he took a steamer for Kingston, Jamaica. There he found a vessel just leaving for New Orleans. Reaching that city he at once telegraphed the news to Washington, trusting it would be in time to form part of the President's message.

On December 5, 1848, the President, in his message to Congress, after speaking of the discovery of gold in California, said, "The accounts of the abundance of gold in that territory are of such extraordinary character as would scarcely command belief but for the authentic reports of officers in the public service who have visited the mineral districts and drew the facts which they detail from personal observation."

The certainty that the wonderful reports of the gold country were true, electrified not only the whole country but the whole civilized world. Large numbers of people began immediate preparation for making the overland journey as soon as the weather should permit; while others, too impatient to wait, left for California by the way of the Isthmus.

In February, 1849, there arrived at Monterey the Panama, the first steamboat to visit the coast. The whole population turned out to see and welcome it. The Californians as they compared it with the stately frigates and ships they had been accustomed to see, exclaimed, "How ugly!" Although it was not a beautiful vessel, its arrival was an event of great importance, for it was the first of a line of steamers which were under contract to ply monthly between San Francisco and Panama, and with its coming began such an immigration as the world has seldom known.

In 1849 nearly twenty-five thousand people came by land and almost as many more by sea, from the States alone. There were between thirty and forty thousand from other parts of the world.

San Francisco at the time of the discovery had about seven hundred inhabitants, and shortly after only the population of a hamlet, because so many had gone to the gold fields. Now it suddenly found itself called upon to give shelter to thousands of people bound for the mines, and many also returning, some successful, others penniless and eager to get work at the very high wages offered, sometimes as much as thirty dollars a day.

There were streets to be surveyed, houses and warehouses to be built, lumber and brick to be provided. People were living in tents, in brush houses, even in shelter made by four upright green poles over which were spread matting and old bedding. Hundreds of ships lay helpless in the harbor waiting for crews, often for men to unload the cargoes. No longer could the papers complain of lack of business. The town was like a hive, but such a disorderly one as would have driven wild any colony of bees.

All was mud flats or water where are now the water front and some of the leading business streets of the city. On these flats old unseaworthy vessels were drawn up and did duty side by side with rough board buildings as dwellings and stores. In the rainy seasons the streets were lakes of mud where mules and drays were sometimes literally submerged. The arrival of the mail steamer was the event of the month to this host of people so far away from home and loved ones. Guns were fired, bells rang to announce the approach of the vessel, then there was a wild rush to the post office, where the long lines of men, most of them wearing flannel shirts, wide hats, and high boots, extended far down the street. Very high prices were sometimes paid, as high even as one hundred dollars, by a late corner to buy from some one lucky enough to be near the head of the line a position near the delivery window. Then if no letter came, how great was the disappointment!

One man thus described the mines: -

"I was but a lad and my party took me along only because I had a knack at cooking and was willing to do anything in order to see the place where such wonderful fortunes were made. It was a hot summer afternoon when, crossing a region of low, thinly wooded hills, we looked down upon American River; away to the east were high mountain ranges, their peaks, although it was still August, snow-tipped.

"From them came swiftly down the already famous river. Its volume was evidently diminished from the heat, and along its gravelly bed men were digging the sand and gravel into buckets. As I reached them and watched them work I was greatly disappointed. It seemed like very ordinary dirt they were handling; I saw no gleam of the yellow sands of which I had heard such stories. I followed one of the men who carried the buckets of earth to something that looked very like our family cradle with the footboard knocked out. Where the slats might have been there was nailed a piece of sheet iron punched full of holes. Above this was a chute in which the dirt was emptied. The cradle was then rocked violently while water was poured over its contents. The lighter earth and gravel were carried away, while the gold, being heavier, rested either on the sheet iron or between the slats on the cradle bottom.

"Some of the men had no cradle, only a large pan made of sheet iron. This pan, when half filled with dirt, was sunk in the water and shaken sidewise until the dirt and gravel were washed away and only heavy grains of gold remained. There were enough of these to make my eyes open wide. The men who had the cradle were making pretty steadily from eighteen to twenty dollars a day apiece.

"After a day or two I visited the dry diggings. Here I saw things that were more astonishing to me than anything that I had seen at the placer mines. Some men were at work in a little canyon, and I sat on the bowlder and watched them digging into the earth with their knives and picking up every few minutes spoons of earth in which there were plainly visible little lumps of gold the size of a pea. This was considered a rich find; the men were joyful over their success. Suddenly one of the older ones, looking up at me, sang out: -

"Say, Sonny, why do you sit there idle? Out with that bread knife of yours and dig for your fortune. Across this ridge is another ravine. It may be like this. Try your luck, anyway.'

"Somehow, until that moment, it had not entered my boyish mind, that I might join this great mad race for wealth. I sprang to my feet. My heart began to pound faster than it did on the glorious day when in my boyhood home I had won the mile race at the county fair. There was a singing in my ears; for the minute I could scarcely breathe. I had heard of the gold fever, and now I had caught it.

"I dashed up the hillside, fairly rolled down into the rocky little valley beyond, and began to dig wildly; but I found only good honest earth, rich noble soil so like our fertile bottom lands at home. My spirits began to sink, my heart to resume its natural beats. I worked half an hour or so without finding any sign, as it was called, and began to feel discouraged. In the canyon, which was very narrow, a large bowlder blocked my progress. I determined to dig it loose. This was the work of some time, but finally I succeeded in dislodging it, and drawing up my legs out of its way watched with a youngster's delight its wild dash down the mountain side to the stream far below.

"Slowly I turned to resume my work, but what I saw brought me to my feet with a yell. The socket where the stone had rested was dotted with yellow lumps of gold as big as a pea, some even larger. Down I went upon my knees and I fell to work with a will - the strength of a man seemed in my arms. Off came my coat, and spreading it out I scooped the rich dirt into it by the handful. I had happened on a pocket, as it was called; a turn in the bed of some old mountain stream. The dirt from this when washed yielded me about five hundred dollars, but it was all except cook's wages that I ever made at the mines.

"Before I left the gold fields I saw some small attempt at hydraulic mining which later proved so successful. From a stream up in a canyon some enterprising men had built a log flume and connected with it a large hose and nozzle they had brought up from the coast. Turning the water in this on a dry hill rich in gold deposit, they easily and rapidly washed the dirt down into a sluice or trough below. This had bars nailed across, and water running through carried the dirt away while the gold dropped into the crevices between the bars." This method of mining and also quartz mining, that is, digging gold and other metals from rock, is described in another chapter.

The gold-bearing earth extended along the west slope of the Sierra Nevada and their base, from Feather River on the north to the Merced River on the south, a territory about thirty miles wide by two hundred and fifty long. In this district are still some of the richest mines in the world.