In my research for the book, THE FORTY-NINERS, many startling revelations about this historical event came to light—disturbing facts about the famous gold rush of which perhaps most of us are unaware. It is my intention to write three short pieces (to be published at three month intervals) outlining the events that took place in California regarding those people who will forever be known as the FORTY-NINERS. Also, at the end of this narrative is a short piece explaining how California gold was formed from the earth’s crust and then concentrated over millions of years of erosion.
(My book, THE FORTY-NINERS, is to be published for the West of the Big River series by Western Fictioneers. It is to come out sometime in the future in digital format and as a trade paperback book.)
THE FORTY-NINERS AND THE DANGERS THEY FACED
Just imagine, word of a great gold discovery spreads across the eastern United States and very quickly around the world. The discovery of gold must be true, because President Polk said it in his speech and the papers reported it. Young and middle aged men, young fathers, farmers, clerks, students, those filled with the desire to change their lives, to change their destiny dropped everything and found money enough to start their journey. Most did not begin until six months after the announced discovery. For them all, no matter which route they took to the far away land on the Pacific Ocean, it took them nearly six months more to reach the gold fields.
Those who went by ship faced months at sea traveling 18,000 miles, encountered storms, unfavorable winds, and suffered a poor diet, scurvy, and disease. Those who went by land encountered an army of men all trying to survive for five months along the trail. They too faced dangerous storms, heavily trodden trails with scarce grass, thieves, hostiles, little or no water, diseases, accident, and malnutrition. All this, before even reaching the gold fields.
The first to arrive were those nearest the gold fields. That would include those few 700 non-natives in San Francisco, Californios, men from Willamette Valley, Oregon, Canada, South America, and the Sandwich Islands (Hawaii). The very ships bringing in Argonauts (as they were first called) and supplies, lost their crews, who deserted to the gold fields. Eventually the abandoned ships ended up being used for storage, saloons, living quarters, and even land fill. As word spread further, soldiers deserted, clerks, and workers left their posts, all in an effort to be first to strike it rich.
Whether traveling by sea or land, they first called themselves Argonauts and then later Forty-niners. They tended to be young men between the ages of 20 and 40. Few women came, but those who did traveled with their husbands, or came alone to charge high prices for cooking food, doing laundry, or to work in saloons, at gambling, or prostitution.
Of the 80,000 Forty-niners that arrived in 1849, half came by sea and the other half by land. Those that came by land either took the southern land route from Texas through Arizona, most taking the more famous California Trail. Two thirds were Americans who arrived in California. The remainder of Forty-niners came from nearly every country in the world, including China.
The miners, finding themselves without laws, goods or services, many pushed for greater communication and contact with the United States. Increased shipping, the completion of the Panama Railway (in 1855), and scheduled mail carrying steamships, helped carry more supplies and passengers to the miners.
After the war with Mexico, Congress argued over what to do with California, whether to bring it into the Union as a free or slave state. Military Governors ran California in the interim and in September 1849 the California Constitutional Convention met in Monterey to write a state constitution. It was ratified on November 13, 1849. Following, came a provisional state government that formed counties, elected senators, representatives, and a governor. This state government functioned for nearly a year, when California was given statehood by Congress on September 9, 1850. California officially became the 31st state. It was certainly gold, and a sudden increase in population to one hundred thousand, that in two short years after the Mexican-American War, made it possible for California to so suddenly enter the Union as a free state.
The U.S. military did not reach into the mountains and gold fields of California and at the beginning of the gold rush, and directly after the Guadalupe-Hildago Treaty ending the war with Mexico, there were no laws to follow and no stable government. The absence of authority left it to the miners to follow their own volitions and whims. The prejudices of the day influenced the majority, and in many places complete chaos and lawlessness reined.
Miners lived in make-shift tents, crudely built shelters of boards, or sticks, and endured the changing climate, heat, cold, and storms. There were no laws defining what a claim was, and many disputes resulted in conflict. What laws existed were those made up by the miners themselves. The mining camps formed their own kind of enforcement, and mobs and vigilante behavior was prevalent. In the gold camps, miners faced thieves, hostile Indians, exposure, meager food supplies, malnutrition, death and disease on a daily basis. Some reports claim one out of twelve Forty-niners died. Other estimates were as high as one out of five.
Placer mining for gold was excessively hard backbreaking work. Men stood beside or in cold streams, ten or more hours a day, moving and washing hundreds of bucketfuls of dirt. Some found gold, especially those who came early. Others who came later were not so lucky. Essentially placer mining, finding gold in gravel beds near the earth’s surface, was virtually played out by 1853-55. Only large groups of men collaborating their efforts, or the big companies, (beginning hard rock mining, and later hydraulic mining and dredging) with money to invest in large equipment, were successful at gold mining after this time period.
As the gold fields filled with miners, disputes between mining claims increased. There was no law defining claims and miners made up their own rules. In the search for more land to mine, the Indians who inhabited the area were forcefully removed. The native men were killed by miners, their women and children taken as slave laborers, and some of the women forced into sexual bondage. For as long as the gold camps existed, no Native American appeared to be safe from continued death, debauchery, slavery, and assimilation. Those who didn’t flee or remain hidden were subjected to endless violence and persecution. With the flood of miners the delicate balance of sufficient food for the Indians ended and many who did escape faced constant starvation. Their native land was taken, access to berries, acorns, game, and fish, became impossible. Game became scarcer as miners hunted for their own needs and the streams became polluted with silt, mercury, and cyanide— and the fish died.
As more and more Forty-niners descended upon the gold fields, further pressure for mining claims increased, thus causing blatant discrimination against foreigners. Whites pushed Blacks, Chinese, Indians, Spanish, and anyone speaking a foreign language off their claims. Eventually, as bigger mining companies began larger scale operations and hard rock mining, discriminatory laws were passed to gain more gold. For those who were not murdered or pushed off their claims, foreigners were charged monthly fees to continue their mining claims.
Miners did well to eke out an existence in the gold fields. Those who were lucky and worked hard to move a lot of mud and gravel could collect eight to twenty-five dollars a day. This was a lot of money for the time, and miners felt rich at such a daily profit, but prices were also astronomically high. A loaf of bread that cost 4 cents in any other city back east, cost 75 cents, coffee $5.00, apples $1.00, eggs $1.00 to $3.00 apiece. Knives could cost $30.00, a gold pan $15.00, a meal cooked at a make-shift eatery and prepared by a female hand, $25.00. Few individuals walked away with any kind of riches. Those who did were the early comers in the first two years of placer mining. Later, it was the big mining companies that raked in the larger profits and many of the single men who came for riches, ended up working as paid laborers.
Most gold miners were lucky to survive or break even.
A list of SOURCES for further examination of the history of the California Gold Rush of 1849
Access Genealogy, http://www.accessgenealogy.com/native/california/ Retrieved March 10, 2013, a free on-line source for genealogy, funded by Ancestry and Footnote and other contributions of its users.
Rush for Riches: Gold Fever and the Making of California, J. S. Holiday, University of California Press, (1999)
A People’s History of the United States, Howard Zinn, Harper and Row, (1980)
Gold, Greed and Genocide, Unmasking the Myth of the 49ers, Project Underground pamphlet, (1998)
A Golden State: Mining and the Development of California, James J. Rawls, and Richard J. Orsi, Editors, University of California Press, (1999)
Americans and the California Dream: 1850-1915 Kevin Starr, Oxford University Press (1973)
Rooted in Barbarous Soil: People, Culture, and Community in Gold Rush California, Starr, Kevin and Orsi, Richard J., Editors, University of California Press. (2000)
Hausel, Dan. California-Gold Geology & Prospecting: http://califroniangold.blogspot.dk/ Retrieved March 18, 2013
California: A History, (Modern Library Chronicles) Kevin Starr, Random House (2005)
The Destruction of California Indians, University of Nebraska Press, Robert F. Heizer, (1974)
Genocide in Northwestern California: When our world cried, Indian Historian Press, Jack Norton (1979)
The California Indians: A Source Book, Robert F. Heizer (Editor) M. A. Whipple (Editor) (1971)
The Annals of San Francisco: Containing a Summary of the History of…California, John H. Gihon (Author), Frank Soule’ (Author), Jim Nisbet (Author), (2010) (Copy of D. Appleton & Co. New York and San Francisco 1855)
Seventy-five Years in San Francisco, William Heath Davis, (Author) Douglas S. Watson, (Editor), Published by John Howell,434 Post Street, San Francisco, (1929)
http://www.sfgenealogy.com/sf/history/hb75yidx.htm (Retrieved March 10, 2013)
Polk: The Man Who Transformed the Presidency and America, Walter R. Borneman, Random House Trade Paperback (2009)