Wednesday, April 17, 2013


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.)


(Declaration: This article represents countless hours of research and concentrates on the main points of the California Gold Rush of 1849, and therefore, due to its length, cannot be totally comprehensive. For more in-depth knowledge of this complicated period in history, the sources listed at the end of each section are recommended for reading.)

In January 1848, John Sutter was having a saw mill built on the American River in the Sacramento Valley of California. An employee, James Marshall, found gold nuggets in the river. Sutter tried to keep the discovery quiet to protect his 76 square miles of land and crops (acquired from a Mexican land grant); however, eventually his employees leaked the information. A man named Sam Brannan learned of the discovery and developed an idea to get rich. He bought up all the shovels, picks, axes, pans, and other hardware in the region. He then put gold in a jar and walked about the streets of San Francisco, holding up the sample, and shouting gold, gold, gold discovered! This started one of the greatest gold rushes in the history of mankind. It is estimated that over 118 million ounces of gold, about $130 Billion dollars, (in 2001 prices) have been taken by four various mining methods from the streams, mountains, and hills of California—an enormous sum of money indeed. Sam Brannan ended up becoming rich selling hardware that would normally cost less than a dollar, for as much as fifteen dollars apiece. Sutter, who used Indian labor forcing hundreds of Native Americans to tend his crops, livestock, and various operations, eventually was inundated by gold seekers, lost control and ownership of his land, and went bankrupt.

If history is to reveal the circumstances of the gold rush, it must also eventually divulge the costs in human suffering. In the past, historians, reacting to the culture of the 1840-50s, seemed to document the better aspects of this enormous historical event while leaving out the grimmer details. During the California Gold Rush, danger and death confronted all of the Forty-niners. In the case of California Native Americans, theft of their land, murder, enslavement, and planned genocide took place. (This to be discussed in more detail in the next posting.)

PRESIDENT POLK AND THE MEXICAN-AMERICAN WAR (The Annexation of Texas, Oregon Country, and sudden possession of California and Mexican Possessions)

At the beginning of Polk’s presidency, keeping a pre-election promise, and as part of his expansionist administration goals, President Polk set to acquire some or all of Oregon Country, California, Texas and New Mexico. In December of 1845, Texas entered the union as a slave state, angering Mexico who still believed they had claim to the territory.

Following through on his agenda, Polk offered to purchase California and New Mexico from Mexico. Mexico refused to meet with the ambassador sent by President Polk and this was seen as an affront and provocation. Manifest Destiny (the belief that Americans were destined to expand west) was a doctrine followed, and Polk sent troops to the Nueces River and Rio Grande, an area of disputed western territory claimed by both countries. Mexico sent its own troops in response and crossed the Rio Grande. There was a fight and Americans died. This was the excuse Polk was looking for, and on May 13, 1846, the United States declared war. U. S. troops invaded Mexico and eventually marched on Mexico City, and bombarded the city. Mexico surrendered and on February 2, 1848 the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo was signed, with 15 million given by the United States as part of the treaty agreement. With the end of the war, Mexico gave up half its territory, which included California, to the United States.

Also during 1848, President Polk threatened Britain with war over the Oregon Country and then negotiated with Britain. The Oregon Treaty of 1846, dividing the Oregon Country at the 49th parallel, was finally approved by Congress in 1848 and this territory became part of the U.S.

The historical events surrounding the discovery of gold were auspicious for the United States and unfortunate for that country to our south, Mexico. The discovery of gold happened a few days before the two year war ended. As Polk planned, victory meant that all of the land west to the Pacific Ocean suddenly became United States territory. The United States of America’s new map of 1848 then became a vast area of land known as the Unorganized Territory and Mexican Cession, (unorganized territory), as well as the Wisconsin Territory. The USA suddenly doubled its size and land mass.

President James Polk had accomplished his goal. When word and proof of the gold discovery in California was brought to the president, he used it as further affirmation of his expansion policy and announced it in his 1848 State of the Union address. Word of the gold discovery went round the world, and the California Gold Rush was on for certain.

Past historians have ignored this president’s energetic accomplishments during his short four year term (President Polk kept his promise not to run for a second term). Early historians were colored by perceptions of their time and merely considered this president a front for southern slave holders and a pawn for northern Democrats. Modern day historians now rate President Polk as one of our strongest presidents, a man who successfully accomplished his goals in a short four year time span and made the United States what it is, a nation from the Atlantic to the Pacific Ocean.

The ironic element in all of this successful expansionism is that President Polk left office March 4, 1849, and three months later contracted cholera and died. He never lived long enough to see California become a state.


In May of 1846 with a handful of marines and bluejacket sailors of the Pacific Squadron and a militia of volunteers, possession of California pueblos (towns) was accomplished. Many Californios, tired of Mexican authority and constantly changing Mexican governments, were sympathetic to American rule. There were, however, several battles in California but Commodore Stockton (the highest ranking military officer in California), was an aggressive leader and used his men judiciously. In culmination of many battles, Los Angeles, previously taken by Stockton, had been lost to the Californio Militia. On January 12, 1847, Los Angeles was retaken by Stockton and General Kearny with a force of 560 men. This was followed by the Battle of La Mesa, and by January 12, all armed resistance of Californios ended. On January 13, 1847, the Treaty of Cahuenga was signed, thus ending all armed conflict in California.

It is important to have a rudimentary understanding of what took place in California prior to the discovery of gold. Because of the quick resolution of war in California in favor of the United States, the early gold-seekers were able to enter the territory.

Already at war with Mexico, President Polk appointed a volunteer regiment. In September of 1846, in answer to adding further American military presence in California, President Polk appointed Colonel Stevenson and a volunteer regiment of ten companies of 770 men to go to California. They would sail on three ships and remain active for two years and then muster out in that distant land. The voyage to California took over 160 days. The troops arrived safely and dispersed to their commands throughout California. By the time they arrived Commodore Stockton had successfully quelled all Californio’s resistance and the new territory was at peace.

Colonel Stevenson’s volunteer regiment remained on duty past the Treaty of Guadalupe Hildago. In October 1848, the entire command mustered out and by that time California was an American possession. Colonel Stevenson went on to become the Alcalde (mayor) for Mokelumne Hill and, because of many mining claim disputes, helped draw up mining laws. Polk’s volunteer regiment and the leadership of Colonel Stevenson helped add an American presence in California during the war.

At the end of the war, when gold was discovered, there were few active U.S. soldiers present in California to keep order, and in the interim, few laws. Of those soldiers who did exist, many quickly deserted to the gold fields to add to the growing chaos of the great Gold Rush of 1849.

It is important to note however, discovery of gold and the enormous amount of wealth it brought, along with infusion of a large American populace, certainly caused the United States, within two short years, to make California a free state in 1850.

A list of SOURCES for further examination of the history of the California Gold Rush of 1849

Access Genealogy, 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: 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) (Retrieved March 10, 2013)

Polk: The Man Who Transformed the Presidency and America, Walter R. Borneman, Random House Trade Paperback (2009)


  1. Charlie, what a fascinating post! You have done some wonderful meticulous research on this topic and it's something I didn't know much about so I'm very intrigued by it. I'm looking forward to your book, and to the following parts of this blog series.

  2. Charlie, A lot of history there.
    I look forward to reading your other posts as well as The Forty-Niners.

  3. Jerry Guin,

    So glad you liked it. The next two parts have even more detail and

    Charlie Steel

  4. Hey y'all, Charlie is having trouble posting his responses to your comments on the blog, so I'm going to copy and paste them. Seems like Tom R. had to do that once before, too. The blog can be cantankerous at times!

  5. A fascinating post, Charlie. Rich material for your novel, I am sure. I'm looking forward to the next instalment.


  6. I'm also looking forward to your future articles on this topic. The human costs are often overlooked, and it's good to get an overview of the entire picture, not just the few who made it rich.

  7. Keith Souter,

    Thank your for your kind response. Glad you will be following the next
    two parts.

    Charlie Steel

  8. Jacquie Rogers,

    Yes, thank you. It was difficult to grasp the complexity of events that
    occurred during this time period. I'm afraid our history books and the
    history we were taught in high school left out most of this information.
    I am glad you will be following subsequent posts, this part of our
    history is definitely interesting and thought provoking.

    Charlie Steel

  9. Cheryl Pierson,

    Thank you, Cheryl, for your wonderful comments and for helping me post the responses.

    This is a very volatile time in our history and important for every American to have a rudimentary understanding. The events that took place during the Mexican-American War were also murky for me before beginning to write my book The Forty-niners. Once research began, it became an endless and shocking journey, hence this article. I hope everyone who reads it will find it interesting. There is a lot more to come in Part 2 and 3.

    Charlie Steel

  10. Troy D Smith

    Thank you. Means a lot coming from a history professor.

    Charlie Steel