by Dean Albertson
Into Saint Louis, Missouri, on July 24, 1848, rode the famed mountaineer, Kit Carson. Immediately he was recognized by newspaper reporters, and pressed for news of the far West. Were any Indian tribes on the warpath? What route had he taken? What was the situation in California? Carson, weary from weeks in the saddle, brushed aside their questions. He had left California on the fifth of May and had come to St. Louis without incident by way of Santa Fe, Taos, and Fort Leavenworth. General Mason was in command of the California forces. All was quiet there... .
All, no doubt, had been quiet at the time of Kit Carson’s departure. One week after that, the calm of the former Mexican province was shattered forever. “Gold, gold on the American River,” shouted Mormon leader Sam Brannan as he rode through the streets of San Francisco waving a bottle of the yellow particles. The inhabitants of northern California took up the cry, “Gold, gold, gold!” as they left their tools and businesses, and hastened to Sutter’s Mill. First San Francisco, then San Jose, Santa Barbara, and Los Angeles were nearly deserted as the citizenry shouldered picks and shovels and started for the placers. As whispered rumors crystallized into fact, the news spread rapidly throughout California. But once the tidings of the gold discovery reached the outposts of settlement, the word ceased to travel. Not until the end of June were any ships able to muster a working crew and sail out from San Francisco Bay, carrying with them samples of gold and unbelievable tales of its abundance.
New York, during the summer of 1848, was enjoying the heady brand of American politics common every four years in a presidential election. The 1848 campaign had brought the slavery issue back into the national arena after its partial neglect throughout the course of the war with Mexico. President Polk had lost the support of his party, and the regulars had nominated Lewis Cass to carry their standard on a slavery compromise platform. With New York as a rallying point, rebellious Democrats had bolted and aligned themselves behind ex-President Martin Van Buren in a Free-Soil third party. The other major party, the Whigs, having suffered exclusion from political rewards for twenty lean years, now played safely along with undecided General Zachary Taylor.
Politics in the election year 1848 meant more than the mere choosing of the next White House occupant. President Polk had carried his party into war with Mexico, and Whig opponents, led by Daniel Webster, were eager to denounce the mass of arid wasteland which America had gained in the conquest. The question became even more complicated as Northerners looked at the map and realized that California and the new West might become part of the slave holding South.
As the campaign rolled on into September, it became increasingly apparent that General Taylor would be elected. The New York Herald proclaimed the tenets of Whiggism on its front pages, relegating less important campaign news to the inside pages, and other items to the wastebasket. On Friday, September 15, however, New Yorkers found a small notice from the Pacific Coast amid scraps of miscellaneous town gossip:
INTERESTING FROM CALIFORNIA—We have received some late and interesting intelligence from California. It is to the 1st of July. Owing to the crowded state of our columns, we are obliged to omit our correspondence. It relates to the important discovery of a very valuable gold mine. We have received a specimen of the gold.
True to its word, two days later, September 17, the Herald devoted the larger part of an inside column to a letter from its California correspondent “Paisano,” dated July 1. The correspondent admitted that the Herald Publisher, James Gordon Bennett, “had better fill his paper with, at least, probable tales and stories and not such outrageous fictions as rivers, flowing with gold.” But, believed or not, he went on, this was the situation in California. The entire population had gone to the mines, many to return a few days later with hundreds of dollars in dust and nuggets. Spades and shovels sold for $10 apiece. Blacksmiths were making $240 a week. Why, even a child could pick up three dollars worth of gold in a day from the treasure streams. In comparison with California, “the famous El Dorado was but a sand bank, the Arabian Nights were tales of simplicity!”
Here was news beside which the front-page items of Free-Soil party meetings and General Taylor’s grand fancy ball paled to insignificance. On September 18, the front page of the Herald was covered with recently arrived European news; a turbulent election in France, war in Italy, rebellion in Ireland, cholera in London. But again on page 3 was another letter from “Paisano,” describing the golden discoveries in California.
Two days later, New Yorkers read a reprinted article from the Washington Union in which the exciting news of the California placers was confirmed by letters from Commodore Thomas Jones and Naval Agent Thomas O. Larkin. The Union editor suggested that “the danger in California is from want of food for the residents, and still more for the stream of immigrants. Would not some of our merchants find it a profitable speculation to send cargoes of biscuit, flour, &c., ‘round to the Pacific coast?” The Herald answered that the United States Steam Packet California would sail from New York on October 2 for the Golden West.
By this time, the national capital was in a ferment of excitement. Partisan newspapers might continue to play politics on their front pages, but Democrats, Whigs, Free-Soilers, and Abolitionists alike had turned their attention toward the West. “There Mr. Webster,” sneered the Washington Union, “is the country you declared was not worth having! Why, it is a solid mass of gold, which, if worked properly, would pay for all the expenses of the late war in a fortnight.”
A provocative thought for the idea-men of Washington—though, unfortunately, Congress was not in session to help in the carrying out of ideas! If the often-defeated bill for a trans-continental railroad were brought up now, it would surely pass. Emigration to the new territory would drain off excess population from the crowded Northern cities. This would halt the current downward trend of prices and wages. Gold from California would fill the banks. Credit restrictions would ease. With the expansion of markets and industry, the old Bank of the United States might rise from its ashes, issuing its own currency backed by a never-ending stream of bullion from the West. “Here’s to our new territory! Here’s to the United States, bounded on the north by the Aurora Borealis, on the south by the procession of the equinoxes, on the east by the rising sun, and on the west by the day of judgment!”
Throughout September, the New York Herald continued stories on the California gold mines, most of them being paraphrased passages from “Paisano’s” first letters. The front pages continued to play up the campaign speeches of the leading candidates and the disquieting news from far-off Europe, but, at the same time, advertisements began to appear of parties organizing for the trip to California, along with notices that large stores of camping and mining equipment were for sale. No rush was yet apparent, however it would take official notification of the California strike to make the hardheaded Easterner leave civilization for the rigors of the West.
Meanwhile, the Royal Mail Steam Ship Europa sailed from New York on September 27, arriving in London on October 10. The editor of the London Times scanned the latest accounts from the United States, found an item regarding gold discoveries in California, and promptly buried it on page 4 amid the Latin-American commercial notices. Even though the unbelievable details were all included, the article concluded on a hesitant note:
The placera sand is said to be so rich, that if exported to England or the United States, it would be very valuable. Consequent upon this excitement, the price of provisions has increased enormously. We need hardly observe that it is necessary to view these statements with great caution.
In Queen Victoria’s London, in 1848, the gorgeous voice of Jenny Lind could be heard each Wednesday at Exeter Hall. The Haymarket Theatre featured Mr. and Mrs. Kean in The Merchant of Venice. The Beggar’s Opera was at the Royal Olympic Theatre. But beneath these social niceties of English life were the grim realities of mid-nineteenth-century Europe. Ireland was in constant turmoil. In London, articles telling of new cholera outbreaks appeared daily. Hundreds had already perished. Medical advice to let blood and dip clothes was making little headway in stopping the epidemic.
News from the continent of Europe was equally gloomy. Revolt was everywhere in evidence. The people of France had risen eight months before to sweep away the monarchy of King Louis Philippe and to institute a republic. Civil war had followed in June, and not until October had French leaders gained enough strength to hold a national election. The condition of France after a year of revolution reminded the London Times editor of a pool that has been searched for some imaginary treasure. “The whole body of turbid water has been strained—but the stream held in its depths no lumps of California gold—a fine and even sand alone darkened the waters, and a worthless deposit is all they leave behind them.”
Prussia had also succumbed to the leveling processes of reform, and London read in the same newspaper issue which revealed California’s fortune, of the outbreak of war between Austria and Hungary over the attempted unification of the two countries. The separate little kingdoms of Italy were torn in jealous combat, and the Pope had lately fled the Vatican for his life.
Britain, though facing a world hostile to its monarchy, was going with remarkable calm about its business of enlarging the Empire and maintaining peace in the home isles. The daily interments of cholera dead were mute evidence that the government’s plan of encouraging emigration had merit. Already, a half-million Britishers had been transplanted to Canada and hundreds of others to the remaining colonies. California might now present a new outlet to relieve the pressure of population, but the government looked with disfavor on having large numbers of Englishmen leave the Empire entirely.
Probably in pursuance of the intra-Empire emigration policy, London newspapers continued to scoff at the reports emanating from California. The Times was quick to print a notice in early November that the gold fields had been denounced as a delusion by one who claimed to have prospected in California for many years. Continued news items to the contrary were given small space. With some evidence of irritated envy, the editor of the London News commented that Brother Jonathan had taken California for its fine harbors and tallow trade, when, lo and behold, he found gold. Wrote the class-conscious editor:
The discovery of gold in the Sacramento, like that of Communism on the Seine, has produced a confusion of rank and a startling degree of equality.... even politics have disappeared and republicanism ceased to be preached for the moment.... We must hear more of this El Dorado before we bestow upon it our serious consideration. There are some textures which will not bear many weeks washing, and the gold mines of the Sacramento may be one of them.
By late November, Irish discontent had been momentarily stilled as the whole of the British Isles turned to face the common enemy, cholera. Thousands of cases were now being reported weekly 1,900 were already dead, 600 had recovered, 1,400 were under treatment, and still the disease showed no sign of having run its course. The month of November also brought more word of the gold mines, and even greater exaggerations of its scope.
News from anywhere was diverting.
With the printing of the complete text of President Polk’s December message to Congress, official recognition of the California gold discoveries assured their validity. Londoners were as excited by the thought of picking nuggets out of stream beds as were Americans, but editorial scorn still filled their newspapers. The Journal of Commerce loftily stated that the small amount of gold found in California would not affect its world price, that gold mining in the Ural Mountains was much less expensive than in California, and that surface gold usually meant subsoil sterility.
The Times turned its sneers on Polk:
But to one topic he returns again and again. The mines or rather the fields of gold and quicksilver in California.... Paragraph after paragraph glitters with gold and groans with bullion. The 4,000 gold hunters wildly scraping the sands.... the greedy haste with which whole crews desert their ships for this Lotus shore; and all other circumstances of a real El Dorado are described with gloating ecstasy. A mint is forthwith to be established on the western coast, which is to deluge Asia and Polynesia with glittering tokens of the fortunate Republic. There was need of many mines to gild the Mexican war, and to pay its expenses. These acquisitions have cost the Union twenty-five millions of our money. If in the course of twenty years, the principal and interest be repaid by the dust collected from the rivers of California, the Union may deem itself most fortunate.
Despite these unfavorable comments, companies began to form immediately, either for speculation in goods or to carry gold hunters to the mines. The government, annoyed at this turn of events, took care to warn its citizens against the machinations of the wily Yankee. “Emigrate to British soil,” pleaded the London Times, “then, if such is your desire, cross the boundary to swell the anti-British party in the United States.” But the British Government would at least see to it that the emigrant “is not trepanned by fraudulent agents, and is not exposed to disease, starvation, and shipwreck by dishonest ship owners, and is not landed absolutely helpless at a Canadian port.” The Times correctly concluded that the impulse which would soon drive a quarter of a million people from the shores of England would not discriminate as to the types of emigrants, and that the movement was already out of control.
New York, meanwhile, enjoyed a tremendous burst of prosperity. The election was over. General Taylor had won by a narrow margin, and the unsettling activities of the Free-Soilers had subsided. Confidence in a coming upswing of business had been reflected all over the eastern half of the United States.
Steamer lines to California were multiplying to carry those bent on getting rich quickly. The more shrewd Easterners planned to make their fortunes in trade. “Any person strolling along our docks,” commented a New Yorker in December, “cannot help being struck with the quantity of merchandise of all kinds, which is marked for shipping to the new El Dorado.... Nearly a million dollars’ worth of supplies have been shipped from this port alone, of which not less than $400,000 have been sent within the last thirty days.”
All along the Atlantic Coast the story was the same. Citizens of New Orleans met in the St. Charles Hotel to organize an expedition to California. A company of a hundred Bostonians put up $500 apiece for a ship and cargo, and were counting on selling their goods to pay for passage around the Horn. Philadelphia was sending tremendous amounts of flour, while Baltimore clothing prices skyrocketed in rampant speculation on old stocks bound for the Pacific Coast.
The announcement of James Marshall’s chance discovery at Sutter’s Mill was a principal cause in halting a depression which threatened the economy of the entire Western world. Cancellation of contracts at the conclusion of the Mexican War, and the release of the American Army to inflate the half-employed ranks of labor, must otherwise certainly have brought a business recession to the United States. European markets were already sagging after months of strife on the war-torn, unproductive Continent. Rebellion in Ireland and the ravages of cholera throughout England had nearly stalled all but her overseas trade.
though the news of the gold discovery moved slowly around the world, and though
it was many times overshadowed by more spectacular events closer at hand, the
quickened pulse and the stirred imagination caused by the words “Gold, gold in
California!” had finally a far greater effect than any other news of the time.
Dean Albertson carried on his early studies in American history at the University of California, interrupted those studies to serve as a Naval Air Corps fighter pilot during the war, and since the war has taught American history at the University of California, Berkeley, and at New York University. He is now completing the work for his Doctorate at Columbia University.