All That Glitters
Johann Augustus Sutter had bad luck with money. Born in Kandern, Germany, in 1803, he went bankrupt there and, to escape his many creditors, fled to the Mexican Southwest, where he tried his fortune in the Santa Fe trade. Twice more Sutter went bust, before finally settling in Mexican California in 1838, where he managed to build a vast ranch in the region’s central valley.
Presumably, January 24, 1848, started like any other day on the ranch. James Wilson Marshall, an employee of Sutter’s, went out to inspect the race of a new mill on the property. He was attracted by something shiny in the sediment collected at the bottom of the mill race. It was gold.
Within a month and a half of the discovery, all of Sutter’s employees had deserted him, in search of gold. Without a staff, Sutter’s ranch faltered. Worse, his claims to the land around the mill were ultimately judged invalid. While everyone around Sutter (it seemed) grew instantly rich, Sutter himself was, yet again, financially ruined and would die, bitter and bankrupt, in 1880.
It was not Marshall or Sutter, but a Mormon entrepreneur who did the most to stir up the great Gold Rush of 1849. Sam Brannon was one of a very few Mormon men brash enough to challenge the authority of Brigham Young. In defiance of Young, Brannon had set up his own Mormon community in the vicinity of San Francisco—then called Yerba Buena (good herb). Brannon saw in the discovery of gold a chance to profit from serving the needs of hopeful prospectors and other settlers. Fresh from a trip to Salt Lake City, where Young had excommunicated him from the church, Brannon took a quinine bottle, filled it with gold dust, and ran out into the streets of his town. “Gold!” he yelled. “Gold! Gold from the American River!” For good measure, he covered the gold story in The California Star, a newspaper he owned. Within two weeks, the population of Yerba Buena plummeted from a few thousand to a few dozen, as men dropped their tools and left their jobs to prospect on the south fork of the American River.
From the West Coast, word of gold spread east. The scene played out in San Francisco was repeated in city after city. Employment was unceremoniously terminated, wives and children were left behind, and seekers set out on the long trek to California. The journey was characteristically filled with hardship and heartbreak, whether the traveler chose the tedious overland route, the treacherous sea passage around stormy Cape Horn, or the boat to Panama (and a trek across the disease-ridden Isthmus to meet another ship for the voyage to the California coast). For some, the trip was worthwhile; great fortunes were made. Most prospectors, however, found only hard lives, mean spirits, and barely enough gold to pay for meals, shelter, and clothing. Many didn’t even find that much.
The fact was that most men made the mistake of looking for their fortune on the ground, while the real money was made by those, like Brannon, who sold groceries, hardware, real estate, liquor, and other necessities to the ’49ers. Collis Huntington and Mark Hopkins made a fortune in miner’s supplies. Charles Crocker used the profits from his dry goods operation to start a bank. Leland Stanford parlayed his mercantile pursuits into a political career culminating in the governorship of California and the founding of the university that bears his name. Together—as the “Big Four”—Huntington, Hopkins, Crocker, and Stanford provided the major financing for the Central Pacific Railroad—the western leg of the great transcontinental railroad completed in 1869.
The California Gold Rush lasted through the eve of the Civil War. The rush populated much of California, and then, as gold was discovered farther inland in Nevada, Colorado, and the Dakotas, yet more of the frontier West was settled. But as the bonds of union grew stronger between East and West, those uniting North and South steadily dissolved. Still basking in the reflected glory of western gold, the American nation was about to enter its darkest hours.