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|1||"Boys, I Believe I've Found a Gold Mine"||1|
|4||Gringos and Greasers||44|
|5||Bring Me the Head of Joaquin Murrieta||73|
|6||Pillagers or Patriots?||100|
|7||The Whores in '51||134|
|8||Bears, Bulls, and Bare Knuckles||159|
|9||I'll Die Before I'll Run||179|
|10||The Field of Honor||204|
|11||Pirates of the Placers||225|
|12||Gold Rush Lawmen||250|
|13||Enforcing the Law||273|
|14||Gold Rush Gunfighters||297|
|Epilogue: A Legacy of Violence||321|
"Boys, I Believe I've Found a Gold Mine"
"The whole country, from San Francisco to Los Angeles and from the seashore to the base of the Sierra Nevada, resounds with the sordid cry of 'gold! Gold!! GOLD!!! '" -San Francisco Californian, 1848
On the morning of January 24, 1848, James Marshall, booted and heavily coated, stepped out of the millhouse and walked across the gravel bar to the tailrace that had been cut into the bank of the South Fork of the American River. The gray, roiling stream, swollen by winter rains, swirled by silently, as if exhausted by its crashing descent from the Sierra Nevada. Here, in the peaceful Coloma Valley, the river flowed gently. Four miles downstream the current again picked up speed until it dropped violently into a long granite gorge, spuming foam and whitewater on its way to join the Sacramento River, forty-five miles distant in the vast, mostly unpopulated Central Valley of California.
The morning was clear but bitterly cold as Marshall inspected the tail-race. He had been sent by the land baron of Sacramento, John Sutter, to construct a sawmill in this isolated mountain valley. The mill was almost completed, but the tailrace, the flume that carried water from the river to the mill, was not deep enough to turn its huge water wheel. Marshall had been allowing water to run through the millrace at night to wash it out, and that morning he was checking the channel's depth. He later recalled:
My eye was caught with the glimpse of something shining in the bottom of the ditch. There was about a foot of water running then. I reached my hand down and picked it up; it made my heart thump, for I was certain it was gold. The piece was about half the size and of the shape of a pea. Then I saw another piece in the water. After taking it out I sat down and began to think right hard. . . . Putting one of the pieces on a hard river stone, I took another and commenced hammering it. It was soft and didn't break: it therefore must be gold. . . .
Walking back to the mill, he remarked to his workmen, in a classic understatement, "Boys, I believe I have found a gold mine." Soon the other workers, in their spare time, were searching for and finding flakes of gold. Four days later Marshall rode down to Sutter's Fort, in what is now Sacramento, and showed John Sutter what he had found. They weighed and tested the metal and became convinced that it was indeed gold. John Sutter wanted to keep the discovery a secret, but that was impossible. A month later, the Mormon workmen at Sutter's flour mill near Sacramento came up to the sawmill and discovered that the rumors were true. Thirteen miles downriver they started digging and panning. They, too, found gold, and the site became known as Mormon Island, the first mining camp to be established after the discovery of gold at Sutter's mill.
Early in March, John Sutter noted in his diary that more of his workers had "left for washing and digging Gold and very soon all followed, and left me only sick and lame behind." As word spread, more men began to drift to the American River. In San Francisco, many were skeptical. But on May 12, a Mormon merchant, Sam Brannan, rode in from Sutter's Fort with a bottle filled with gold dust. Swinging his hat in one hand and the bottle in the other, he galloped down the street shouting, "Gold! Gold! Gold from the American River!" Soon, in a veritable stampede, every able-bodied man in town was heading for the "diggings." Recalled one San Franciscan: "A frenzy seized my soul. . . . Piles of gold rose up before me at every step; castles of marble . . . thousands of slaves bowing to my beck and call; myriads of fair virgins contending with each other for my love-were among the fancies of my fevered imagination. The Rothschilds, Girards, and Astors appeared to me but poor people; in short, I had a very violent attack of the gold fever."
On May 29, San Francisco's newspaper, the Californian, ceased publication with the following announcement: "The majority of our subscribers and many of our advertisers have closed their doors and places of business and left town. . . . The whole country, from San Francisco to Los Angeles and from the seashore to the base of the Sierra Nevada, resounds with the sordid cry of 'gold! Gold!! GOLD!!! ' while the field is left half planted, the house half built, and everything neglected but the manufacture of shovels and pick axes." Men headed on foot, horse, and mule-back into the American River gold region. In San Jose, scarcely anyone was left behind but women and children. Even the alcalde, (an official who was a kind of combined mayor and judge), had left for the mines. Harry Bee, the alguacil, or constable, had been left in charge of ten prisoners, all Indians, two of whom were charged with murder. He was determined not to be left behind, but he dared not set the prisoners free. With the assistance of his Californio father-in-law and brother-in-law, he marched the Indians to Dry Diggings (now called Placerville) on a tributary of the American River. Bee put the Indians to gold washing, and after two months of faithful work he restored them to liberty.
By the first of June, 2,000 men had flocked into the mining region. Many of them were Hispanic Californians, or Californios, and Indians. California, formerly a distant province of Mexico, had only recently been ceded by Mexico to the United States. It was a pastoral land of huge cattle ranches between San Diego in the south and San Francisco in the north. Beginning in 1769, Catholic padres had built a chain of missions along the coast, each a day's ride apart, connected by El Camino Real, the Royal Highway. Small pueblos, or towns, grew up around the missions; rancheros grazed cattle on the lush coastal hills and built adobe haciendas as homes and headquarters of their ranchos.
At the close of the Mexican War (1846-1848), the Mexican government signed the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo and gave up the territory that is now Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, and California. A military governor of California was appointed, and the old Mexican political-judicial office of the alcalde was adopted by the Americans and remained in effect until statehood. During the war, American forces were sent to California; many were volunteers who, at the end of hostilities, were discharged into the civilian population. In terms of their impact on Gold Rush violence, the most significant of these military units was Jonathan D. Stevenson's Regiment of New York Volunteers.
Stevenson was a prominent lawyer, state militia colonel, and Tammany Hall politician in New York City. In 1846 he was authorized to raise a volunteer force for service in California. The men were to be "persons of good habits," for on their discharge they were to remain in the West as settlers. The recruits were mainly young and unmarried; many were skilled tradesmen, educated and from good families. In California they would become important merchants, ranchers, lawyers, and political leaders. Some of the rank and file, however, were hardly "persons of good habits." Many were young Irish saloon ruffians; others were members of the nativist Bowery Boys, the notorious New York City street gang connected to Tammany Hall. These tough youths would cause no end of violence and other trouble in California during the Gold Rush. By the time the regiment's 955 officers and men arrived in California by ship in 1847, hostilities on the coast had ceased. To maintain peace, the New York Volunteers were garrisoned in San Diego, Los Angeles, Santa Barbara, and San Francisco. News of the peace treaty did not reach the West Coast until four months after gold had been discovered, and orders were then issued that the regiment be mustered out. But many of the volunteers had already deserted and headed for the gold region. Rewards were offered for deserters, but no one was left to hunt them down.
As ranchos, pueblos, and towns were rapidly depopulated, Colonel Richard B. Mason, the military governor, made a trip to the American River. He was accompanied by his chief of staff, Lieutenant William Tecumseh Sherman, who later would achieve fame and notoriety in the Civil War. Arriving at Mormon Island on July 5, they discovered two hundred men working with rockers and living in tents and rude huts. Many were making $100 a day, more than a man could earn in a month in the East. On the North Fork of the American River, Governor Mason found a ravine where miners took out $17,000 in gold in seven days; another gulch had yielded $12,000. Wrote Mason a month later in his official report to President James K. Polk:
I was surprised to learn that crime of any kind was very infrequent and that no thefts or robberies had been committed in the gold district. All live in tents, in brush houses or in the open air and men have frequently about their persons thousands of dollars worth of this gold. . . . Conflicting claims to particular spots of ground may cause collisions, but they will be rare as the extent of the country is so great and the gold so abundant that for the present there is room and enough for all.
Mason had first doubted the reports of gold, but now he was a believer. He concluded in his report, "I have no hesitation in saying there is more gold in the country drained by the Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers than will pay the cost of the war with Mexico a hundred times over." He sent his dispatch to Washington, along with proof in the form of 230 ounces of gold dust. By the time the report arrived in late December, eastern newspapers had published private letters from distant California telling of a great gold strike. These accounts were met with widespread skepticism. But on December 5, all doubts were laid to rest when President Polk, in his message to Congress, announced that "The accounts of the abundance of gold in that territory are of such extraordinary character as would scarcely command belief were they not corroborated by authentic reports of officers in the public service."
These words set off one of mankind's greatest mass migrations. Gold fever swept the country, and soon the world. Already, American settlers in Oregon had traveled south and found gold along the Trinity River in northern California. Word had also reached the state of Sonora in northern Mexico, drawing thousands of Mexican emigrants. Thousands more soon arrived from Chile, Peru, and Hawaii. By January 1849, hundreds of ships were departing from New York and other east coast cities for a six-month trip around Cape Horn at the tip of South America. Others took a short cut across the Isthmus of Panama, a quicker but more hazardous route that left many dead from malaria and dysentery. Americans in the border states and in the Ohio and Mississippi Valleys set out in trains of covered wagons, or "prairie schooners." They took one of two routes. The northern trail led from St. Louis, Missouri, across the Great Plains to South Pass in the Rocky Mountains, then along the Humboldt River and over the Sierra Nevada. A southern route began in what is now Kansas City, followed the Santa Fe Trail south to New Mexico, and then crossed the desert into Southern California. Either way, the trip was long, arduous, and dangerous.
As the news crossed the globe, gold hunters poured into California from the Caribbean, Europe, Australia, and China. So exaggerated were the reports of riches that one emigrant complained, "A grain of gold taken from the mine became a pennyweight at Panama, an ounce in New York and Boston, and a pound nugget at London." The population growth was explosive. At the time gold was discovered, California's population consisted of more than 100,000 Indians and some 14,000 whites, most of them Californios, but including American and European immigrants; many of the Americans were U. S. troops. By the end of 1848 there were 10,000 men in the gold region; a year later the number was 40,000. They were overwhelmingly young and male, having left mothers, sisters, daughters, and sweethearts at home. California's non-Indian population boomed to 115,000 by the end of 1849, 90 percent of it male. By July 1850 more than five hundred vessels had been abandoned in San Francisco's harbor; their crews jumped ship and departed for the mines. The same year statehood was granted, and just two years later the population had mushroomed to more than 255,000. By 1860, California's residents numbered 380,000; almost 40 percent were foreign born.
The California Gold Rush was to bring wealth to some, but disappointment, defeat, and death to many more. The gold seekers called themselves Argonauts and developed a new jargon to match their new experiences. The gold region became "the mines," "the diggings," "the placers," "El Dorado," "the Mother Lode." Gold was "dust," "nuggets," "specie," "quartz," "bullion," "paydirt." The Forty-Niners came on a grand adventure "to see the elephant," a popular expression of the day. (It came from the apocryphal tale of a farmer, who, on hearing that a circus was coming, loaded his wagon with produce and headed for town. Circuses featuring elephants were scarce, and few Americans had ever seen one. The farmer encountered the circus parade on the road, and his horses, spooked by the elephant's scent, bolted and overturned his wagon, spilling the contents across the road. Shaken and bruised, the farmer declared, "I don't give a hang. I have seen the elephant.")
At the time of the gold discovery San Francisco was a tiny village of 800. By 1850 it had exploded into a boom town of 25,000 living in tents and wood frame houses, with modern four-story brick buildings sprouting everywhere. Dozens of saloons, gambling halls, fandango houses, and bordellos served the transient populace. Arrival in San Francisco after the long sea journey was something to celebrate. When Tom Hyer, the champion bare-knuckle prizefighter, arrived in 1850 from New York, he got roaring drunk, then mounted a horse and rode it into a saloon. He was arrested. A large crowd showed up in court to see him fined for public intoxication and disorderly conduct. Hyer's lawyer argued, with but little exaggeration, "It [is] not unusual for gentlemen to drive their horses into barrooms. Everybody does so on first arriving in this city. For the first week or two after coming on shore they are in a sort of mist. They want to see the elephant, and so they mount a horse and hunt him out."
For those who arrived by sea, San Francisco was the jumping off place for the mines. From there, one would travel by land or boat across San Francisco Bay and up the Sacramento River to Sacramento, gateway to the Northern Mines, or by boat on the San Joaquin River to Stockton, gateway to the Southern Mines. The vast mining region extended across much of the western foothills of the Sierra Nevada. In 1848 and 1849, prospectors swarmed across the region and located many rich diggings. The Northern Mines lay north of the Mokelumne River, an area drained by the Cosumnes, American, Bear, Yuba, and Feather Rivers and their many creeks and tributaries. The Southern Mines was the country south of the Mokelumne River, including the Calaveras, Stanislaus, Tuolumne, and Merced Rivers.
Emigrants who came overland and crossed the Sierra Nevada found themselves smack in the middle of the Northern Mines. Small settlements and tent cities sprang up quickly at the most promising sites. The towns of Downieville, Nevada City, Grass Valley, Auburn, and Placerville soon became important centers of mining and commerce. Marysville, on the mouth of the Yuba River and accessible by riverboat, became a second entrance to the Northern Mines and boomed. In the Southern Mines, gold seekers from Mexico and Americans who had taken the southern route poured into the foothills. There, Mokelumne Hill, Murphys, Columbia, Sonora, and Mariposa were among the principal camps. Far to the north was yet another El Dorado, the Trinity River mines, and its main settlements of Shasta and Weaverville.
In the gold camps, log cabins and tents clustered precariously on the steep slopes of rivers and ravines. Although most of the towns were below the snow line, winters were wet, muddy, and bitterly cold; snow flurries, ice, and hail were not uncommon. Summers were dry, dusty, and hot; temperatures often reached 100 degrees. Most miners worked and lived together in small companies, often made up of their traveling companions from home. Life was primitive and comforts were few. Food and supplies were scarce and prices exorbitant. Gold dust was the common currency; miners carried their dust in small buckskin pouches called "pokes." Without women, most were forced for the first time to perform all domestic chores for themselves: cooking, washing, housekeeping, and sewing repairs in their tattered clothing. Cooking was done on open fires and in rude stoves. With wood and canvas buildings crowded closely together, fire was a constant threat, and most of the camps were destroyed by mass conflagrations at one time or another.
Labor was backbreaking and often unrewarding and frustrating. In the early years, placer gold was found in rivers and creeks where it had been washed loose from deeper deposits and bedrock. Miners used pans to scoop sand and gravel from the stream bed, swirling and flushing the water in a circular motion that left the heavy particles of gold at the bottom of the pan. Soon they began using the gold rocker, in which water and sand were mixed in a box that resembled a child's cradle. The cradle was rocked back and forth, allowing the muddy sand to pass out through a sieve at one end, leaving the gold behind. The next development was the "long tom," essentially a huge rocker, up to fifteen feet long, with water fed into it by a flume at the top. Later, sluice boxes-long wooden troughs with steplike slats, or "riffle" bars-became popular. Water was run through the sluice while river rock and sand were shoveled in at the top; the water rushed down, leaving particles of gold collected on the riffle bars. Such methods were known as placer mining. Camps that had no water were called "dry diggings." There, "coyoting," in which small holes were dug, or the use of flumes to bring in water from a distance to wash the dirt, were prevalent. "Winnowing," in which sand and gravel were placed in a blanket, then tossed in the air and caught again, was another method used to separate gold in the dry diggings.
By 1852 the "easy pickings" were mostly gone; the streams were "panned out." The miners knew that there was still wealth to be had in the form of rich veins of gold-bearing quartz deep below the earth. Heavily capitalized mining companies began to appear, using sophisticated methods to extract the gold. Hydraulic miners used giant water nozzles to wash away entire hillsides. Hardrock miners tunneled into the mountains, burrowing like gophers in search of veins of quartz gold. The stamp mill, which crushed rock and quartz so gold could be removed, was invented. By 1857, $500 million in gold had been taken from the mother lode. Gold mining had become big business; the days of the wandering "sourdough" with his pickaxe and mule were drawing to a close.
Crime, as Governor Mason reported to the president, was rare in the early months of the Gold Rush. Good claims were abundant and a spirit of camaraderie and cooperation prevailed among the miners. A popular story was that of a sixteen-year-old youth who appeared one day in a small mining camp, footsore, weary, hungry, and penniless. Thirty miners were at work in the ravine, and the boy sat on the bank, watching them in silence. One of the miners, seeing his condition, called out to the others, "Boys, I'll work an hour for that chap if you will."
At the end of an hour the miners poured a hundred dollars' worth of gold dust into his handkerchief. Then they wrote down a list of tools and other necessities. One of them told the youth, "You go and buy these, and come back. We'll have a good claim staked out for you. Then you've got to paddle for yourself."
But by the end of 1848, robbery and murder began to occur. In 1849 and 1850 an avalanche of adventurous young men descended on California and crowded into the diggings. There was increasing competition for good claims. As desperate men sought instant fortunes, violence became ever more common after the winter of 1849-1850. The gold seekers came heavily armed, many with the recently invented "pepperbox" and Colt revolving pistols. The weapons were not carried for show, but for self-defense. Reported the Sonora Herald in 1850, "That firearms are necessary in a country like this, no one living here can doubt. It would not be prudent to travel without them, nor should they be thought useless under the pillow at night."
Never before had so many armed civilians of such varied racial and religious backgrounds been thrown together. Thousands of young men were away from home for the first time in their lives. Unrestrained by the settling influences of home, family, women, and church, they became reckless in their newfound freedom, and-fortified with alcohol, revolvers, and Bowie knives-lawless in their anonymity. They behaved in ways that would have brought disgrace back home. Men openly carried weapons, consorted with prostitutes, gambled, drank, and brawled. "California turns men profane, drunken [and] lawless," complained the editor of the Grass Valley Telegraph. Few, if any, intended to remain in California; they wanted to make a quick fortune and return home. Forty-Niners were acutely aware of the lack of social constraints placed on them, and of the transitory nature of their sojourn. Said one, "We are in California without associations . . . in a short time we will return to the states where somebody lives, and then we will reform."
Another miner, writing from Mormon Island to his brother in Wisconsin in 1850, aptly described the violent masculine culture: "Our amusements here on Sunday are drinking, swearing, fighting and gambling, more than I ever saw in my life before. I eschew all but fighting. I have had two or three fights since I came here. Can't help it. Must defend myself. I do it up in short order either with a knife or a club."
The drastic personal changes wrought on the Forty-Niners by their new environment were also not lost on contemporary observers. It was painfully obvious that in California society was vastly different and that men behaved in ways that most cultures would not accept. The reasons for these changes were also self-evident. The editor of San Francisco's preeminent Gold Rush newspaper, the Alta California, bluntly described them:
Men come to California in the hope of speedily becoming rich. Bright visions of big lumps of gold . . . to be gathered without any severe labor, haunt them night and day before they reach here. Here they hope to find a land where the inevitable law of God that "man shall earn his bread by the sweat of his brow" has been repealed, or at least for a time suspended. They come here with this hope, and it takes but a few short weeks to dispel it. They are disappointed; their impatient desire for the attainment of speedy wealth seems to have no prospect of gratification. Temptations are about them on every hand. They drink and they gamble. They associate with men who, in their Eastern homes, would be shunned by them as the worst of their kind.
And California's temptations were many. As one observer wrote in 1855: "I have seen purer liquors, better segars, finer tobacco, truer guns and pistols, larger dirks and bowie knives, and prettier courtezans here, than in any other place I have ever visited; and it is my unbiased opinion that California can and does furnish the best bad things that are obtainable in America." Even the colorful names of mining camps reflected the rough masculine society of the Forty-Niner: Drunkards Bar, Poker Flat, Hangtown, Whiskey Gulch, Murderers Bar, Dead Shot Flat, Git Up and Git, Hells Delight, Garrote, Robbers Roost, Wild Yankee, Rough and Ready, Dead Man's Bar, Brandy Flat, and, inevitably, Whorehouse Gulch.
Because of the scarcity of women, prostitution flourished during the Gold Rush. Although men in that era rarely committed their sexual proclivities to paper, a rare exception is an 1853 letter, more graphic than grammatical, from a miner in Sonora to his cousin back home in Maine: "You spoke in your letter about all of you being maried. Your all getting a damd lot of good fucking. i suppose you think you have got the advantage of me but i got a crack at a very hansome girl last Sunday. it only cos me a 20. fucking is from 5 dollars to 50 out hear."
Although hard luck in the diggings turned some otherwise honest men to crime, others were already evildoers before they came to California. Perhaps the most notable and numerous of these were the "Sydney Ducks" from the Australian penal colony. So many Australian ex-convicts joined the Gold Rush that the Forty-Niners commonly but wrongly assumed that all Australians were criminals. However, in 1848, one in ten immigrants from Sydney was an ex-convict; of these, most were convicted thieves and more than half were habitual criminals. Thus the Argonauts were not altogether incorrect in believing that a disproportionate number of Australians were professional thieves. Also notable for lawlessness were the New York street toughs, often of Irish heritage, commonly known as "b'hoys" ("boys" pronounced with a brogue). In California, as in New York, they became notorious for drinking, brawling, and fighting with knives and guns.
The Gold Rush proved disastrous for California's Indians. From 1849 to 1856, 50,000 Native Americans died from the white man's diseases. Between 1848 and 1880, more than 4,500 Indians died from the white man's guns. Although there was some actual warfare between Indian tribes and settlers, California's "Indian wars" were often campaigns of retaliation by citizens and militia groups. For every white slain by Indians, many more Indians were killed in retribution by the whites. During the 1850s, Indians were forced into virtual slavery by laws that allowed them to be "sold" as forced laborers to whites who paid their fines for minor offenses such as public drunkenness. California's Indians had long been in decline due to contact with the Spanish and Mexicans; the Gold Rush made that disintegration complete.
It was only after gold seekers failed in the mines that most realized that the burgeoning new frontier offered myriad opportunities in business, trade, shipping, and agriculture. Most elected to remain in California. Many gave up and returned home, then had a change of heart and came back to California with their wives and children. Men in frantic search of gold had no time for community affairs or social responsibility, but those who decided to make California their new home had a vested interest in developing stable communities. It was then that the frontier conditions of the Gold Rush began to disappear. Some historians contend that the Gold Rush was over by 1852 or 1853, when the days of easy pickings were gone, mining was transformed into a corporate enterprise, and immigration slackened. Yet the unique Gold Rush society and culture-overwhelmingly young, single, male, and marked by excessive violence-actually existed throughout the 1850s. For the California Gold Rush was more than just a movement of people onto a mining frontier; it was a state of mind. Therefore this book covers the entire Gold Rush and the decade that followed, 1848-1860.
As we will see, the Gold Rush had what appears to be the highest rate of homicide in the history of peacetime America; modern murder rates pale in comparison to those in California during the 1850s. Today, as the new millennium approaches, America continues to be faced with its most urgent social problem: violent crime. Americans want to know why their nation is so violent and how it got that way. Most Americans accept that violence is part and parcel of the nation's past; it is a commonly held belief that the "Wild West" helped create our violent society. Thus it is fitting at the 150th anniversary of the California Gold Rush that we look at that pivotal event in frontier history and ask whether it was a precursor of our modern culture of violence.