|"Becoming California, a series that brings the California Gold Rush alive with the people who lived it."
by Don Baumgart
When gold was discovered, California had two newspapers ....and they both missed the big story.
California's first English language newspaper, the Californian, began publishing in Monterey on August 15, 1846. In a dusty storeroom, on a press left behind by a Mexican official, two men began feeding the territory's thirst for news.
There was a barrel of ink, but the only paper available was intended for cigar wrappings.
Walter Colton and Robert Semple published their paper every week for nearly a year before it was sold and moved to San Francisco where its rival, Sam Brannan's California Star, already was established.
News coverage was substantially slower in those days and four months passed before the two San Francisco newspapers caught wind of the January discovery of gold up on the American River.
The young man who was editing the Star in early 1848 spent the rest of his life explaining how he missed one of the great news stories of the century.
A military courier from California, Lieutenant Lucien Loeser, arrived in the nation's capitol and presented President James Polk with a tea caddy filled with more than 230 ounces of gold.
Loeser's tea caddy was the spark that caught President James Polk's attention. His subsequent State of the Union speech alluding to the yellow stuff set the nation, and the world, aflame with gold fever.
Veterans from the just-concluded war against Mexico hungered for more adventure. Men too young for the war saw their chance to travel and win riches. The unpopular war had won California as a republic for the United States and now gold became an instant symbol of the wealth that lay to the west.
Back home, the Star and the Californian both became victims of the exodus to the gold fields, losing pressmen, advertisers and subscribers.
In May and June of 1848 both papers folded.
While newspapers lacked readers, other businesses flourished. Stage and steamer lines did a booming business, bringing hopeful gold hunters to San Francisco. They came overland and by ship around Cape Horn.
When they arrived they found the cost of rent and food skyrocketing. The bay city had become supplier to the hordes of hopeful heading for the gold fields, and shortages of almost everything drove prices up.
Mary Megquier ran a store and her letters from San Francisco are now a book titled, Apron Full of Gold.
"We have a fine store which is now nearly completed," she wrote. "The upper part will rent for one thousand per month...a pretty little fortune."
Speaking of the shortage of vegetables, she wrote, "No one can wait for vegetables to grow to realize a fortune. Beets are one dollar and seventy-five cents apiece and tomatoes are a dollar a pound."
And that was in 1849.
Back in San Francisco, the two defunct newspapers revived and merged in 1850 to become California's first daily newspaper, the Alta California. It fed the hunger for news about finding gold and survived for 41 years.
But, it wasn't alone.
Soon after gold was found, there were hundreds of newspapers as almost every boomtown started its own. There was the Nevada City Miner's Spy Glass, and the Downieville Old Oaken Bucket. But nothing could quite compare with name of a San Francisco paper calling itself Satan's Bassoon.
And, newspapermen played more than just an observer's role in the historic times.
Many say the Gold Rush wasn't really started back in January of 1848 when James Marshall found that bright nugget in the tailrace of Sutter's Mill on the south fork of the American River. After all, it wasn't the first gold found in California.
Some say it was May when an enterprising San Francisco newspaperman tramped through the city's streets crying "Gold from the American River!" He waved a bottle filled with gold flakes. Others say he merely showed the bottle to a few banker friends and other prominent citizens.
The spark was struck. Gold madness quickly spread through the city, and its stores, homes and wives were deserted as men rushed off to find their fortunes in the gold fields.
All except the newspaperman who started the stampede.
Sam Brannan had bought up all the gold mining supplies he could find before crying "Gold!" He stayed away from the gold fields...and made his fortune selling 20-cent gold pans for $16 dollars apiece.
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