"Becoming California, a series that brings the California Gold Rush alive with the people who lived it."

It Was a Hot Story Few Newspapers Could Resist


by Don Baumgart

In October of 1848, the year gold was discovered at Sutter's Sawmill on the American River, newspapers were full of the news. The following year would give a name to all those who flooded into California to scrape the stream beds in search of fortunes: the Forty-niners.

OREGONIANS ARRIVE noted one headline. "The first wagon train to cross from Oregon Territory to California has successfully arrived in the Sacramento Valley. Party members, led by Peter H. Burnett, are resting today on the ranch of Peter Lassen before proceeding to the gold fields."

GOVERNOR HAS STORE, proclaimed another headline. "Coloma, Oct. 27, 1848 -- Because of the difficulty of living on army pay Col. Richard B. Mason and three associates have established a store here to serve miners in the area."

As sailors jumped ship in San Francisco Bay to go gold hunting, a local paper ran this item: "A score of ships lie in the bay today without full crews, but some captains are hopeful they will soon be able to depart. Fourteen vessels arrived during September, and only four departed."

Another news story, datelined Monterey, said: "The U.S. Navy, as well as the army and cargo vessels, suffers from desertions. A sailor's life and pay hold no attraction for any bitten by the gold bug." The story mentions rewards of $40,000 for the return of deserters, at $500 each.

FIRST MURDER IN GOLD MINING AREA shouted the headline. COLOMA, Oct. 2, 1848 -- "The scene of the first gold discovery last January has become the scene of the first recorded murder in the gold mining region. This sad event occurred last night in Sutter's sawmill in a violent outburst arising out of a drunken spree. Peter Raymond, a former member of the New York Volunteer regiment, fatally stabbed John R. Phister, an American recently arrived from the Sandwich Islands to hunt for gold." Raymond was drunk.

Another newspaper piece dated October 15, told of the misfortunes of one of the major players in the early Gold Rush.

SUTTER'S PROPERTY SIGNED OVER TO SON "Amid all the gold being taken from the enormously rich placers on and around his huge land grant, Capt. John A. Sutter is in difficulties from the lack of it." Trying to avoid the loss of his holdings, Sutter put the property in his son's name.

MINING SEASON IS NEARLY OVER said an end-of-October story from 1849 datelined Sacramento. "With California's annual rainy season approaching and likely to break almost any day, good gold mining for 1849 is nearly over. Wise miners are starting to flock toward the towns rather than spend the winter in isolated camps.

But, not to worry, winter entertainment was provided to amuse the idle miners.

THEATER COMES TO CALIFORNIA "Professional theatrical entertainment is now available to California residents with plenty of gold dust in their pockets," said a news story out of San Francisco. "Rowe's Olympic Circus opened here today with the Ethiopian Serenaders, the first dramatic spectacle in the city." Two weeks earlier Sacramento's first "professional dramatic performance" was given in a tent.

Also in the news from 1849 came word that convention delegates in Monterey had approved a constitution for the soon-to-be State of California. "...ten guns began booming a salute. At the 31st shot there was a shout of `That's for California' which will be the 31st state."

An excellent assembly of newspaper articles from the time of the Gold Rush have been collected into the Golden Gazette, a book edited by Dudley Ross. This interesting look at what was being said as history was being made, can be read at the Doris Foley Historical Library, 211 N Pine in Nevada City.

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Copyright Don Baumgart, 2006


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