|"Becoming California, a series that brings the California Gold Rush alive with the people who lived it."
by Don Baumgart
James Marshall's discovery of gold on the American River in January of 1848 came one week before the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo gave California to the United States. In March the U.S. paid Mexico $15 million for what would be California, Nevada, Utah and parts of the future states of Wyoming, Colorado, Arizona and New mexico.
In campaign after campaign the upstart young nation had defeated its southern neighbor. It was time to negotiate peace. In February of 1848 a treaty was submitted to the U.S. Senate.
The treaty was described as bringing "...a peace which every one will be glad of, but no one would be proud of." And then Marshall's fingers grasped the shiny metal. The ending to the two-year war with Mexico made what was about to happen an American saga.
By summer the one-word news report, "Gold!" had spread from Oregon to the Mexican border. By year's end every able-bodied man in California was already hard at work in the diggings, aware that the world knew the secret and was on its way.
The reports from the mines were heady.
"Five men up on the Feather River took $75,000 out of the ground in three months!"
"Sailors who jumped ship to pan gold were finding $2,000 to $5,000 a day!"
"An Irish teamster named John Sullivan took $26,000 from his diggings on the Stanislaus River!"
"On a four-foot-square claim described as 'not big enough for a grave' a miner unearthed 20 pounds of gold!"
San Francisco welcomed these miners back from the fields with their hefty pokes of nuggets and dust and if the stories seemed to grow as the pile of gold on the bar shrank, few noticed. They were the originals. Soon would come the New York hat merchant, the whaler out of Bedford, the Harvard student and the Bowery politician.
John Marsh Smith, a thirty-year-old Baltimore Quaker, left his two small sons and his wife Elizabeth at home and went in search of gold with his younger brother Frederick. It was June of 1849.
Smith reached the gold fields after crossing the Isthmus of Panama. His letters back to his wife Elizabeth told of the fate of the come-lately. "I was quite pleased with the process of gold washing, but found without much observation that labor is the true capitel of this great and growing country."
Another letter ended, "P.S. When I make money enough to live comfortable, and buy a little farm, I am away from here."
From Sacramento he wrote, "On my return to this place from San Francisco I found Fred rather the worse of hard work and exposure." He nursed his brother back to health. "I am ashamed of the time I have been in this country and not yet a single remittance."
Winter came to the gold country and Smith penned this description of Sacramento to his wife waiting in Baltimore: "...mud almost to a mule's back being one of the predominant features..."
On Christmas in the year of the Forty-Niner Smith found encouragement. "I have heard great news from the mines today," a letter to Elizabeth reported. "The high water has driven people to the hills where they never thought of digging and their success is great!" Nearly a year later Smith would still be searching for his El Dorado. "I think I will have some luck yet," he wrote.
He mentioned a "little sack containing some gold of my own digging for thee," that was being delivered to his wife. But, later that month his tone was again dark.
"In this country one becomes the creature of circumstance. In Sacramento (where he managed a failed hotel) I was not doing as well as one ought when the continued attacks of dysentery and Fevers were regular." He announced that he was heading north by ship to try trading in the Oregon markets of Astoria and Portland.
John Marsh Smith, the Quaker Forty-Niner from Baltimore, returned to San Francisco and headed for home in January of 1851, his adventuring career less of a financial success than his letters home, each beginning, "Dear Lizzie." They became one of the lasting chronicles of the Gold Rush.
California Gold Rush Index (more stories)
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