Sunday, April 14, 2019

An Eyewitness To The California Gold Rush 1848

The California Gold Country
Ever wonder what it was like in the first few days after the discovery of gold at the start of the California Gold Rush? I was recently reading an account of what took place in the first few days after the discovery of gold at Sutter's Mill in California on January 24th, 1848. Those events were recounted during the 50th anniversary observance of the event that changed California and the United States. 

Just prior to the 50th anniversary of the California Gold Rush, there was great deal of interest in locating eyewitnesses who may be still alive and able to recount what took place back in the day. The organizers of the observances found that there were actually a number of  Several individuals still around. Of them, many claimed to have been with James Marshall when he first found a few gold nuggets while building a sawmill for John Sutter.

Of course, as with any historical event, the same thing that takes place today actually took place back then, more people claimed to be with James Marshal than really were. You'd be shocked at how many people always seem to show up after the fact but say they were there. This is something that resonates through history and simply something people do. They either say they were there, or say they played a significant role in the event.

It's true. For example, Wyatt Earp claimed that he arrested Texas legend Ben Thompson, claimed that he single-handedly held off a mob of 300 angry townsfolk who wanted to hang gambler Johnny Behind The Deuce, claimed that he was a great fist fighter, claimed that he was the target of the Cowboys at the OK Corral, claimed that he shot Johnny Ringo, and even claimed that he shot and cut Curly Bill in half with a shot gun though in reality the two may have been standing a hundred yards away from each other if we actually belief Earp's tale. Of course, all of Earp's claims have been proven either completely false or questionable at best. Yet, there are those who still accept Earp's yarns at face value because he was Wyatt Earp.

This was the problem that confronted the folks attempting to recount what took place at the start of the California Gold Rush. They found that their may have been almost a hundred people who were standing right beside James Marshall when he bent over to pick up a few nuggets of gold. And as for most of the accounts, many were treated with a great deal of skepticism for good reason.

But, of those located, there was an old man by the name of Adam Wicks. The folks researching what took place found him living in Ventura, California. Among them, it was agreed that he was a credible source. They saw him as reliable because his facts agreed with how gold was first discovered in California at Sutter's Mill. He knew things that proved that he had credibility.

The New York Times published an interview with Adam Wicks on December 27, 1897. Their article was published about a month before the actual 50th anniversary. What Mr. Wicks recalled was fascinating in it's details, I hope you enjoy what he recalled.

Adam Wicks recalled arriving in San Francisco by ship in the summer of 1847, at the age of 21:

"I was charmed with the wild new country, and decided to stay, and I’ve never been out of the state from that time. Along in October 1847, I went with several young fellows up the Sacramento River to Sutter’s Fort, at what is now the City of Sacramento. There were about 25 white people at Sutter’s Fort, which was merely a stockade of timbers as a protection from assaults by Indians.

"Sutter was the richest American in central California at the time, but he had no money. It was all in land, timber, horses, and cattle. He was about 45 years old, and was full of schemes for making money by selling his timber to the United States government, which had just come into possession of California. That is why he was having Marshall build the sawmill up in Columale (later known as Coloma).

"I knew James Marshall, the discoverer of gold, very well. He was an ingenious, flighty sort of man, who claimed to be an expert millwright out from New Jersey."

Mr. Wicks remembered hearing about the gold discovery as meaningless cow camp gossip:

"In the latter part of January 1848, I was at work with a gang of vaqueros for Captain Sutter. I remember as clearly as if it were yesterday when I first heard of the gold discovery. It was on January 26, 1848, forty-eight hours after the event. We had driven a drove of cattle to a fertile grazing spot on the American River and were on our way back to Columale for more orders.

"A nephew, a lad of 15 years, of Mrs. Wimmer, the cook at the lumber camp, met us on the road. I gave him a lift on my horse, and as we jogged along the boy told me that Jim Marshall had found some pieces of what Marshall and Mrs. Wimmer thought were gold. The boy told this in the most matter-of-fact way, and I did not think of it again until I had put the horses in the corral and Marshall and I sat down for a smoke."

Mr. Wicks stated that he met and asked John Marshall if he heard anything about someone finding gold in the area. He said that John Marshall was annoyed by the question, but then swore Wicks to silence before actually showing Wicks what he were found:

"The largest nugget was the size of a hickory nut; the others were the size of black beans. All had been hammered, and were very bright from boiling and acid tests. Those were the evidences of gold.

"I have wondered a thousand times since how we took the finding of the gold so coolly. Why, it did not seem to us a big thing. It appeared only an easier way of making a living for a few of us. We had never heard of a stampede of gold-crazy men in those days. Besides, we were green backwoodsmen. None of us had ever seen natural gold before."

Believe it or not, some say the initial discovery had very little effect on the day to day life there. Mr. Wicks described life working for Captain Sutter as follows:

"We went to bed at the usual hour that night, and so little excited were we about the discovery that neither of us lost a moment’s sleep over the stupendous wealth that lay all about us. We proposed to go out and hunt at odd times and on Sundays for gold nuggets.

"Two weeks or so later Mrs. Wimmer went to Sacramento. There she showed at Sutter’s Fort some nuggets she had found along the American River. Even Captain Sutter himself had not known of the finds of gold on his land until then."

Of course, once the word of gold got out, a mass migration took place. Mr. Wicks described the scene as follows:

"The earliest rush to the mines was in April. There were 20 men, from San Francisco, in the party. Marshall was so mad at Mrs. Wimmer that he vowed he would never treat her decently again.

"At first it was thought the gold was only to be found within a radius of a few miles of the sawmill at Columale, but the newcomers spread out, and every day brought news of localities along the American River that were richer in gold than where we had been quietly working for a few weeks.

"The very maddest man of all was Captain Sutter when men began to come from San Francisco, San Jose, Monterey and Vallejo by the score to find gold. All of the captain's workmen quit their jobs, his sawmill could not be run, his cattle went wandering away for lack of vaqueros, and his ranch was occupied by a horde of lawless gold-crazy men of all degrees of civilization.

"All the captain’s plans for a great business career were suddenly ruined."

While John Sutter later died broke, as history tells us, the word of gold being found spread like wild fire. To confirm the findings, President Polk mentioned the California gold discovery in his annual (state of the Union) report to Congress in December of 1848. In those days, the State of the Union was a report given to Congress and not an address given to the American people as it is today. President Woodrow Wilson actually started the modern day tradition of the President giving a State of the Union speech to the people.

After President Polk confirmed the discovery of gold, the great California Gold Rush was on. This single event changed California and made the United States wealthier than imaginable.

Tom Correa

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