The California Gold Rush began in the spring of 1848 at Sutter's Mill off the South Fork River, northeast of Sacramento. A carpenter named James Marshall was overseeing the construction of a water-powered sawmill when he spotted "something shining in the ditch." After some crude tests, he became convinced that what he held was real gold. He found more. In fact every time he looked around he found more.
After four days, an excited Marshall took the evidence to the mill's owner, John Sutter, who realized immediately he would lose everything, and he did. California was a lawless territory; if men decided to dig for gold on his property, he could do nothing short of shooting them to stop it. How could he guard 50,000 acres?
He told Marshall to keep it quiet, but the laborers saw what was going on and began picking up pieces of gold, too. Soon they threw down their shovels to pan for gold, and the word was out. In a short span of time, California would grow from 400 settlers to 90,000 gold seekers.
In San Francisco, 130 miles away, word reached the saloons and shipyards and, within weeks, pretty much the whole town of 15,000 rushed to the rivers to pan for gold. They used frying pans at first. Some bought Indian baskets as sieves to slosh the muddy river water. Many hacked at the rocks with kitchen knives.
Ships arriving in San Francisco anchored in the bay only to have all their deckhands, engineers, officers and captains desert the ship to go dig for gold. The bay became an eerie floating city of hundreds of empty vessels.
On Dec. 5, 1848, President James K. Polk eagerly announced to the 30th Congress the discovery, making it official. California gold helped Polk feel the cost of the Mexican War was justified; the Mexican government had signed a treaty giving the U.S. possession of Texas north to Oregon on Feb. 2, 1848, only nine days after James Marshall found the flecks of gold at Sutter's Mill.
The news then spread from every newspaper in the country.
"The most exciting point to this California news is the fact, now placed beyond even the shadow of a doubt, that the deposits in gold are actually inexhaustible, and that new and fresh discoveries are made every day," declared the Detroit Free Press on June 25, 1849. "Wonderful as these discoveries actually are, there can be no question that the wealth of California cannot be exaggerated."
Michigan joins in
It is estimated that about 6,000 men from Michigan made the trip to California over the years. The first notices of gold being found in California appeared in the Detroit papers later than other cites, primarily because 1848 was an important election year for the state. Detroit's own Lewis Cass was in a presidential contest with Zachary Taylor. Newspapers, especially those with a Democratic bias, devoted every inch of non-advertising space to politics. Once the election was over and Lewis Cass' defeat thoroughly reported, argued and analyzed, news of gold in California began to appear.
A sample of gold was sent home by Detroit lawyer Anthony Ten Eyck. His correspondence was printed in the papers, and it spread the fever throughout southeast Michigan.
The delirium for instant riches heated up as editors in Detroit and other Michigan city newspapers such as the Marshall Statesman, Niles Republican and Ann Arbor's Washtenaw Whig asked gold seekers to send letters so they could share their adventures; their readers all knew someone from town who was heading out West.
By December 1848, B. Bethune Duffield was advertising special life insurance in Detroit to all "candidates for California."
The California Gold Rush was the first time anybody equipped with nothing more than a pick or a shallow pan could make a tidy fortune instantly; it was America's first "get rich quick" scheme. More than 100,000 young men sought their fortune in California, mostly from 1849 to the mid 1850s, from all over the world. Many of the gold seekers came from Europe, China and South America.
Within one year, California had enough residents in the territory to become a state, but it was a man's world: Only 2 percent were women.
The decision to go
Henry Ormal Severance in his book "Michigan Trailmakers" portrays the anxiety pioneer families from Farmington experienced when their young men announced plans to seek their fortunes. Many had never fired guns nor had experience guiding teams of six or eight oxen or mules.
"They had seen Detroit but California lay on the other side of the world. Little groups of the boys and groups of men at church discussed the proposition pro and con:
Edwin said: 'It is a might dangerous trip overland and besides the distance is so great you could never walk it.'
Samuel said: 'Yes, and if you should ride one of our horses and he should die on the way, what would you do, stranded in the western plains where the Indians would hunt your scalp and the vultures would wait for your body and the body of the horse. …'
William said: 'I would say, boys, I wouldn't go. We have good farms here, you all have excellent opportunities. …'"
Of course, they went. Many boys were under 18. It was the journey of a lifetime, and reports of incredible easy wealth simply enflamed them. At a wedding of a young miner and his new bride, the Detroit Free Press reported, "It was whispered about at the wedding the cake had chunks of raw [gold] inside it, instead of a gold ring."
There were three ways to get to California. Some took an old whaling route that started in New York or Boston, went around Cape Horn and up the Pacific side to San Francisco. It was considered the safest but the slowest, taking five months.
Another route went from New Orleans to Chagres, Panama. Travelers then crossed the isthmus in dugout canoes and on foot through jungles and mountains for six days until they reached Panama City, where they boarded a ship to San Francisco. It was the shortest route but expensive and rife with yellow fever, cholera, dysentery and more.
Michigan men preferred the "overland journey," which meant either the Santa Fe Trail leading to Southern California or the better known Oregon-California Trail. That route took them to Chicago, St. Louis and Independence, Mo., then to Fort Laramie in what is now Wyoming and Fort Hall in what is now southeastern Idaho. Then it want south on the Humboldt River, which they followed into the valley formed by the Sierra Nevada on the east and the Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers on the west.
The Wolverine Rangers
Very few men took this incredible journey alone. Some signed up for established traveling services, such as the Pioneer Co. of Fast Coaches, popularly referred to as the Pioneer Line, which for $200 offered a seat in its train of stagecoaches. Pioneer promised to "carry thro' to reach San Francisco or Sutter's Fort in eighty days," provided victuals (passengers had to cook them), and as best as it could promoted a passenger's comfort and safety.
But most Michigan men formed groups to travel and pooled resources; some groups were small and informally organized as they gathered in Independence. Other men drew up formal companies, such as the Central Michigan California Emigrant Co. of Jackson, the Monroe Pioneers, the Adrian Co., or the Pioneer Co. of Tecumseh. The most well known of the Michigan companies was the Wolverine Rangers from Marshall.
The Wolverine Rangers created a legal document with formal rules and bylaws titled "Articles of Association and Agreement" that each member had to sign. They began with 58 members who paid $100 to join. The company was organized into units they called "messes." Jobs such as cook or team driver rotated. Leadership also changed monthly, but organizers held military officer ranks, and some members wore uniforms or at least badges.
The company specified equipment and supplies that Rangers were obligated to take; each man was allowed 40 pounds of baggage. They also took some cash; the average was $400 that many got from mortgaging or selling their homes. So many took hard cash out of the local economy that some newspapers began to decry the removal; in 1850 the editor of the Argus estimated that $30,000 was taken from Washtenaw County alone by gold seekers.
The Wolverine Rangers taught inexperienced young men how to drive teams of six or eight oxen or mules. Many of their members had never shot weapons, and there was a real fear of Indian attacks, so they mandated target practice at a firing range prior to leaving. Each man had to carry a Bowie knife, two rifles with 10 pounds of lead to mold into musket balls, and two holstered pistols; a common brand was the Wesson "pepperbox."
These traveling companies were a big relief to parents of the young men who knew their sons' limitations and vulnerabilities. Some companies forbade alcohol. The Wolverine Rangers had a bylaw that stated they would maintain the Sabbath. (This actually would become a fractious problem as some in the company insisted there would be no traveling on Sundays even when the company was in serious trouble.)
In his 1981 book "The World Rushed In," J.S. Holliday claims that these formally organized traveling companies fared better than the informal groups that inevitably fell into squabbling and sometimes even gunfights.
One of the Wolverine Rangers was Oliver Goldsmith from Detroit. Much later in life, he wrote about his adventures in a book called "Overland in Forty-Nine," published in 1896. In 1849 he was 22 and working in a tobacco shop but managed to save $400.
A popular book for young men in 1849 was American explorer and military officer John C. Fremont's "California Reports," written 20 years earlier and filled with mountain men, the Platte River, Lake Tahoe, buffalo and Indians. It was well-known to Goldsmith and many others and formed their images of the great Wild West.
Stuck in Independence
The Wolverine Rangers left Marshall on April 18, 1849, by train to Chicago, steamboat to St. Louis, then on to Independence. That month, 20,000 men gathered with wagons and mules, horses and oxen, waiting to head out.
Men rigged wagons with gold smelting ovens, drilling machinery, even a bakery oven, and one wagon held an entire iron printing press drawn by alternating teams of 12 oxen.
Goldsmith described his clothing: "Our dress was somewhat varied. Mine was a green baize [felt] hunting jacket, red shirt, corduroy trousers and white soft felt hat." He added that some of the young men were dressed like mountaineers or Indians. A friend gave Goldsmith a "ferocious bull dog" as a going away present, but it was stolen on the first day by a soldier; however, Goldsmith was reconciled to his loss when he learned that "no dogs ever survived the journey through the mountains."
Using axle grease, Goldsmith and others painted "Wolverine Rangers" with their mess number on the covered sides of the wagons. The wagons were equipped on the hind wheel with odometers so they could track their rate of advance with accuracy. Many were handmade — carved wooden cogs calibrated to the turn of the back wheel.
One woman claimed to have made $18,000 selling pies to the gold seekers waiting to leave Independence. They were stuck there for weeks due to "the backwardness of the season," as one Wolverine Ranger described it — cold and severe rains. They had to wait for prairie grass to grow so their draft animals could graze as they traveled. One of the consequences of so many gathered in one place with no shelter and little to no concern for sanitation was cholera. Cholera would menace the trains all the way to California.
Finally, they were ready to move out. Dr. Caleb Ormsby from Ann Arbor was in his 50s and another member of the Wolverine Rangers who joined in Independence. He had been a pioneer doctor in Tecumseh and moved to Ann Arbor but through several bad business decisions was now broke. He came with three young men who were dependent upon him: his stepson Edward Brown, in his late teens; his sister's only son, 18-year-old William Mather; and a University of Michigan student, Cyrus Hamilton. Ormsby's letters to his wife were published in the Washtenaw Whig.
Ormsby described the scene as thousands began to depart: "… the swarm of emigrants of men, women and children, of all characters and colors, with their thousands of mules, horses, oxen and cows, wagons, carts and spring carriages are now putting forward for the great El Dorado of the West."
(The name of a fictitious country abounding in gold, El Dorado was believed to exist somewhere in South America.)
Life among the Argonauts
The ground was soft and the thousands of wagons and oxen left it a muddy, rutted quagmire, but they were on the Santa Fe Trail. The Rangers now had 18 wagons, 56 men and about 100 mules, and were making about 25 miles a day crossing the "Kanzas."
At night they circled the wagons to let the animals graze without fear of wandering off. Goldsmith described their nights:
"We were too tired for games or sport of any kind. We smoked our pipes, talked when we felt like it, and did some guessing before we examined the odometer about the number of miles made during the day. That was the extent of our gayety (sic)."
There were three preachers in the company, and on Sundays they took turns holding services by standing on a crate for a pulpit. The crew listened as they cut each other's hair, mended clothing, and washed a shirt or two, which aggravated the preachers, who saw it as disrespectful. Goldsmith agreed but countered that "they hardily sang all the hymns."
The company also used Sundays to repair damaged wagon wheels and axles and to give their animals time to rest.
Cooks made up the week's meals of beans and biscuits. There was no fuel, so they burned dried buffalo dung they called "chips."
Goldsmith described a dinner : "Once, in the captain's mess, when they supposed they were dining on fried buffalo steak, cut in small pieces, the captain — putting his fork into what he took to be a piece of steak — broke it in two, then asked the cook, 'What the devil is this?' The latter examining it, found it was a chip instead of a steak. He made no apologies but simply remarked, 'I wondered what had soaked up all my bacon grease,' as he tossed it away."
These travelers were called the "Argonauts" during their day: wanderers journeying across the land in search of their golden fleece. The line of wagons continued for hundreds of miles. In June and July they crossed Nebraska, and Goldsmith wrote that they were "wild with excitement" at the sight of the enormous buffalo herds.
"Not only was the country around here wild and beautiful, but the atmosphere was remarkably clear. For two days before we came up to it, we could easily see Chimney Rock, a landmark in what is now Nebraska. We were at that time on the North Fork of the Platte River." They broke lines to hike to Chimney Rock and carve their names in the soft sandstone; one wiseguy even climbed to the top, where he stuck a small windmill.
The cholera continued and they were passing between three and 10 freshly dug graves a day along the trail. They saw virtually no Sioux or Pawnee; it was said the Indians kept their distance due to the cholera. However, some came to trade and sell horses. Goldsmith, the city boy, had never owned a horse and bought his first from the Indians, being told riding a horse was much easier than riding in a wagon with no springs. For 20 silver dollars he bought a gray mare 6 or 7 years old with saddle sores.
"Different members of the company had purchased ponies and my mare was the subject of many jokes among them. They ridiculed her style, doubted her endurance and guyed [teased] me about her on every score and occasion." Through Goldsmith's care and love of the Indian pony he would be offered $200 for it in the mountains when other horses had died. He never took the money.
What was growing obvious to everyone by the time they reached Fort Laramie in July was that they had overloaded their wagons, which were falling to pieces, and killing their animals through exhaustion.
Ormsby wrote to his wife: "The destruction of property is immense. Tons and tons of pork are seen by the side of the road. Tools, wagons, harness, in fact property of every description is strewn almost from one end of the road to the other. Horses and mules let loose, worth nothing and unwanted. A gentleman told me that his company had thrown away a sawmill after drawing it 500 miles. …"
Indian attacks never happened, so hundreds of pistols and rifles were tossed away, and entire wagons abandoned as travelers decided to pack the mules and walk.
Tragically, people were dropped off as well. Part of the reason cholera persisted was because as soon as someone died of it his or her bedding was thrown off the wagon onto the trail. As miles went by, grave digging ceased and dead bodies were dumped with little ceremony. Ormsby would visit injured travelers left behind by their companions in small tents, sad and solitary against the immensity of the Western landscape. He observed many men "shot to pieces" either from drunken fights or accidental shootings.
"Just two miles from the fort I visited Mr. Hodge from Jackson [Michigan] left by his company with no covering but a little tent." Another man nearby was attended by his wife, who told Ormsby, "Why, sir, a wagon ran over his head. …" Farther out and alone was another tent with two young men in it, one on each side resting on blankets.
"This was my second visit to these truly unfortunate men, and they were overjoyed to see me. The same wagon had run over both of them. One had been severely cut through the groin — lacerating everything to the arteries. … His wound is in bad condition. … The other had the wheel run square over his back, producing palsy of the lower extremities. …
"These men were both cultivated and refined gentlemen. … One was a collegiate and designed to qualify himself for the ministry on his return from California at Harvard University. Of a sudden, one of them cried out like a child and sobbed convulsively. I turned toward the other, and the tears were coming down his bright, handsome and intelligent countenance. ... All we could do was let sympathy have its scope."
Starvation, dust, disease
By Wyoming in July, the boredom and exhaustion had taken its toll on both people and animals. They were down to eight miles a day. Those in the rear of the seemingly endless line (the Wolverine Rangers estimated they were in the center) found the wagons and livestock in the front of the lines had foraged anything green and there was nothing to eat; men were obligated to walk the animals two, three or five miles off the trail to find anything to graze. Draft animals, horses, cattle and mules brayed incessantly for water and food, making sleeping nearly impossible. Sometimes livestock would stray miles away, get lost and die.
By August as the wagons neared the Salt Lake, the land became highly alkaline, as Goldsmith wrote: "The thick powdery alkali dust on the roads through these lands was terribly hard. …. It was so thick that the drivers kept as far from the cattle as possible and often could not see them though less than ten feet away. The poor creatures coughed constantly, their hair became matted and so filled with dust that you could only guess their color."
Ormsby also described the carnage. "An immense number of cattle have perished within the last 200 miles. We have counted lying by the road-side as high as 46 in a day. The hills and valleys are strewn with them. Occasionally we find a dead horse or mule. This fatality of cattle is owing to the mineral water so common on the route."
To keep on the trails the companies used guidebooks, the most popular being Edward C. Wase's "Emigrant's Guide to California." It was a small handbook published in St. Louis in the spring of 1849. It was considered the most reliable even though Edward Ware had never been to California; he claimed to have written his guide from Fremont's "Report" and talking to those with experience.
However, none of the guides was perfect. Goldsmith reported crossing one barren desert that Ware described as 40 miles long only to find it nearly 90 miles. He reported copies of the Ware Guide discarded everywhere, from apparently disgusted travelers.
El Dorado a disappointment
Goldsmith, like many others, was nearly spent as he trudged through the mountains. He decided to quit the Wolverine Rangers because it was moving too slowly. He was given some food and went on his own. He walked instead of riding his pony, knowing that to ride the animal would break it down. Walking mile after mile at night when it wasn't so hot, he would drop in his tracks and sleep for two hours. He joined others who were by this time out of food, so they tried to buy anything they could, sometimes begging, sometimes stealing it.
The horror story of the Donner Party of 1846 in which travelers were trapped in the mountains and had to resort to cannibalism was well known during that time. When it was rumored that traveling companies were breaking apart, people were struggling without food, women and children were dying, and many were entering the Sierra Nevada late in the season, there was real concern that a disaster was in the making which might dwarf the Donner catastrophe.
In response, $200,000 was raised in Sacramento to send the Army out with food, shelter and supplies. They were ordered to help only women and children — men were on their own — but they did share food where needed.
Goldsmith, near starvation, ran into the relief train as he entered the Sacramento Valley:
"A day or two after leaving Deer Creek we met the last section of the relief train. I got two big handfuls of broken hard bread from them, which lasted us through the twenty miles we had to travel."
For Goldsmith, the romance of travel in the West was long gone. As soon as he was out of the Indian country, "I took my rifle by the barrel and knocked the stock off against the wheel of an abandoned wagon; then putting the barrel between the spokes and gave it a wrench that bent it badly and left it there — glad to be rid of the burden."
On Oct. 13, 1849 — with 340 miles yet to go over desert and bad roads — the remaining Wolverine Rangers agreed to dissolve the company and divide up the supplies. It was now every man for himself.
Ormsby and his young companions made it and began their search for gold, disappointed that it was not as easy as they were led to believe. Already by summer of 1850 the gold was difficult to mine. Ormsby wrote to his wife, "That there is a great abundance of gold in California I think is very certain, that it is very difficult to access is equally certain."
Gold fever short-lived
The territory was ruled by "lynch law." In six weeks, Ormsby had heard of 20 murders. Men had completely changed from their previous lives. Ormsby wrote, "The state of society here is wretchedly bad. To know a man in California, you can rarely judge what he was before he left home."
Detroiter Delos Davis wrote to the Detroit Free Press in 1851: "In view of the state of things existing here, the uncertainty of success, the almost certainty of disease … I would earnestly advise that no person, having any way of living at home, should think of coming to California."
The gold rush was short-lived. As Holliday reports in his book "The World Rushed In," by 1857 $500 million in gold had been dug from the hills, valleys, mountains and rivers of California. It financed the making of the state. By 1860 the value of California's manufacturing sector exceeded that year's gold production, and more than 20,000 new farms produced food that year. San Francisco boasted more newspapers than London.
Ormsby spent seven years in California but never made much money. Of the three young men he traveled with, one died of "mountain fever," one returned home in a year and one went to dental school and set up a practice in Nevada. Ormsby decided to head back to Michigan but died on his return in a shipwreck near Havana.
Goldsmith returned to Detroit and later in life built a fortune as a founding investor in the Detroit Copper and Brass Rolling Mills. He stated in 1907 on his 80th birthday: "I returned from my wealth hunting experience with a five dollar gold piece and a five cent piece … but the experience, hardships, and rough jolts of those days in the mountains were of invaluable benefit to me later in life."
Young Henry from Farmington and his companion George struck it rich. They were cautious and sensible, stayed clear of the gambling dens, and kept their distance from others. As the author Henry Severance said: "Henry and George buckled around them their specially constructed leather belts filled with their gold dust, with pistols and cartridges protruding from the front."
Severance described them as they returned to Michigan: "… they arrived on an early spring afternoon. The frequenters of the Detroit hotel, where they intended to stay overnight, were curious and unduly interested in the returned '49ers.
Henry to George: 'Did you see that fellow look at us askance? I don't like his looks. Let's go.'
George: 'For home?'
Henry: 'Yes, We are safer on the road than we are here if we can steal away, and keep our powder dry.'"
Like so many others, they were fundamentally changed by the experience. During the Gold Rush a popular expression of the '49ers heard over and over was, "I have seen the elephant!" which generally meant I have suffered an ordeal, I have seen something that has shocked me to my core, I know a new truth, and I am no longer the same person I used to be.
Bill Loomis is the author of “Detroit’s Delectable Past: Two Centuries Frog Legs, Pigeon Pie, and Drugstore Whiskey,” released in September by The History Press.
Detroit News illustration | Source: Detroit Free Press, January 19, 1849