Gavin Greig (ggreig) wrote,
Gavin Greig

The Gold Rush

By special request, my next American post is about the Gold Rush. Sorry they're quite so infrequent; I'm pretty busy at the moment, even in my "spare" time, so it's difficult to make the time to do a topic justice. I'm going to try writing on the phone while commuting in order to try and catch up a bit!

The Assay Office, ColomaAmericans often seem a bit sensitive about their "lack" of history, compared to European countries, but I reckon they do themselves a disservice. True, when you think of national/state identities, California is younger than the Union of the Parliaments, never mind the Union of the Crowns, or England or Scotland. But for most people it's not the number of significant dates that a country has accumulated that matters, it's whether events capture the imagination and whether people think they can empathise with the people of the time. For the historians in the audience, that may be a sore point, as the general public may be empathising on the basis of fiction, but nonetheless real people, whether historians or not, like to feel a relationship with the past.

American history's relative youth can be an advantage, then, as we're less remote from the people and times concerned. (And of course the entirety of the Americas have a fascinating history that predates Columbus, much of it still to be uncovered. A very little more of that another time, though I wish I could say more than a very little!)

A mining trolleyWhile I was in California, we visited not just one but two places where modern California could be said to have begun. The more recent one, and the one visited first, was Sutter's Mill.

To me, in my ignorance, I'm afraid Sutter's Mill was the blog of Herb Sutter, notable figure in the world of C++. I didn't know where the name had originally come from, but now I do. Sutter's Mill in Coloma is where the Gold Rush started that made California the populous state it is today.

Coloma wasn't a big important place at the time, and it isn't now. But for a brief period in between, it teemed with prospectors eager to make a fortune with that lucky strike.

It sounds awful.

Logging was the major business in the area, and the first trace of gold was found in 1848 by James Marshall, while working on the tailrace of a water-driven sawmill owned by John Sutter. Sutter and Marshall tried to keep it quiet, but failed.

The tailrace of Sutter's Mill, where the Californian Gold Rush began.It's a slightly odd place to walk around; a village with quite widely spaced houses, most of which date from a little after the discovery. The main visual attraction is "Sutter's Mill" itself, which is actually a recent reconstruction based a contemporary photo and Sutter's own drawings. What's not immediately obvious is that the reconstruction is not on the original spot; the path of the river hasn't changed much and the new mill is set back from the water a bit. The original site is a few tens of yards away, fairly unheralded although it is marked. A steep bank leads down into a stagnant ditch beside the river, and there you are. That's where (one version of) California was born.

Although the original mill is no more, its timbers have been recovered, and are stored in a shed where you can see them through glass; a big stack of wood.

The population of Coloma - and California as a whole - boomed as a result of the discovery. Many died getting there, and many more died once they arrived. One in five of the Argonauts - as the 49ers referred to themselves - is thought to have died within six months of arrival, and Coloma itself, where people worked claims of a few square feet and lived in fox-holes, had a mortality rate of four times its inflated population over a few short years.

A miner "sees the elephant" (the experience of taking part in the Gold Rush)A few prospectors became fabulously wealthy, but the great majority had a miserable life, and for many it was also short.

The people who made fortunes out of the gold rush were the merchants, selling to a market who were captives of location and their own aspirations. A loaf of bread worth 4 cents in New York would sell for 75 in California, with eggs $1 to $3 a piece, $1 to $5 for an apple, and $100 for a pair of boots; all on typical earnings of $8 per day. That was 8 times what a miner might earn on the East coast, but it's easy to see why it wasn't typically the prospectors who struck it rich.

There's relatively little evidence now of Coloma's boom. Whole streets have left no more than a line of foundations, rather like older lost settlements in Europe. What's left is a small village, but an interesting one; with a number of surviving buildings well presented within their historical context. They're small and wooden, and while they're not the fanciest buildings that sprung up after 1849, such as the hotels, it's sobering to think that they're much better than the tents and shanties that most enjoyed.

Neither James Marshall, the carpenter who found gold while building the mill race, nor John Sutter the mill owner became rich. Sutter's business ventures failed because his staff preferred to prospect for gold, and his claim to ownership of the land fell between the cracks during California's transition from being part of Mexico to becoming an American state, which was taking place at the same time. (In his own words.)

Sutter's Mill (reconstructed)

My previous visit to a gold mine, at Joshua Tree:
"I have seen the elephant:"

Tags: california, history, photography, travel, wild west

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