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Extra! Extra! Hunting for Gold Leads to More Misery Than Happiness!

The mill that changed California's destiny

As we approached the California border, Neda and I had opposite emotions. We're both home-grown California girls, but whereas she loves it here and was excited to be back home, I experienced my usual love-hate attitude towards the state. I loved being able to shop at Chinese grocery stores again and buy my favorite rice crackers and eat dim sum. I liked seeing people who looked like me again (there weren't too many out in Wyoming and Montana) and hearing Spanish radio channels. But then the maddening traffic jams and suburban sprawl brought me back to reality. California has such a romantic image as the land of beaches and sun, a place that welcomes people from all parts of the world with its fabulous weather.

And yet more than any other state, California reflects and embodies all the tensions and contradictions that exist in this democratic experiment we call the United States of America. Maybe that's why I love and hate it so much.

You can trace California's reputation as a cutting-edge, multicultural society directly to the Gold Rush that started in 1848 when James Marshall saw a tiny shining fleck in the stream behind Sutter's Mill in Coloma, California. While Neda went off to explore the Donner party, I drove down to Coloma to see for myself the city that changed the West, and perhaps the world, since California's economy by itself is among the top 10 in the world, bigger than Brazil or China.
The rock that changed California's destiny
To get to Coloma involves driving on one very narrow and winding road uphill, downhill and every which way. I felt like I was driving into the middle of nowhere. I couldn't imagine anyone coming all the way out here. Apparently, that's how most people felt about California prior to 1848. Under Mexican rule, the area was sparsely populated, mostly by ranchers and Indians. Even after the US gained control of the territory during the Mexican War, California remained a little-known backwater area, until that fateful day of January 24, 1848. I stared at the tiny rock at the Marshall Gold Discovery Park Museum, trying to understand how this little piece of mineral the size of my pinky fingernail could have sparked a worldwide stampede.

James Marshall together with his partner John Sutter, who owned Sutter's Mill, tested the rock by pounding, smashing and weighing it until they were convinced it was gold. John was not particularly excited by the discovery. He had more invested in the 50,000 acres of land the Mexican government had granted him. They managed to keep the gold a secret, but once John told his workers they could pan for gold only after work, the secret was out. His employee Sam Brannon shouted, "Gold, gold, gold from the American River!" through the streets of San Francisco. President James Polk spread the word about California gold in his speeches. In 1848, there were about 5,000 miners in California. By the next infamous year, 1849, there would be 50,000 of them. Many of them came by splitting off from the Oregon Trail in their covered wagons.

They came from not only all parts of the country, but from all parts of the world, Europe, South America, China. The gold rush created a true multicultural society, as Indians, Mexicans, mestizos, Americans, mixed with the flood of immigrants, with oftentimes tragic and bitter results. The fact is, very few people struck it rich and life as a miner was miserable and precarious. Often, miners would spend their earnings on alcohol and gambling and prostitution. Panning for gold, I found out, is really tedious work.
Check out my loot if you can see it
Armed with only a tin pan, I tried my luck at finding me some luscious gold loot. Randy, my instructor, told me to scoop up as much rock and soil as I could, dump it in the pan, and start shaking the pan back and forth. Then I was supposed to use the force of the water to clear out the top layer of rocks by tilting the pan at an angle. I was a complete failure. My rocks would all fall out at once or not at all. Gold weighs nineteen times as much as water, so I was trying to get to the bottom of my pile. When I finally got the last of the dark soil to wash away, I was delighted by the 3 gleaming flecks of yellow beaming at me. I put the flakes in my vial as Randy explained to me that the amount of gold I had found probably would not even have bought me an egg in 1849.

The 49ers would spend their days knee deep in icy water panning for gold for hours on end. It was rather backbreaking work. If they found one ounce of gold (about the length of your pinky), it was worth $10. Now an egg cost you $1, a gun $100 and a shirt went for $25. Most miners barely found enough gold to eat one meal a day and subsequently, many starved to death. So who cashed in on the gold rush? Mostly the merchants that sold stuff to the miners at exorbitant rates (sounds kind of like the landlords in San Francisco right now charging 400 times as much rent as before the "Internet Revolution"). One tailor-turned-failed-miner got the idea to use canvas to clothe the miners. His name? Levi Strauss.

The Wah Hop Herb and Dry Goods Store

With everyone struggling to make ends meet, conflict among the miners was predictably violent. Chinese miners who had originally come to work on the railroads made up 20% of the miners. Most sought quick riches that they could take back home with them. By 1855, there were 20,000 Chinese miners in the area. Most were escaping disastrous floods, wars and famines from their homeland, so the work and hardships on the mines were nothing to them. They were patient and uncomplaining, and would often go over the same areas mined by others to pick up overlooked gold. Because of their success and their foreign culture, they faced incredible discrimination from not only the other miners, but from the state.

The "heathen chinese," as they were called, were taxed $20 month. Tax collectors would tie their long pigtails together (a hairstyle with important religious meaning) and beat them, sometimes to death. They were not allowed to take any gold outside of the mining area, forcing them to spend it on local shopkeepers. But the Chinese found a way around this. They would melt the gold into frying pans and cover it with grease and dirt. Then they tied the pan around their necks and walked off. If anyone had tried to weigh the pan, they would have known immediately that something was up. Local Chinatowns were destroyed by drunken European mobs and many Chinese were murdered.

Typical miner's digs

You could say that compared to the local Indians, the Chinese were actually treated nicely. The massive influx of people with such different cultures and values overwhelmed the Native Americans. There were numerous terrorist raids committed against tribes. One in 1849 resulted in the rape of several Indian women. This set in motion a disheartening cycle where the Indians would then retaliate by killing a few Europeans and then the Europeans would retaliate and so on. James Marshall once tried to stop a group from executing Indians they had taken prisoner. The European miners responded by chasing Marshall out of town. He died bitter, lonely and poor, much like his friend John Sutter, whose life and land were forever changed by the 49ers. Many Indians became miners as well, but most were forced to relocate to barren and remote reservations.

The environment suffered at the hands of the 49ers. By 1860, when the population had skyrocketed to 360,000, most of the easy gold was gone and water cannons were used to blast away entire hillsides. You can still see piles of rubble today and rivers that have been shut down due to the mining. Aquatic habitats were also affected by hydraulic mining. One scientist said, "It's like a hydrogen bomb going off in the wilderness." Mercury that was used to extract gold from ore has poisoned many a river and person. Some experts think that the environmental costs of the gold rush far outweigh all the profits made from it.

So far I've concentrated on the more unpleasant aspects of the gold rush. I don't mean to imply that there weren't any positive things that happened. Women who came to California, either by themselves or with their husbands, found mining a liberating experience. They could shed their tight corsets, don men's mining clothes and try their hand at panning. One fascinating story involves an African American woman named Nancy Gooch who came as a slave to California in 1849, but was freed when the state joined the Union the next year. Her son would later own the land where the original Sutter's Mill stood and where much of the initial mining took place. The state of California in the 1940s would buy the land from the Monroes to preserve as a historic monument. The story shows how California can be an incredibly accepting place when she chooses to be.

Throughout my time in Coloma, I kept thinking, the gold rush is actually a really depressing and sad story. Why does it still have such a positive and rosy hold on our imaginations given that the gold rush was all about greed, starvation, exploiting people to the fullest, racial hatred, destruction of the Indians and pillaging of the land for short-term gain? The gold rush captures our imagination not so much for its historical reality, but for the possibilities it represents. Hope, opportunity, the dream of improving one's lot in life. Those ambitions paved the way in creating one of the most dynamic and diverse populations to be found nowhere else on the planet. I don't think it's a coincidence that half of my extraordinary trekmates hail from this state, representing cultures from Vietnam and Welsh to African American to Iranian to Taiwanese and Chinese.

So I guess the gold rush reinforces my original feelings about California, I loathe much of the reality, but the possibilities are too enchanting and wonderful to make me give up on it. I think I know now how the 49ers must have felt.


Please email me at: irene@ustrek.org


Links to Other Dispatches

Irene - Pack 'em in and move on out West!
Neda - The Donner Party: How far would you go if you were starving?
Kevin - The battle that begat the anthem heard 'round the world
Neda - Steamboating the Mississippi...in a floating McDonald's?
MAD - We speak for the trees, for the trees have no tongues
Irene - Beware of Free Lunches, Especially When It's Offered by the Government