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Gold Rush

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Gold Rush

At the end of 1853, San Francisco was a city on the fast track. It had twelve daily newspapers, nine insurance companies, consulates of twenty-seven foreign governments, and six-story buildings where sand dunes once stood. A few years earlier, the seaside town had been a sleepy village of just 800 people. But the sight of gold in the rushing waters of the American River sent a ripple around the world and set the stage for an event that would forever change a city, a fledgling state, and the nation. "The Gold Rush transformed California, but more importantly, it transformed America," says historian J.S. Holliday. "Next to the Civil War in the nineteenth century, no other event had a greater impact, more long-lasting reverberations than the Gold Rush."

Narrator: The news was astonishing, and it traveled swiftly around the world: gold -- precious gold -- had been discovered in California. Almost overnight, tens of thousands rushed off -- obsessed with striking it rich.

Narrator: Lured by the promise of gold, by the chance to change their lives in an instant, they would come: an impoverished aristocrat from Chile, anxious to recoup his family's fortune, and a strong-minded pioneer woman, who refused to be left behind in Missouri when her husband came down with gold fever ... a California school teacher with dreams of becoming a land owner, a sea captain's son from New England with everything to prove ... and a blacksmith from New York, who wrenched himself away from his wife and children, and risked all that he had in the hopes of securing a more prosperous future.

Narrator: Rumors had been circulating for months about a group of laborers who had been building a sawmill in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada, some 100 miles east, when one of them spied the gleam of gold in the racing water. Few in San Francisco had believed the story. Now Brannan showed them proof.

H.W. Brands, Historian: Once it became clear that the rumors of gold were for real, nearly everybody in California thought, "Can I drop what I'm doing and make a fortune mining gold" A whole lot of people decided, yeah, they could. And off they went.

"The whole country resounds to the sordid cry of gold! Gold! Gold!" one newspaper reported, "while the field is left half-planted, the house half-built and everything neglected but the manufacture of shovels and pick axes."

Sam Brannan had started the frenzy, but he had no interest in digging for gold himself. An elder in the Mormon church, he'd come to California in search of a place for the Saints to call home, and been so impressed by the abundance of the region that he'd stayed -- even though most Mormons opted to settle farther east, near the Great Salt Lake. By chance, Brannan had opened a general store in Sacramento, not far from where the first nuggets were later discovered -- and now, he saw an easy path to riches.

J.S. Holliday, Historian: Sam Brannan was a commercial genius. And he realized that his store was going to be a goldmine, literally speaking, because he could sell everything that was needed to the miners right at the site where the gold was being dug.

J.S. Holliday, Historian: Gold had been discovered many, many times, through the centuries -- by the Hittites, by the Egyptians, by the Spanish. And always in the past the gold belonged to the czar, to the king, to the emperor, to the person who had power, who had the capacity to say, "No, you keep out. This is my gold." In California, there were no forces here to protect the ownership of the gold. It belonged to those who could take it and carry it back home.

Narrator: In 1847, the United States defeated Mexico in a two-year conflict known as the Mexican War. When the peace treaty was signed in early February 1848, Mexico was forced to cede an enormous swath of territory, including California, to the United States. Neither country was yet aware that gold had been discovered just days before.

J.S. Holliday, Historian: People knew they could dig up the gold in California, put it in their pocket, no taxes, no inhibitions, no controls, no one here to keep the onslaught of tens of thousands of miners from rushing in and sweeping up the gold and taking it away.

Reading, Antonio Franco Coronel: Everyone began to work at daybreak. Soon after a little digging we came to the gold deposits, and everyone who was working was happy with the results. I recovered about forty-five ounces of coarse gold. All the others, about one hundred and some odd persons, had brilliant results.

Albert Camarillo, Historian: Antonio Franco Coronel -- he's a man of modest means before the Gold Rush. He's not a big landowner. He's formerly a schoolteacher. They were finding nuggets of gold, right at the surface, under boulders, and quite happy because they were coming away with substantial amounts of gold.

Susan Lee Johnson, Historian: Antonio Franco Coronel really made a killing. And those who arrived that early did very, very well indeed. The gold was easy to find, competition was not particularly intense, everyone was just focused on getting gold and often getting out.

H.W. Brands, Historian: The gold that was discovered originated in the quartz veins of the Sierra Nevada, but over eons had been washed downstream by glaciers and especially by water. It was gold that was lying essentially free in the gravel of streambeds. So all one had to do was look down, see it, and pick it up.

Narrator: That first summer, there were fewer than 5,000 people in the goldfields. The majority, like Coronel, were Californios, and the Indians who worked for them. But there were also native people working for themselves, Mexicans from Sonora, and small numbers of Hawaiians, Americans and Europeans -- many of them frenzied sailors who had abandoned ship as soon as they got to San Francisco.

H.W. Brands, Historian: One of the striking things about the experience in the gold fields was that it was--at least at first--extremely egalitarian. People were sufficiently busy trying to make their own fortune that they didn't worry about who was mining right next to them.

Narrator: North of where Coronel was digging, a fellow Californio recovered enough gold to pay off the ten workers he'd brought with him and return home with 14,000 dollars. Later, Coronel watched one man dig up an amazing 52 pounds of gold in just eight days. Another extracted enough in a matter of hours to fill his straw hat to the brim.

Isabel Allende, Writer: In Chile it was pandemonium. Everybody signed up to come to California because people thought that you could find gold lying on the streets. And that was the news that the sailors were bringing, that you could really make a killing in less than three months, and go back and be rich.

Reading, Vicente Perez Rosales: The gold nuggets aroused in the minds of the tranquil Chileans an explosion of feverish activity. Businessmen prepared their cargoes; those who had little sold all for what it would bring in order to make the trip; those who had nothing either paid their passage by serving as sailors or pledged themselves to work on contract in exchange for the price of the trip to El Dorado.

Throughout the fall of 1848, as Perez Rosales and his companions made their preparations to head north, merchant vessels carried the news of gold to seaports around the world. Thousands of gold seekers were already en route -- from the Oregon Territory and the Mexican province of Sonora, from Hawaii and China and Peru. Thousands more would soon board ships in the port cities of Australia, Europe and Great Britain.

Reading, Vicente Perez Rosales: California was an unknown country full of dangers, and nevertheless, the risk of robbery, violence, sickness, death itself, were secondary considerations before the promise of gold.

Narrator: In August 1848, Sam Brannan's mule train finally arrived in St. Louis, loaded down with copies of the California Star "extra" that told of the spectacular riches to be found in the gold district. Within days, local newspapers picked up the story.

Richard White, Historian: The kinds of stories that go along is some miner washing his beard out and getting $16 worth of gold. The gold is so thick, it's blowing into the curtains, and you wash the curtains and gold comes out.

James Rawls, Historian: The first response of most people who heard that news was incredulity. They heard stories of people finding gold nuggets like misshapen billiard balls, or the size of hen's eggs. I wouldn't believe that. Would you No, course not. It's too good to be true.

Narrator: Then, in early December, President James Polk received a package from California: an official report from the gold fields and an oyster tin packed with 230 ounces of raw nuggets and dust. In his annual message to Congress, Polk validated the existence of California gold -- and the contents of the oyster tin were put on public display at the War Department.

J.S. Holliday, Historian: The President confirmed what were rumors. And that transformed the attraction of gold from one of uncertainty to one of affirmation -- that the abundance of gold in California has been testified to by officials of the government.

Narrator: Newspapers ratcheted up the excitement. One paper estimated that it would take 100,000 men ten years to deplete the gold in California. Another claimed that a Missouri carpenter had "dug more gold in the last six months than a mule can pack." "Everybody is getting wealthy," the Plymouth Rock declared, "such a discovery has never been known since the commencement of the world."

JoAnn Levy, Writer: Supposedly, you could rub it all over your body, go to the top of the mountain, and roll down, and the gold would adhere to your body. And at the bottom of the mountain you could just clean it up, and you would be a rich person.

H.W. Brands, Historian: There were plenty of people who thought that riches weren't and shouldn't be an end in themselves, and that what was good about the United States was the result of the virtues of thrift and hard work and diligence. And if gold makes achieving success too easy, it might corrupt all the American values that made the United States so distinctive. 59ce067264


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