California Golden Rush
Shortly after the acquisition of California from Mexico a man by the name of

John Sutter arrived in East San Francisco Bay in 1839. Born in Germany he had to
leave because he was unable to pay his creditors. With plenty of charm and
letters from friends he convinced the Mexican governor of California to award
him a land grant of more than 50,000 acres. John Sutter built a stockade and a
fort and soon after became referred to as Captain Sutter, and his riverbank
establishment Sutters Fort. Sutter chose a location on the south fork of the

American River, 50 miles to the south of his fort, to build a sawmill. (Pic. 1)

A millrace was dug and wooden gates were opened periodically so that the current
would widen and deepen the channel. During his inspection on January 24, 1848

James W. Marshall found the first piece of gold at the end of the race. Over the
next decade his discovery would have a profound effect on the experiences of
hundreds of thousands of individuals, their families, their communities, and
ultimately the nation as a whole. By the winter of 1848, whispers of a gold
strike had drifted eastward across the country but few easterners believed it.

The gold discovery needed validation, and President Polk was just the one to
deliver it. In his opening address to Congress on December 5, 1848 Polk said
that at the time of the California acquisition it was known that "mines of
the precious metals exsisted to some extent. Recent discoveries render it
probable that these mines are more extensive and valuable than was anticipated.

The accounts of the abundance of gold in that territory are of such an
extraordinary character as would scarcely command belief were they not
corroborated by authentic reports." (Johnson, 38). With Polk's address
making headlines around the world Gold Fever had begun. The future forty-niners
now under the influence of Gold Fever had to overcome a cruel journey, miserable
living and working conditions, and coming home boom or bust. The trials and
tribulations they faced are many and forever carved into American history.

Polk's simple words, backing up the claim of gold in California, were a powerful
call to action. Farmers left their fields, merchants closed their shops,
soldiers left their posts, and all made plans for California. The departing gold
seekers faced an immediate problem. There was no railroad to take them there,
nor was there a river route. The journey proved to be a incredible test of
endurance. There were two ways to get to California either by land or by sea. By
land they faced a 2,000 mile trip across rugged landscape (Map 1). Almost
everyone going to California overland travelled with a group, which were
democratic in nature. Contracts were signed that spelled out rules of conduct,
especially with respect to participation and sharing of duties. The journey
across the plains varied in length and difficulty, and because it was so severe
a test it was one the gold seekers would never forget if they survived it. There
were tens of thousands of men and women on the trail and all they could think
about was gold as they crept along at two miles per hour on the dusty trail. At
first it was an adventure, but as they pushed farther westward their enthusiasm
turned to fear of the indians along the trail. The real danger of the overland
journey wasn't the indians, but the lack of water especially the last 200 miles
through the deserts of Nevada. Goods and food were cast aside along the trail to
lighten the load. "At the beginning of the final stage on the Humboldt

River, many 49ers left their wagons and proceeded on foot, using as pack animals
the stock horses they had brought for breeding." (Rohrbough, 65). The
journey by land was rough but so was the sea voyage. The sea route (Map 2)
around the tip of South America often took more than six months and seasickness
was rampant in the beginning. The accomodations were severely overcrowded
"men were accommodated in tiered berths, usually three men sleeping abreast
on platforms barely two feet apart, one above the other." (Johnson, 64).

Boredom soon took over and the men took to gambling from morning to night.
"Cards and gambling not only drew veteran players, but also rapidly seduced
those heretofore innocent of such vices." (Rohrbough, 59). The food was
often full of bugs, and the meat was often rotten. Water stored for months in
the ships holds took on a foul taste,