Authors: Fred Rosen
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The Story of the 1848 Gold Rush and How It Shaped a Nation
For Leah, whose soul always glitters
California is a neck of the woods everyone is fascinated with. It was El Dorado. I don't know anyone who was holding his breath over Prince Georges County, Maryland.
âJames M. Cain,
The Baby in the Icebox and Other Short Fiction
I finally made it to Sutter's Fort long after my father set out for California.
In 1961, like so many young men before him, Murray had trekked to California in the hope of finding a better life for his family. I was eight years old then. I listened from the next room to the breathless, late-night phone calls in hushed tones between my mother and father about moving
Murray was a furrier, and the fur trade in New York was going downhill. Moving west wasn't a decision made lightly, something we had in common with every family who in the 150 years since the Gold Rush began have had to make the same difficult decision. Even in 1961, a coast-to-coast plane ticket was expensive, not to mention you might have a propeller-driven plane instead of a jet on many routes.
Murray's brother, my Uncle Harry, had prospered “out there.” Harry had gone on
The $64,000 Question
and won a lot of money. And he had four fingers missing on his right hand. He took the money, opened a cigarette business, and bought a house in a place with the exotic-sounding nameâto a Brooklyn nativeâof Montebello.
Montebello, California! It sounded so exciting! Those late-night phone calls did it. I knew that California was a place I just
to go to. It didn't happen early, though. My mother, Ruthie, didn't want to leave her family. They had all their digits except my Uncle Izzie, who was missing a few in the head. Her family is so close, they still all live within a mile of each other. And, as it turned out, the fur trade was no better in L.A. than it was in New Yorkâit sucked.
My father came home; we never moved west. The illusion my father had that California could be the new El Doradoâthe legendary lost city of goldâwas the same one that has been inspiring people around the world since the middle of the nineteenth century. Between the Louisiana Purchase in 1806 and the beginning of the Civil War in 1861, the one event that most influenced Americans then, and now, was the California Gold Rush, which began in 1848.
People left their homes and families behind for the California Gold Rush. From all over the world they came, by land and by sea; there was no air. One in four never made it back. Hundreds of thousands of people, both here and abroad, lost relatives to the lure of the precious yellow metal.
To everyone, American and immigrant alike, who went to what became known as “the diggings,” it was the absolute belief that they would get rich that fueled them. Even after the truth was known, that few of the gold seekers became rich, that you were lucky to escape the gold fields with any money let alone your life, still, they came.
On December 31, 1850, almost two years into the Gold Rush, gold sold on the world market for $20.67 per ounce. One hundred and fifty-four years later, on December 31, 2004, the price of gold was $455.75 per ounce, more than twenty times as much. With that kind of money involved, it was no wonder that the Gold Rush was a history-changing event.
The America that had existed since Colonial times, characterized by a strong work ethic and belief in a righteous God that, if he did not reward you in this life would reward you in the next, was replaced instead by a belief in the power of wealth to redeem a life without privilege. Overnight.
Yes, I'll say it again, overnight. Not
overnight; I mean
The people who crowded into the foothills of the Sierra Nevada were the “have-nots” looking to be redeemed as the “haves.” What those who survived found was the real expression of wealth.
As I looked out at the white oak tree behind the west wall of Sutter's Fort, which Sutter himself had written about, I realized that the history of those events, and how it touches us to the present day, is still being written.
October 17, 2004
Robert James was a very discontented man. Nothing seemed to satisfy him.
Born a Kentuckian, James grew up to become one of Missouri's most charismatic preachers. He won lasting, legitimate acclaim on February 27, 1849, when, as one of the three founders of William Jewell College in Liberty, Missouri, he helped open the doors to that private Baptist institution.
James didn't stick around Liberty long enough to see the place grow. Instead, he moved to Clay County, Missouri. There, he bought a hundred-acre farm that brought in about $70 annually for its hemp crop alone. State and county taxes totaled $10.58 yearly. That left him $59.42. And that was just one crop of many. He also rented out eighty acres, on which he received a monthly stipend.
James's assets also included thirty sheep whose wool he sold, and the hogs coveted by his neighbors. Among his prized possessions were the slaves he brought with him from his home in Kentucky when he moved to Liberty and then to Clay County. In the latter, Robert had accumulated
even more wealth, enough to have a library of books that included works by Josephus, a Jewish historian of the ancient world; Charles Dickens; Aristotle in Greek; and Latin books on theology and astronomy.
These books had formed the foundation of his education, as he hoped they would of his sons, Franklin and the baby Jesse. His wife, Zerelda, had given birth to baby Jesse on September 5, 1847. Coming as it did a short time after Robert Jr. died in childbirth, James acknowledged this gift from God. And yet Robert was melancholy, depressed by his life, wishing there was something else out there to give it new meaning.
He kept looking for God, for him to show him the way to his life's purpose. He cared not for temporal things when in service to the Lordâor at least it seemed that way to his neighbors. Robert thought he would do whatever it was he felt God wanted him to do. Robert James always figured he would work in the service of the Lord. He never figured to worship any other god.
If Robert James knew that his blasphemy would lead to his family name being forever impressed into the American consciousness as synonymous with killing and evil, he probably would have tried to stop himself.
Ohio had been Indian territory, unsafe for settlers, until the defeat of the hostiles at the Battle of Fallen Timbers in 1794, and the Treaty of Greenville in 1796. With the natives pacified, settlement within Ohio's interior became safe from the “savages,” and for the first time,
legal. Like all great dreamers, Colonel Ebenezer Zane of Wheeling saw an opportunity and acted on it.
Merchant, trailblazer, pioneer, soldier, Zane figured that Ohio would quickly fill with settlers. If he owned land in Ohio, he might make a pretty penny. Acting on that intuition, he petitioned Congress, which, in 1795, gave him a contract to open a road through Ohio from Wheeling to Limestone, Kentucky, a distance of 266 miles.
What became known as “Zane's Trace” was blazed into Ohio in 1797. In return, Congress granted Zane three-square-mile tracts of land at the crossings of the Muskingum, the Hocking, and the Scioto Rivers. In early 1798, the first settlers came over the Zane Trace. Two years later, in 1800, Zane decided to make his killing.
Enough settlers had arrived in the Hocking Valley. He dispatched sons Noah and John, as his attorneys, to lay out the town and sell lots. Chestnut Street, Main Street, Wheeling Street, and Mulberry Street were laid out from Pearl Street on the east to Front Street on the west. Because so many of the early settlers were Germans from the vicinity of Lancaster, Pennsylvania, the town was named “New Lancaster,” and shortened to “Lancaster” in 1805.
Samuel O'Neil was born there in 1819, William Tecumseh Sherman in 1820. Though their paths would later cross, at least figuratively, they did not know each other growing up. What neither man knew was that each would play an essential role in the Gold Rushâone to a present generation, the other to a future one.
Looking out over the far western wall of his fort at a newly planted white oak tree, Colonel John Sutter felt very, very good. Before him lay the culmination of his life's work, the fort he named after himself.