Gold had been cropping up in California long before the '49ers found it.  Native Americans had brought bits and pieces of the yellow metal to mission padres.  But the friars kept the discovery to themselves, fearing the disruptive influence of outsiders.

     In 1842, a ranchero, stopping to rest in a Southern California canyon after searching for some stray horses, dug up a few wild onions for lunch.  He got more than a free meal.  Clinging to the roots were gold flakes and nuggets that caused a minor scramble for gold.  However, the find "played out" after a while and life resumed its languid California pace.

The real rush for gold started at a small millrace  

     In 1848 Captain John Sutter owned a sawmill in the Sierra Nevada foothills on the South Fork of the American River.  Working as general utility man for Sutter was an emigrant from New Jersey named John Marshall.  One morning, after shutting off the water to the mill, Marshall embarked on his usual inspection trip alongside the dry channel.  And, in his own words, "My eye was caught with the glimpse of something shining in the bottom of the ditch.  I reached my hand down and picked it up; it made my heart jump, for I was certain it was gold."  He had found a pea-sized piece of gold, and soon picked up a pocketful of the yellow metal.

     Marshall and Sutter tried to keep the discovery a secret, but after a horseman rode through the streets of San Francisco, jubilantly waving a bottle full of glistening gold dust and shouting, "Gold! Gold! Gold!", the stampede to the foothills began.  And nothing could stop it.

"For I'm goin' to California..."

     Gold was discovered at Sutter's Mill on January 24, 1848. A few months later, a remarkably modest little article in the March 15, 1848 edition of the San Francisco Californian announced that, "gold has been found in considerable quantities."  When the newspaper decided to do a follow-up article, it found that its staff had all taken off for the gold field.  The power of advertising!

     As gold kept surfacing in other locations in California -- on the Feather, Yuba, Bear and Cosumes Rivers -- thousands of treasure hunters followed the yellow brick road to the Mother Lode country.  Eventually, prospectors would flock to the Golden State from all over the world.  They came from China and Chile; Great Britain and Germany; Spain, France, Peru and the Hawaiian Islands.

Sea vessels & prairie schooners

     And they came by any route that was handy or that they could afford: via the hazardous six-to nine-month voyage around Cape Horn; by way of a fever-plagued trek across the Isthmus of Panama; over tortuous trails carved into the Great Plains by prairie schooner.  They left families, friends, jobs and whatever security they had known for the uncertainties of treasure hunting.  Nothing was stronger than the lure of gold.

     Before the Gold Rush, California's non-Native American population numbered only 15,000.  By 1852 it had climbed to 250,000. San Francisco had only 812 residents in March, 1848.  By 1850 it was a boom town of 25,000. In 1848 only 335 brave adventurers came across the Isthmus to California.  In the peak year of 1852, more than 24,000 made that jungle journey.  It seemed like gold fever had overpowered the fear of yellow fever.

In the mood for more gold lore?  
To continue the story of this elusive element, 
please click here for Part 2 of ALL THAT GLITTERS.

(Story is used courtesy of Wells