The Gold Rush: Behind the Hype

Historical Essay

by Pratap Chatterjee, originally published in 1997 in the San Francisco Bay Guardian

Golden gate and angel island 19th century.jpg

Golden Gate with Angel Island visible in bay, mid-19th century

Photo: Private Collection, San Francisco, CA

This article presents the environmental realities of the 1849 Gold Rush. Referencing other works on the history of the Gold Rush in California, the author paints its progression as quite different from the popularized version and details the ‘toxic legacy,’ specifically that of mercury, zinc, and copper, that continues to affect California’s ecosystems.

On May 12, 1848, Samuel Brannan, a Mormon elder from Sutter's Fort, stepped off a boat from Sacramento and paraded down Montgomery Street waving a quinine bottle full of gold dust in one hand and flapping his hat in the other, proclaiming "Gold! Gold! Gold from the American River!"

The gold rush was born that day—not on Jan. 24, 1848, when James Marshall supposedly first discovered gold near Coloma when he was working for John Sutter.


Early placer gold mining, a process that was soon supplanted by massively capitalized industrial mining processes.

Photo: provenance unknown

Brannan quickly made a fortune peddling the gold rush--unlike Marshall and Sutter, who died sick and bankrupt years later, as did many other unfortunate '49ers.

But the Golden State needs a golden myth, so California plans to immortalize Marshall at a ceremony in Coloma on Saturday, Jan. 24—the first of 500 commemorative events that will culminate in 2000 with the anniversary of the signing of the state constitution in Monterey. On the same day, the Oakland Museum of California will launch a massive $3 million exhibition titled "Gold Fever."

Gov. Pete Wilson is expected to go to Coloma. He will not likely quote Henry David Thoreau, who called the gold rush "the greatest disgrace to mankind." Or timber locator C.B. Watson, who later regretted the destruction he had caused the Oregon border forests.

"Westwards the star of empire takes its way ... to fill the coffers of the overrich, who have no thought of the morrow," Watson wrote in 1920.

The festivities will not include a brilliant project by photographer Robert Dawson titled "Farewell, Promised Land," which the Oakland Museum says it may show sometime next year. In the book that accompanies the proposed exhibition, Dawson and Gray Brechin note that "the word's greatest stag party became California, which was trashed as thoroughly as a saloon in a drunken brawl."

The project shows how the gold rush laid waste to the forests of the Sierras and the oak and redwood forests surrounding San Francisco, home to grizzly bears. The once bountiful wetlands and meadows of the Sacramento and San Joaquin Valleys that had been home to huge herds of antelope, elk, pelicans, quail, and otters are now barren wastelands that need massive injections of water and chemicals to produce crops.

A total of 12 billion tons of earth, eight times the amount of land dug up for the Panama Canal, was dumped into the local rivers. In 1880 alone, 40,000 acres of farmland were destroyed and 270,000 acres severely damaged. The cleanup bill for the Iron Mountain mine alone has been estimated by the EPA at $3 million to $4 million a year—for 3,000 years.

Also missing from the Coloma festivities will be representatives of many Native American groups whose lands were destroyed and whose members were savagely murdered. Instead, they will gather at the Baha'i Center in San Francisco's Mission District Jan. 24 at noon to remember those who died in the conquest of the West.

All that glitters

Brannan is probably a better symbol of the gold rush scam than Marshall, who admitted years later that he was not alone in finding the gold. Some historians now suggest it was a native Maidu man known as Indian Jim who showed him the gold flakes.

Brannan chose to announce his discovery immediately after he had laid plans to set up a new store and warehouse in the gold fields. Within three days some two-thirds of the 600-person population of the sleepy Mexican hamlet of Yerba Buena, now San Francisco, rushed up to Coloma to make him a fortune.

The gold "discovery" was also a perfect excuse for President James Polk to urge the settlement of the new west in December 1848. The government he said, was "deeply interested in the speedy development of the country's wealth and resources." The gold rush had begun.


Image: San Francisco Annals, 1855

But the federal government had known about the mineral deposits for at least five years, according to historian Gray Brechin in Imperial San Francisco.

"The Mexican-American War could well be a textbook example of the mining engineer's adage that commerce follows the flag, but the flag follows the pick, for Marshall merely rediscovered gold," Brechin writes. Brechin points out that interest in California's gold was first stirred up in 1843, when nearly 2,000 ounces were sent from mines near the San Fernando Mission in southern California to Washington, D.C. He notes also that well before the Marshall strike, mercury was discovered in the Coast Range near San Jose, providing the essential ingredient of the extraction of gold—and its most toxic legacy.

On May 2, 1846, Thomas Larkin, the United States consul in the colonial capital of Monterey, wrote to Secretary of State James Buchanan, and to Captain John Montgomery aboard the Portsmouth, a U.S. Navy ship off the California coast: "There is no doubt in my mind but that gold, silver, copper, quicksilver, lead, sulphur, and coal mines are to be found all over California."

Eleven days later the United States used a border dispute in Texas as an excuse to declare war on Mexico. The war, and the gold rush that followed, came at great cost to native peoples and the environment—and to the settlers themselves.

Like Brannan and the federal government, many people saw the gold rush as a quick route to riches—but they didn't pack their belongings and head for the Sierra Nevada foothills. Instead, they realized the feverish settlers and the new rich could easily be parted from their money. In 1849 as many as 30 guidebooks were published offering advice to would be settlers. Some made the preposterous claim that it was possible to cross the country in just over a month. The average crossing probably took six times as long.

Only 40,000 of the estimated 90,000 ’49ers actually made it to California. The rest turned back or died on the way. One physician estimated that a fifth of those who came west died within six months of moving to San Francisco, according to Precious Dust by Paula Marks (William Morrow, 1994).

At the time San Francisco was not the beautiful place guidebooks and politicians had led settlers to expect, but a "nasty, dirty, slushy, rainy, sand-hilly place," in the opinion of one doctor who ministered to dying settlers. A French visitor to San Francisco at the height of the gold rush said, "This is not a town, it is a quagmire."

Bayard Taylor noted in his book El Dorado, or Adventures in the Path of Empire (reprinted by University of Nebraska Press, 1988) that city conditions were so dreadful that a street inspector "used carloads of chaparral and sand to fill and cover gaping holes, but in a day or two the gulf was as deep as ever, and residents had to search the whole length of a block for a place to cross."

The holes were so big that city dwellers were known to throw surplus sacks of Chilean flour, containers of tobacco, and even cooking stoves into them, Taylor says. Partly as a result of this accumulated rubbish, gold rush San Francisco had seven major fires in 18 months, one of which wiped out a quarter of the city.

Dysentery was rife because arriving gold seekers drew water from little seep-hole wells two or three feet deep. Cholera struck the city in 1850, 1852, and 1854, claiming as many as 1 in 20 city dwellers on one occasion.

Living high on the hog from the gold rush dollars then—and even now—were the few who really made a fortune out of the destruction of California; families like the Hearsts and companies like the Bank of California and Wells Fargo.

Wells Fargo, sponsor of next year's Oakland Museum exhibit, took pride in insuring cargo and delivering mail to gold rush towns. The bank established a reputation for tracking down and shooting highway robbers, then erecting headstones for them reading "Wells Fargo Never Forgets."

George Hearst, father of William Randolph Hearst who made the San Francisco Examiner the newspaper it is today, was a lead miner in Missouri who traveled West despite his mother's misgivings. The Hearst family built the lavish San Simeon estate, while other San Francisco magnates decorated their palaces with similar ostentation.

The Bank of California's William Ralston had one of the first air-conditioning plants at his Belmont home and could feed 200 off gold and silver. Ralston's successor, William Sharon, spent $2,000 on hangings for each window of his 20-bedroom town house on Nob Hill and $140 for every pillowcase, according to San Francisco's Golden Era, by Lucius Beebe and Charles Clegg (Howell-North Books, 1960).

Hearst, Ralston, and Sharon made their fortunes trashing the land of the Washoe and the Paiute near the Sun Mountain on the California-Nevada border. There the miners deforested the entire Tahoe basin in their search for precious metal. The Washoe population was reduced from 3,000 to 300 in the silver rush of 1859. The statewide population of Californian native peoples dropped from 150,000 before the gold rush to 31,000 in 1870, thanks to new diseases and violent militias, brought by new settlers.

"The miners came, the miners left. We're still trying to clean up the waste they left behind," says John Martin, lawyer for the Washoe tribe.

Deep water

Throughout the Sierras the miners used a process popularly known as "hydraulicking," in which enormous jets of water were blasted under high pressure at mountainsides and riverbanks, pulverizing them in search for a few flakes of gold. The resulting sediment was carried downstream, where it buried houses, orchards, and wheat fields. This practice would cause the end of the gold rush.

1280px-Malakoff Diggings, North Bloomfield Gravel Mining, by Watkins, Carleton E., 1829-1916 3.png

Malakoff Diggings at the North Bloomfield Mine on the Yuba River, c. 1880.

Photo: Carleton Watkins, courtesy Wikimedia Commons

North Bloomfield Mine (Malakoff Diggins) - a7195.gif

More hydraulic mining at North Bloomfield Mine. Over the 25 years of hydraulic mining in the mountains of California it is thought that the equivalent of eight Panama Canals of debris were washed down into the Central Valley and the riverbeds of the state.

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

At 11 a.m., Jan. 7, 1884, San Francisco federal circuit judge Lorenzo Sawyer walked into his courtroom and read his decision in the case of Woodruff v. North Bloomfield, changing the course of California mining history.

Throughout northern California, people gathered around the telegraph offices to await the verdict of the bitterly fought case, which had pitted the farmers of the Sacramento valley against the miners of the mountain towns of the Sierra Nevada, according to Robert Kelley's Gold vs. Grain (out of print), the 1959 classic that tells the story of the epic struggle.

The farmers were angry because the mining debris that resulted from hydraulicking was choking the once clear mountain streams. The Sacramento River had swelled into a turbid sea some 50 miles wide.

"Exactly at one o'clock the first message was received, announcing in the most positive terms, a complete victory for the valley. In a few moments, the steam whistle at Swain & Hudson's mill began a shrill and prolonged shriek.... Soon the church bells were ringing out the most joyful peals ever heard in Marysville," reported the Marysville Appeal.

The town of Marysville, which had been buried in muck in 1875, threw a huge party that night with marching bands, fireworks, and bonfires in Cortez Square. Celebrations broke out in farming communities such as Bakersfield, Chico, Colusa, Merced, Red Bluff, Stockton, and Wheatland.

The decision was the death knell for the gold miner but not, unfortunately, for the consequences of the gold rush, which continue to the present day.

Toxic legacy

Exactly 113 years after the Sawyer decision, on Jan. 7, 1997, a United States Geological Survey (USGS) employee took a boat out into the Sacramento River at Freeport, a small town downstream from the state capital, rinsed out a Teflon container three times, then filled it with local water.

The worst floods in local memory had just caused dams and levees in the Sierra foothills to break, flooding the Sacramento and San Joaquin Rivers and forcing more than 100,000 people to evacuate their homes.

The results of the USGS sample were startling. Previous samples had shown that, on a typical dry-season day, an average of seven ounces of mercury are washed into the river at Freeport. On that day the samples indicated that more than 70 pounds of mercury were filtering into the San Francisco Bay, some 160 times more than the dry-season average.

The spread of mercury is one of the least understood and most toxic legacies of the gold rush.

A century ago the Coast Ranges of California were the site of the world's second largest mercury mines. More than 100,000 tons of mercury were dug out of the mountains and then transported into the Sierras to be used by gold miners. Miners poured the mercury onto gold ore to dissolve the precious metal, then heated the resulting gold-mercury amalgam, allowing the mercury to disperse in the air. Geologists today estimate that some 7,600 tons of this mercury were lost into the rivers of the central Sierra Nevada alone.

Mercury is a deadly toxin that affects the kidneys, the brain, and the nervous system. It can cause kidney damage and failure, can destroy the nervous system, and acts as a carcinogen. Perhaps the most famous fictional victim of mercury poisoning is the Mad Hatter, from Lewis Carroll's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, who was based on hat workers who suffered from mercury exposure. More worrisome are the tales of Chinese workers in the gold rush who mined mercury in the San Jose area and died "shaking toothless wrecks," according to J.B. Randol, general manager of San Jose's New Almaden mine during the 1870s and 1880s.

Today minute globules of mercury lurk in the sediment behind dams in the Sierras, buried in mountain lakes and riverbeds and in the estuary that stretches from Sacramento to the San Francisco Bay.

Over time much of this mercury will be chemically transformed into methylmercury, which accumulates in fat tissue. Over time, fish fat can accumulate mercury levels one million times higher than the surrounding water, according to Rainer Hoenicke of the San Francisco Estuary Institute.

Hoenicke is among the few people starting to sound the alarm over the deadly legacy that is slowly trickling into our lives around the bay. Two hundred and fifty million cubic meters of mercury-laden sediment from the gold rush has already filled the bay. There is so much sediment that the level of San Pablo Bay has risen by more than three feet.

Nor is mercury the only problem. Tucked away in the Klamath Mountains, in California's far north, is Iron Mountain, a 4,400-acre site where miners have extracted metals for more than a century, starting during the gold rush. A 70-story pile of crushed rock leaks garish orange and green water into a tributary of the headwaters of the Sacramento River, nine miles north of Redding in Shasta County.

The water there has been measured at a pH of -3, making it 10,000 times more acidic than battery acid. It contains a quarter of all toxic zinc and copper released each year into United States waters from all sources, including factories and cities.

Federal Environmental Protection Agency officials say they can stop the flow of about 80 percent of the toxics, but they can do nothing about the remaining pollution, which is expected to keep leaking for 3,000 years.

In 1898 the mine made its owners a million dollars a day. Today Rhone-Poulenc, the French multinational that is responsible for the site, is suing the federal government for the multimillion-dollar cost of cleaning it up.

Nor is Iron Mountain the only copper calamity in the California mountains. Acid drainage from the Penn Mine in Calaveras County, east of San Francisco in the Sierra foothills, which was active from the 1860s to the 1950s, produced a plume of toxic copper contamination in groundwater that flowed directly into the Mokelumne River. The Camanche dam in 1963 and subsequent East Bay Municipal Utility District construction in 1978 have helped check some of this.

Mining in old gold rush areas continues to threaten local communities. In August 1997, the water at the Grizzly Hill School in north San Juan, also in the Sierra foothills, turned nasty shortly after a mining company named Siskon shut down operations, according to Bob Greensfelder, a local activist.

Initial tests in September and October showed concentrations of iron 133 times the level allowed by state law for drinking water. Manganese hit 163 times the legal limit; aluminum 5.5 times; nickel 7 times; and zinc 4 times. The water also exceeded odor standards by as much as 17 times, according to county health officials.

And the gold rush has started again in recent years on many Native American lands, even though government agencies have yet to assess the toxic damage of yesteryear—let alone clean it up.

Pratap Chatterjee is a mining campaigner for Project Underground, a Berkeley-based human rights group, and producer of Terra Verde, an environmental radio show.

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