Excerpt from Reminiscences of Early San Francisco 1847–48
First published in the Sacramento Daily Union in 1873
Reprinted in A World Transformed: Firsthand Accounts of California Before the Gold Rush, 1999
Edited by Joshua Paddison
It took several months for people in San Francisco—barely one hundred miles away from Sutter's Mill—to hear of Marshall's discovery of gold on January 24, 1848. As the first news of gold trickled through the small California towns, some were skeptical. In San Francisco, a town of about five hundred people, settlers were busy setting up shops to support the growing farming communities; farming was considered the best economic opportunity in the territory at the time. However, as workers from Sutter's Mill began buying goods with gold dust, the rumors of gold in the hills of California were hard to deny.
The curious editor of the California Star newspaper, Edward Cleveland Kemble, wanted to know if the rumors were true. He joined the first party to leave San Francisco for the gold mines. In 1873, Kemble published a rare perspective about the beginning of the gold rush in a series of articles for the Sacramento Daily Union. His reports highlight the skepticism of the party and the difficulty in finding gold. His account also provides a unique perspective on the relations between Indians and miners.
Things to remember while reading the excerpt from Reminiscences of Early San Francisco 1847–48:
- In early 1847, the population of California was recorded as five hundred Californians and "foreigners"—Americans, English, Kanakas (native Hawaiians), and others.
- California became a U.S. territory on January 13, 1847.
- When gold was discovered on the American River, northern California was already known for its abundant mineral resources. People had already been digging for silver, quicksilver, coal, iron, copper, sulfur, salt, and black lead.
Excerpt from Reminiscences of Early San Francisco 1847–48
We didn't believe in it; we didn't profess to believe in it! The first party to the gold mines was nota party to any such miserable fraud as we believed the pretended gold discoveries to be. They would have told you—and it was true—that they were not going to look for gold; they had not lost any gold—and if Captain Sutter's mill hands on theAmerican Fork had found gold, they ought to be allowed to keep it....
The first party that left San Francisco to go to the gold mines consisted of Major Pierson B. Reading, George McKinstry, Jr., and the editor [Kemble] of the little paper already mentioned; time of year, the last week in March or the first in April ;conveyance, Leidesdorff's "launch" or schooner, the Rainbow. Major Reading, the accomplished gentleman, the adventurous pioneer, the amateur trapper and hunter, and the gallant soldier, will be remembered by all the old Californians. McKinstry was a pleasant writer and companion and was employed at Sutter's Fort in keeping the hospitable captain's books and accounts. The editor of the Star was a youth, not out of his teens, a printer and pioneer, who had served in the campaign in the south underFrémont ....
A party to
A party to: A part of.
American Fork: Part of the American River in California.
Conveyance: Mode of travel.
Frémont: John C. Frémont.
This was the party, and the vessel in which they embarked was admirably suited to the occasion—full of the suggestions of failure.The Rainbow was one of those morning illuminations at which "sailors take warning"; it had not bright promise to be fulfilled. It was the hull of the little Sitka, the pioneer steamboat on the bay, from which the boiler and engine had been removed—the shell of the grub from which the butterfly had departed....
One trip up the Sacramento in those weary days and nights of schooner navigation—of flapping sails and "ashen breezes" by day, and flapjacks and ashcakes and embattled hosts of mosquitoes along the banks at night—was so much like another, and either one or the other so uninviting of repetition that even the reproduction of the incidents of such a one as I am narrating seems undesirable. The party were from five to seven days on the journey. At "old Schwartz," on the river, a few miles below theembarcadero of Sutter's Fort (present site of Sacramento) they stopped to have a feast of salmon....
The Rainbow made her landing in fine style, all ill omens having failed on the trip, and Major Reading's little Indian body servant, who had accompanied him from San Francisco, ran up to the fort toapprise Captain Sutter of the arrival. Soon there were saddle horses led by an Indianvaquero galloping through the trees to be placed at the disposal of the major for the conveyance of the party to the fort. The setting sun was throwing a flood of mellow light beneath the arching branches, brightening the silver shafts of the cottonwood and turning to molten gold the miniature lakes spread out on every side....
Embarcadero: Wharf, pier, dock.
Apprise: Inform, to give notice to.
The next morning after their arrival, the gold hunters (still disclaiming such a title, however) resumed their journey. During the evening spent with Captain Sutter they had not been specially enlightened in regard to the discoveries. If Captain Sutter was a believer in their importance, he managed to hide it from his friends more successfully than the artless old gentleman concealed anything before or since. [James] Marshall's enthusiasm appeared rather to amuse than convince him, though he was troubled at the shapematters had taken at the mill. Work had been suspended on account of high water, and the men did not even appear disposed to engage in logging while the mill lay idle. Out of his anxiety for the fate of the mill, rather than interest in the new discoveries, Captain Sutter consented to take one of the party to the gold mines. He had been there once before, in the previous month, when Marshall, wild with excitement, had dragged himthither to behold the future scene of the world's wonder—a few grains of dull-looking metal stopped in the quill of some mountain bird was the first remittance of gold made from the mines of California.
There was, then, Captain Sutter, Major Reading, McKinstry, and the editor aforesaid—with two Indian "boys," Antonio and José, favorites of the captain, to look after the horses and make camp—and the party started at an early hour, because it was not expected to reach the mill before the next day. Captain Sutter, singular as it may seem, is a very poor horseman. Rarely in those days did he ever venture on the back of a horse, riding a mule in preference. On this occasion he was mounted on a favorite mule called Katy. Frequently that morning, in crossing marshy places or ascending slippery paths, the captain would fall to the rear and be heard in low tones of earnestexpostulation with his mule: "Now, den, Katy—deoder foot! God bless me, Katy—de oder foot, child!"
Little of interest occurred during the day's ride, except that Major Reading, carrying a small hammer, frequently rode out from the trail to break off bits of rock, and once or twice he thought he had found traces of silver....
Straight before them, seeming so very near in thetransparent atmosphere of that early morning, rose in solemn majesty thehoary heads of the Sierras.... A wild, wild group of mountains intervened, and then the beautifulvale of Coloma, nestling at their feet, cleft by the cold, rushing waters of the American. The hills that stand around it are clad with dense forests of evergreen. From the nearest summits, the pine and redwood rear high their sturdy crests motionless and without a murmur, or the song of a bird from their branches. The course of the river is lost to the eye in the dense growth of forest—we can scarcely catch at this distance the sound of its white, flashing waters. Only one sign of life, and that is a thin, blue column of smoke ascending dreamily from the depths of the vale, marking the locality of the lumbermen's camp.
Thither: To or toward that place; in that direction.
Expostulation: To reason with a person in an effort to dissuade or correct.
Transparent atmosphere: Clear skies.
Hoary: Old, white with age.
Heads: Mountain peaks.
Vale: A valley, often coursed by a stream.
Down the hill we rode, single file, with jingling Spanish spurs and bridle-bit, shaping our course for the camp without regard tothe meanderings of the trail. The sun was well up in the heavens, but the eastern slopes of the mountains lay buried in the shadows. The major, on his iron-gray steed, led the way, glancing right and left from under his broad-brimmed hat for silver signs, while the captain, on his mule, brought up the rear, picking his steps with anxious care, grasping thepummel of the saddle and dropping a word of earnest expostulation now and then to Katy. The chill air of the valley steals around us, and the roar of the rapids rises upon our ears.
Pummel: Spelled pommel; the upper front part of a saddle.
On a beach of land near the base of the long hill that we are descending, under majestic, spreading trees, we spy the camp of Marshall and his companions. It is a rudebivouac in the open air, with blankets, smoke-blackened kettles and tins, andprovender sacks and boxes strewed all around, as though the men were on a march. The morning meal had been consumed, and the lumbering crew (they would have passed for a "lumbering" set most anywhere) were sitting or sprawling on the ground about the smoldering fire. They hardly returned our greeting as we rode up. It was apparent from the first moment we came in sight, we were unwelcome guests. We had not been slow to perceive in the words and looks that were exchanged before we came within hearing that the object of our visit was well understood and would receive no aid or encouragement from Marshall and his friends.
We unsaddled our beasts, and while Captain Sutter and Marshall started off by themselves, the major and the rest of the party endeavored to gain a little information respecting the gold discovery from the other lumbermen. Opening oysters with a wooden toothpick would have been an easy task compared to that job. One of the fellows "allowed" he didn't "go much on its being gold, anyway." Another guessed Marshall was a "little mite cracked" on the subject. In answer to the direct question where the gold was found, the reply was, "Oh, anywhere along the race or down by the river, where you've a mind to try for it." Which was true enough, as it afterwards appeared, but intended to be a very smart and evasive answer. Marshall, when afterwards asked to designate the precise locality where he first discovered the gold, took a large chip and, without speaking, made two scratches upon it with the point of a knife with which he had been moodily whittling, and then struck the blade in where the lines intersected, jerking out only the word "thar," and going on with his whittling withoutdeigning any further explanation. No wonder men said Marshall was crazy. But he was not crazy; he was only eccentric, and just now he was acting a part.
Bivouac: A temporary encampment often in an unsheltered area.
Provender: Dry food, such as hay, used as feed for livestock.
Deigning: Condescending to offer.
Chenate: A kind of bird.
Whew! It was getting warm as the sun began to send his rays vertically into the valley. There was not a breath of air. The major proposed that we should try our luck gold mining "along the race or the river or anywhere." So, borrowing an Indian basket, one of those handsome, water-tight utensils, woven of grass and ornamented with the gay plumage of the scarlet-wingedchenate —a household vessel very common in those days—we walked down to the nearest point of the mill race. The major filled the basket with earth andcommenced thelaborious process of washing for gold after the fashion of theplacer miners in southern California. It was a new operation to the lookers on—probably Reading himself had never tried his hand at it before. It was very slow—we looked in vain for a sign of gold when the black sand was reached. "Try again," said the major, cheerily, proceeding to refill the basket. Higher rose the sun and hotter fell his beams on boulder and stream. The mill stood idle and deserted a few hundred yards below us. We began to look around for a shade. The major bent his back to his work.
Slowly, we walked down to the mill. Everything appeared unfinished or finished in haste, and a mechanic would have called it a bad job the moment his eye fell on the work. The dam was over-flowed; the water had backed up into the race and nearly surrounded the mill. We saw no traces of gold-digging, nor could we find where men had washed their gold. Some Indians appeared on the other side. They were on their way up to the camp to talk with their friend, Captain Sutter, whose arrival in the valley they seem to have ascertained by a sort of instinct.
We left the river and wandered back into the woods, leaving the major twirling and dipping his basket while we slowly directed our steps by a shaded path to the camp. Thechurlish and inhospitable crew of lumbermen had gone out tomake a feint of logging, or some other labor, for Captain Sutter's satisfaction. Our Indian boys prepared a lunch, and soon the Indians dropped in, one by one, and after a friendly salutation, sat down and eyed us in silence. Sutter came up and there was a grand handshaking, and now from another quarter, "remote, unfriended, melancholy, slow," approaches the sole representative of the mining interest in our party. He is greeted with a quiet "what success, major?" and replies, "not enough to buy a drink," which would be literally less than the value of aSpanish real in gold. There could be no reality in such gold discoveries as these. So we dropped the subject for the time being, and the editor of the Star noted in his memorandum book, as a subject for his next week's paper, the practical result of a test made of the gold-producing qualities of the soil at the alleged gold mines, and wrote overall, in emphatic character, "humbug."
Laborious: Labor intensive.
Placer miners: Those who obtained minerals from placers (gravel deposits) by washing or dredging the site to release the minerals.
Make a feint
Make a feint: To pretend.
Spanish real: A silver coin.
That evening, when the cold dews began to descend, we heaped up the lumbermen's fire with logs and turned to our Indian visitors, each of whom had been provided with his supper and a present, and asked them what they knew about gold in these mountains. They replied that they knew much about it—that it was verybad. As this seemed to confirm the editor of the Star in his opinion, he was naturally desirous to know more. So Captain Sutter, through one of his boys acting as interpreter and turning it into Spanish,elicited the surprising fact that the existence of the gold had been known to the Indians for many generations, and that it was considered by them as owned and guarded by evil spirits. There was a lake, said the chief speaker, not far from here, where there is plenty of this bad medicine, but it is guarded by a fearful animal. The Indian described him as a species of dragon, which had an unpleasant appetite for human flesh and would devour all who came into his domains for gold.
Edward Cleveland Kemble was one of the first American settlers to come to California. He was born in Troy, New York, in 1828. His father, John, was the editor and owner of the Troy Northern Budget. As a teenager, Edward apprenticed in the print shop for Samuel Brannan's newspaper, The Prophet.
At eighteen, Kemble arrived in California with Samuel Brannan on the Brooklyn on July 31, 1846. He soon signed up to fight with the U.S. Army in the Mexican-American War (1846–48) to secure California for the United States. During the war, he was able to meet and ride into battle with John Frémont, one of the men Kemble admired and whose writings had inspired the young man to come to California. After the war, he returned to San Francisco. Brannan placed Kemble in charge of his newspaper, the California Star. Kemble would remain at the helm of the newspaper through a merger with The Californian to create the Alta California, the first daily paper in San Francisco.
Elicited: Brought or drew out.
Padres: Fathers, priests.
Proselytes: New converts to a religion.
Prosecuted: Practice; carried on.
Denounced: Condemned openly as being evil or reprehensible.
The Indians appeared to know nothing of the value of the yellow metal, and the conclusion we reached after hearing their statement was that the early missionpadres had obtained a knowledge of the gold mines and had warned their Indianproselytes not to tamper with them, intending to develop these mines with Indian labor someday. Such a knowledge certainly existed among the Franciscans who founded the California missions, and it may be that gold mining was carried on by them in a small way by means of Indians. The first mining regularly attempted after the discoveries of 1848 wasprosecuted mainly by the aid of Indians. Until the dastardly outrage committed on a party of unoffending Indians by drunken Oregon desperados in the spring of this year, there was no difficulty in getting labor from these humble people. The shooting of half a dozen in cold blood, after they had been lured into camp on a pretense of friendship, drove the tribes into the mountains and provoked retaliations, which cost the lives of several innocent white men. This was the beginning of troubles between the red race and our own people in California. As usual, the whites were the cruel aggressors.
The first party to the gold mines from San Francisco in 1848 returned as empty-handed as it had started, so far as the mere acquisition of gold was concerned. In the acquisition of knowledge it was more successful. The editor of the California Star, for example, had derived, as he believed, facts, which justified him in proclaiming the gold discoveries to be a delusion and a snare. Accordingly, the next issue of the paper after his arrivaldenounced the whole theory and alleged success as an arrant cheat and imposture. TheStars in their courses fought against the gold mines. [Paddison, pp. 323, 324–331]
What happened next . . .
On May 12, 1848, two weeks after the party returned empty-handed to San Francisco, Samuel Brannan, the publisher of the California Star, paraded down the street waving a bottle of gold dust in his hand and yelling "Gold! Gold! Gold from the American River!" His testimony was enough to send many to the gold fields. Even the once skeptical Kemble closed the Star newspaper by June 14, writing "We have done. Let our word of parting be, Hasta Luego."
Unfortunately, Kemble was unsuccessful in his search for gold and returned to the newspaper. He eventually became one of the most respected newspapermen in California, and at the end of his career he wrote a valuable history of California newspapers.
Did you know . . .
- Eighty thousand people arrived in California for the gold rush in 1849 and extracted approximately $10 million in gold from the Sacramento Valley.
- Shortly after James Marshall discovered gold at Sutter's Mill, New Mexicans began herding sheep to California to feed the miners.
- By 1854, three hundred thousand people had arrived in California for the gold rush.
Consider the following . . .
- How did the workers at Sutter's Mill respond to the party's inquiries?
- How did the Indians respond to the party's inquiries?
- What news did the party bring back with them to San Francisco?
For More Information
Holliday, J. S. The World Rushed In: The California Gold Rush Experience, An Eyewitness Account of a Nation Heading West. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1981.
Paddison, Joshua, ed. A World Transformed: Firsthand Accounts of California Before the Gold Rush. Berkeley, CA: Heyday Books, 1999.
White, Richard. "It's Your Misfortune and None of My Own": A New History of the American West. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1991.