Archives for May 2011

Gambling in the Gold Rush

Mark Twain first heard the story of Jim Smiley and his jumping frog in the Angels Hotel. Smiley would bet on anything every time he could, and in Smiley Twain captured the passion that powered the California Gold Rush—the deeply rooted desire of man for quick, easy wealth. Starting from the first traveling grog shops at Sutter Creek to the bawdy pleasure palaces of San Francisco’s Barbary Coast alcohol, gambling and women with loose romantic affections were intrinsically interwoven. Miners often … [Read more...]

How the early 49ers mined gold

The first miners needed only a shovel and a flat pan to find great quantities of gold along the rivers that flowed westward from the Sierra Nevada Mountains. But more gold could be processed using devices like a rocker, a long tom or a sluice, each a longer variation of its predecessor. Ore was washed down a wooden box equipped with cleats or riffles nailed along the bottom to slow the water and let the heavy gold collect behind them.   After the surface gold was mined groups of … [Read more...]

The origin of California’s gold

Millions of years ago, underneath today’s California, molten hot magma containing a large amount of gold forced its way toward the surface through fissures in the hard quartz rock, cooling before it spewed out in a volcanic eruption. In some places earth’s tectonic plates folded up one over another along California’s coast, grinding the gold bearing quartz into gravel. The early miners who found these deposits thought they were the remains of ancient riverbeds still filled with gold. Elsewhere … [Read more...]

San Francisco’s mother of civil rights

Mary Ellen Pleasant learned about business as a bonded servant to a Nantucket Quaker storekeeper. Later she worked with the Underground Railroad, often stealing slaves and smuggling them north. Then in 1850 she went to New Orleans where she became involved with Marie LaVeaux, the Voodoo Queen. She came to California in 1852 and passed as a white businesswoman, opening restaurants that catered to the rich and powerful and ran a boarding house … [Read more...]

Gold rush women, the soiled doves

Belle Ryan, a preacher’s daughter, provided the most beautiful girls to wealthy San Francisco gentlemen from her place on Dupont Street—Grant Street today. In 1855 while at the American Theater with her lover, the gambler Charles Cora, William Richardson, the U.S. Marshal, demanded that Belle be ejected because of her occupation. Richardson and Cora argued and several days later Cora shot Richardson dead. Cora was soon tried and acquitted. James King of William, a newspaperman, accused Belle of … [Read more...]

Two notable gold rush black men

James Beckwourth joined the Rocky Mountain Fur Company in 1826 and spent years as a trapper and mountain man. He lived with Crow Indians, took a Crow wife, and rose to be an important chief. In 1844 James was trading along the Santa Fe Trail. When war broke out with Mexico he took 1800 Mexican horses back to the United States as spoils of war. In 1848 he came to California and opened a store in Sonoma, but soon sold it to become a gambler in Sacramento. In 1850 he discovered Beckwourth … [Read more...]

Blacks in the Gold Rush

  Negro Bar, on the American River above Sutter’s Fort, was the likely spot blacks first began to mine in California. The land had belonged to William Leidesdorff, a prominent San Francisco businessman of mixed ancestry known to employ blacks on his ranch, who died soon after Marshall’s discovery. Joseph Folsom bought the property and the site later became a part of the city of Folsom and one terminus for the first railroad in California. Negro Bar was not a lucrative mining site and the … [Read more...]

Mark Twain in California

In 1861, with his brother Orion, Samuel Clemens set out for the west. They traveled by stagecoach across the prairie and the Rocky Mountains, visited Salt Lake City and then went on to the new silver mines around Virginia City, Nevada. Here Clemens first tried his hand at prospecting but soon wound up working for the Territorial Enterprise where he first used the pen name by which he is remembered to this day, Mark Twain. In 1864 he moved to San Francisco and met such writers as Bret Harte, … [Read more...]

The Chinese, Unwelcome in America

Guest post by Lloyd Lofthouse The first major wave of Chinese immigrants came to the US after the California gold rush of 1849. Then in 1882, The Chinese Exclusion Act formalized an ugly American prejudice. In fact, there are still Americans who feel this way evidenced by a few comments left on this Blog. However, we are fortunate that more Americans appear open minded and accepting than those who do not feel that way. This act stayed in effect de facto until 1965, when racist … [Read more...]

Bret Harte in California

He was born Francis Brett Hart in Albany, New York on August 25, 1836. His father soon changed the spelling of the family name to Harte and the young Francis changed the spelling of his middle name, which he preferred, to Bret. In 1849 his formal schooling ended at age 13 and by 1854 young Bret had arrived in California by steamship. He made his way to the Southern mines in 1855, just after most of the easy placer gold had been found and the gold rush was beginning to unwind. He wandered around … [Read more...]