Gold at Sutter's mill!
Greed is good! How did such an unchristian idea take over the U.S.A.? How did a Mormon leader become the country’s first millionaire? The year 1848 was as historic in America as it was in Europe: the year sawmill workers found gold dust in a streambed.
A traveling salesman walks the streets of a dusty village in the middle of nowhere, calling out a single sentence that alters the destiny of a continent. Hundreds of thousands of men leave their families and risk their lives to reach this village. Some make their fortunes. Others lose everything. Their mass migration brings death to tens of thousands of native Americans. It destroys rivers and levels mountains. It also helps end slavery. For a few short years, the village is one of the most colorful, wild, disreputable places on earth. The gold-digger becomes a lasting symbol of a new way of making a living.
The salesman, Sam Brannan, is 29. He wears a frock coat and long sideburns. The village is San Francisco. The sentence he shouts over and over, waving his hat and brandishing a bottle of gold dust: “Gold! Gold! Gold from the American river!”
He did not come to San Francisco to find gold. When Sam Brannan entered the Golden Gate on a sailing ship, two years earlier on July 31, 1846, the village was still called “Yerba Buena” in honor of its abundant wild peppermint. Brannan, originally from New York, has 230 fellow Mormons in tow. Their arrival doubles the village’s population.
His plan was actually to found a Mormon paradise in a lawless territory, but events overtook him. While their ship was rounding the Horn, the U.S. had taken California from Mexico. The territory is not yet a state, but the stars and stripes fly over the village. He is said to have remarked, “There’s that goddamn flag again.”
Brannan has brought along a printing press, and he founds the California Star, the town’s first newspaper. Most of the Mormons become farmers. Some work on the New Helvetia Ranch, property of Johann Sutter, 70 miles away in the Sacramento valley. Brannan opens a dry goods store in Sutter’s Fort, the Swiss immigrant’s main house.
In January 1848, Sutter’s workers are building a sawmill on a branch of the Sacramento river. One day a carpenter comes running through the gate of Sutter’s Fort. While digging the mill race, the workers had noticed shiny yellow flakes. He dumps them on Sutter’s desk. He leafs through a lexicon, tries to dissolve them in acid, flattens them with a hammer until they are thinner than a hair. Gold.
The carpenter promises to keep his mouth shut. Instead, he pays for a bottle of schnapps in Brannan’s store with gold. The news takes its course. Brannan returns to San Francisco at top speed. He prints 2,000 copies of an extra edition of the California Star and mails it to the east coast. Shortly thereafter, the Star writes that the region’s cities and ranches are empty of people: Over a thousand men, women and children are now busy panning for gold, and they have found around $100,000 worth in the first month. That was the newspaper’s last issue. Brannan’s printers took the cue to vanish into the hills.
The press coverage in New York is unequivocal. Californians, the papers say, dig for gold as casually as others dig for potatoes, and they routinely find nuggets weighing six ounces. Such a nugget brings $100, they said – six months wages for a craftsman. Thousands of men take to the water. The sea passage from New York to San Francisco takes four months. The intermodal route via Panama is shorter: 15 days on a steamer, two days with mules across the isthmus, then 20 days sailing northward again. In theory. The reality looks different: There are not enough ships to take the assembled men north to California. Many die in Panama of insect-borne disease and cholera.
The most dangerous route is overland. Convoys of wagons lose their way in the trackless steppes of the prairie. Oxen die. Travelers die of scurvy and starvation. Shortly before they reach their goal, they must cross the Sierra Nevada – a mountain range so steep and cold that one diarist calls it “the devil’s backbone.”
Those who survive scatter themselves among river valleys in the western Sierras. They soon realize that panning for gold is harder than harvesting potatoes. It is impossible to survive working alone. The diggers at first form small groups and wash the sand using “long toms” – wooden boxes with sieves to catch large stones. The finer particles are washed down a six-foot incline with ripples to catch the heaviest bits – hopefully gold. They soon turn to damming entire rivers, diverting the water into canals so they can dig up the riverbed. River mining turns the gold rush into a high-stakes, capital-intensive industry. Success and failure are decided only after months are spent building the dam and canal. In the meantime, the gold-diggers survive on overpriced products from the company store. Classic debt peonage.
They stand for days on end in wet leather boots in icy water. At night they sleep in tents or drafty shacks, still wearing their wet clothes. One in five dies during the first year. Insurance companies cancel policies when customers head for California.
Sam Brannan is one of the few who never touches a shovel. He devotes his time to a far more profitable business: mining the miners. Property rights are uncertain, courts and munipical administrative authorities unpracticed. Brannan has little to fear as he ventures into organized crime. At the beginning of the gold rush he demands one-tenth – a tithe – of all Mormon finds. Most believers assume the money is for the church. Others think it goes into a legal defense fund that will ensure their title to their claims. None ever benefit from their contributions. Brannan becomes a wealthy man and lets the Mormon faith fall like a used tissue.
His shops in the gold fields earn him $5,000 a day. He invests in hotels and warehouses in San Francisco and Sacramento and runs a consortium that builds the port – a project costing $200,000. He organizes the first overland postal service in the east, helps found banks and insurance companies.
On June 10, 1851, he founds a militia. That night, it takes control of San Francisco. An Australian has allegedly stolen a safe. The vigilantes find him. Around one a.m., following the two-hour trial, Brannan announces the sentence of death by hanging. Two policemen try in vain to free the suspect. His corpse hangs until dawn. As Brannan celebrates his coup in the bar of the Union Hotel, the chief of police is livid with rage. The salesman has become a tycoon: snow-white collar, flawless checked vest, dark morning coat. He is 31. His heavy-lidded black eyes give him a bored look. He accepts the populace’s compliments smiling, a whisky glass in his left hand. He makes fun of the police. He knows he is invulnerable – king of the most chaotic, exciting town on the continent …