By Johnnie W. Lewis
California is an extremely diverse place to visit in our RV, though I’m not sure I would want to live here permanently. But we did go see where and why the state grew so rapidly today, when we went to Coloma, CA, on the South Fork American River, where gold was first discovered.
In the early 1800s, California was still a province of the Spanish government, ruled by Mexico. The population of the entire area was less than 160,000 people in the whole province. There were about 150,000 native Americans, about 6,500 Spanish-Mexicans, and about 800 non-native Americans. But in 1839, events began that would change the population and the atmosphere in California forever.
In 1839, John Sutter decided that he wanted to take advantage of the incredible climate to grow vineyards and fruit trees and applied to the Mexican government for a land grant that would allow him to do that. His grant covered many miles around what is now the area from Sacramento to Coloma. But he needed buildings to secure his agricultural pursuits. Which meant he needed a water-powered sawmill on the South Fork American River to cut up the lumber from the plentiful forests in the area. And a partner to offset the expenses, and the work, involved in starting up a sawmill, a fort, and a town. Sutter partnered with James Marshall to get Sutter’s Fort, in Sacramento, and Sutter’s Mill, in Coloma, built.
Marshall began building Sutter’s Mill in 1847. He needed sluiceways to divert the water while he built the mill itself over the river. But every night after his workers finished working on cutting the sluiceways alongside the river, the sluices would fill up with silt from the water that was slowly flowing through them. So every morning, Marshall would go out first and inspect the sluices to see how much dirt and silt needed to be re-dug and thrown over into the river and the land on the sides of the river. On the morning of January 24, 1848, while sifting through the silt, Marshall found four little nuggets that were not the same color as all of the other rocks that had floated into the sluices with the silt. They were only the size of tiny peas, but with their odd color, he thought they might be gold. “Men, I think I’ve found gold!” he told his workers. He took the tiny rocks to his cook, who boiled them in lye to remove the impurities on and around the little nuggets. When he saw that the golden color remained, he knew he indeed find gold.
Two weeks later the U.S. Government “convinced” the Mexican government to give up California and all Mexican lands between there and Texas. So, when gold was discovered in California, the land belonged to the Mexicans. Fifteen days later, it belonged to the USA.
Although Marshall and Sutter quickly decided that the discovery needed to remain secret until the buildings were finished, the word was already out. Marshall had made the mistake of telling his workers and the cook, and the word spread rapidly around the world, and by April 1849 people were traveling in droves, over land and by sea, to various areas along the rivers of northern California in search of the stuff that dreams are made of. By the end of 1849, the population of California had increased by 80,000 people, half by land and half by sea, which was enough to convince the U.S. Government to admit California to statehood in 1850. Within the first seven years after the gold rush began, the population of California had increased by 300,000!
So, what’s the bottom line here? California is the “free and open” land that it is, because of James Marshall finding gold in 1848. People of every race and nationality have come to the shores of California looking for their “dream” because of the discovery of an element that would fund their dreams, if only they could get hold of some of that gold. Most people didn’t find gold, but the land was so rich and fertile that they could at least make a living for themselves and their families. Vast numbers of people made money, instead of searching for gold, by supplying the prospectors with the items that they needed in their search for gold — jeans (Levi Strauss), picks, shovels, pans, screens, and food. The search for “a better life” is inherent in all of us and the 49ers were no different.
On a personal note, my own great-great grandfather was involved in the gold rush, to some extent. He had moved from northwestern Tennessee to Lexington, Missouri in 1845, hoping to claim some land and raise his family. He ended up running a store instead and supplying people who were “headed west” on whatever adventures they had chosen for themselves. In late 1848 and early 1849, so many people came up the Mississippi River to the Missouri River that the town was overwhelmed most of the time. And many of the travelers had come from New Orleans up the river, bringing cholera with them. 5,000 people died of cholera during that time period, including my grandfather. He’s buried in an unmarked grave in the town’s cemetery, along with all the others in that giant plot of the cemetery where the cholera victims are buried. He had not wanted to go on to California to search for gold, but he became a victim of those who rushed to search for it.
Tomorrow is a travel day, to South Lake Tahoe, so we will begin, again, with the “tearing down” process in the morning and the “setting up” process in the afternoon. I feel certain that we will run into many more Californians than out-of-state RVers, though I tend to think of us, in our RVs, as the gold rushers of yesteryear — on the road to fulfill our dreams!
Johnnie Wright Lewis, author of 46+ books, and her husband, Jimmy, travel the USA in their RV, stopping to see whatever they can. They met and married in Athens and with cousins and friends in the Athens area, including their beloved Bulldogs, they take every opportunity to come back to where they “started.” Follow them on Facebook at “Two Old Farts Traveling” and watch the many videos of their travels on YouTube under the same name. Look for Johnnie’s books on Amazon.com under the name of Johnnie W. Lewis.
By Johnnie W. Lewis