Although James Marshall found gold on the north fork of the American River in late January 1848, and the news reached San Francisco by mid-March, the gold fever didn’t really start in San Francisco until mid-May.
Samuel Brannan was largely responsible for the delay in spreading the word of the gold find. Brannan owned The California Star newspaper, and he minimized the news when it was first reported in March 1848. He wanted to plan how he would capitalize on the coming gold fever—not as a prospector himself, but by becoming a merchant to those who would dig the soil.
But Brannan and Johann Sutter (owner of Sutter’s Mill, where gold was first found) could only delay history briefly, not halted.
On May 1, 1848, Sutter wrote in his diary
Saml Brannan was building a store at Natoma, Mormon Islands [near Sutter’s Mill, where the gold had been discovered], and have done a very large and very heavy business.
Already there were several hundred miners in Columa, Mormon Island, and other sites around Sutter’s Mill. A huge strike at Dry Diggins (near what became Hangtown and Placerville) brought more miners.
On May 12, 1848, his store open and booming with business, Brannan was ready to start the gold rush. He ran through the streets of San Francisco waving a bottle of gold dust and yelling, “Gold! Gold! Gold from the American River!”
Immediately, San Francisco emptied of able-bodied men. On May 19, just a week after Brannan’s act as town crier, Sutter wrote
The great Rush from San Francisco arrived at the fort, all my friends and acquaintances filled up the houses and the whole fort . . . . The Merchants, Doctors, Lawyers, Sea Captains, Merchants etc. all came up and did not know what to do, all was in a Confusion, all left their wives and families in San Francisco . . . .
Brannan was not the only merchant capitalizing on the influx of men to the gold fields. On May 21, Sutter reported that
Saml Kyburg errected or established the first Hotel in the fort . . . and made a great deal of Money. A great Many traders deposited a great deal of goods in my Store . . . . Afterwards every little Shanty became a Warehouse and Store; the fort was then a veritable Bazaar.
And on May 25, he wrote:
The travelling to the Mines was increasing from day to day, and no more Notice was taken, as the people arrived from South America, Mexico, Sandwich Islands, Oregon, etc. All the Ships Crews, and Soldiers deserted.
Lest we have only Johann Sutter’s word for the depth of the impact of the Gold Rush on San Francisco, on May 24, The Californian paper reported:
The whole country from San Francisco to Los Angeles, and from the sea shore to the base of the Sierra Nevadas, resounds with the sordid cry of ‘Gold, gold, gold!’ while the field is left half-planted, the house half built, and everything neglected but the manufacture of shovels and pickaxes.
The Gold Rush was on! Neither California nor the rest of the United States has been the same since.
What events of history have affected you and your family?