Honor in the Gold Fields in July 1848: Few Reports of Thievery

Richard B Mason from SF MuseumAs I review my novel about the California Gold Rush with my writing critique partners, they tell me to put more violence and tension into the book. They’d like to see a bloody claim jumping or bushwhacking in every chapter.

A good novel must include a lot of conflict and tension, so I listen to my critique group when they tell me I need more conflict in the book. But I also have to be true to the times.

Despite what we’ve seen in western movies, the truth of the matter was that in 1848, there was little thievery in the gold fields, nor many disputes between the gold seekers and Native Americans.

By July of 1848, six months after John Marshall had discovered the gold at Sutter’s Mill, there were about 4,000 miners in the Sierra Nevada foothills panning for gold. Keep in mind, word of gold fields hadn’t even reached Oregon yet. Nevertheless, 4,000 men had already congregated to seek their fortunes.

In total, the miners were taking about $50,000 worth of gold out of the earth every day. Despite these rich finds—and new lodes were being discovered almost daily—there was honor in the gold fields.

The U.S. Army had taken control of California in 1846 when the U.S. conquered Mexico in the Mexican-American War. General Richard B. Mason, California’s military governor, visited the gold fields in July 1848. His report to the authorities in Washington, D.C., about his trip to the gold fields stated:

I was surprised to learn that crime of any kind was very infrequent and that no thefts or robberies had been committed in the gold district. All live in tents, or bush houses, or in the open air and men have frequently about their persons thousands of dollars’ worth of this gold.

(It might interest Civil War buffs to know that General Mason’s aide was Captain William T. Sherman.)

General Mason and his aides celebrated the Fourth of July with Johann Sutter. Sutter later wrote:

As we wanted to celebrate the 4th of July we invited the Governor and his suite to remain with us, and be accepted. Kyburg gave us a good Diner, every thing was pretty well arranged. . . . It was well done enough for such a new Country and in such an excitement and Confusion.

And so the settlement of the gold fields began—with celebration of the nation’s birthday and with honesty and good will among the miners.

The good will didn’t last, of course. It never does where human beings and riches are in close proximity. In later years of the Gold Rush, disputes over territory and robberies increased. So I did include some of these in my novel.

But I’ll need to find other sources of tension besides fights over gold for the early part of my book.

What impact has wealth or its absence had on people around you?

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  1. While there wasn’t much conflict or thievery, I expect the people individually had conflicts with others in their family/community. Maybe what your critique group is saying is that the characters need to have more conflict. Just keeping a family together today is filled with conflict. The same must have been true then too. And even if a person went alone, their personal conflict left families behind, and they searched for love where they were, the same way we do today. Just some thoughts that came as I was reading.

    • Janet, yes, I’m trying to build in a lot of interpersonal conflict between neighbors and partners. And the whole book is about searching for love.
      But that doesn’t satisfy the thirst for violence that some readers want.
      Can’t please everyone, but I need to keep it interesting.

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