John Bidwell | Early Pioneering | Across the Plains | California in the Forties | The Discovery of Gold |

John Bidwell
The Discovery of Gold

It is not generally known that in 1841--the year I reached California--gold was discovered in what is now a part of Los Angeles County. The yield was not rich; indeed, it was so small that it made no stir. The discoverer was an old Canadian Frenchman by the name of Baptiste Ruelle, who had been a trapper with the Hudson's Bay Company, and, as was not an infrequent case with trappers, had drifted down into New Mexico, where he had worked in placer mines. The mines discovered by Ruelle in California attracted a few New Mexicans, by whom they were worked for several years. But as they proved too poor, Ruelle himself came up into the Sacramento Valley, 500 miles away, and engaged to work for Sutter when I was in Sutter's service.

New Mexican miners invariably carried their gold (which was generally small, and small in quantity as well) in a large quill--that of a vulture or turkey buzzard. Sometimes these quills would hold three or four ounces, and, being translucent, they were graduated so as to see at any time the quantity in them. The gold was kept in by a stopper. Ruelle had such a quill, which appeared to have been carried for years. Now it so happened that almost every year a party of a dozen men or more would come from or return to Oregon. Of such parties, some--perhaps most of them--would be Canadian French, who had trapped all over the country, and these were generally the guides. In 1843 it was known to everyone that such a party was getting ready to go to Oregon. Baptiste Ruelle had been in Sutter's employ for several months, when one day he came to Sutter, showed him a few small particles of gold, and said that he had found them on the American River, and he wanted to go far into the mountains on that stream to prospect for gold. For this purpose he desired two mules loaded with provisions, and he selected two notedly stupid Indian boys whom he wanted to go into the mountains with him, saying he would have no others. Of course he did not get the outfit. Sutter and I talked about it and queried, what does he want with so much provision--the American River being only a mile and the mountains only twenty miles distant? And why does he want those two stupid boys, since he might be attacked by Indians? Our conclusion was that he really wanted the outfit so that he could join the party and go to Oregon and remain.

Such, I believe, was Ruelle's intention, though in 1848, after James W. Marshall had discovered the gold at Coloma, Ruelle, who was one of the first to go there and mine, still protested that he had discovered gold on the American River in 1843. The only thing that I can recall to lend the least plausibility to Ruelle's pretensions would be that, so far as I know, he never, after that one time, manifested any desire to go to Oregon, and remained in California until he died. But I should add, neither did he ever show any longing again to go into the mountains to look for gold during the subsequent years he remained with Sutter, even to the time of Marshall's discovery.

Early in the spring of 1844 a Mexican working under me at the Hock farm for Sutter, came to me and told me there was gold in the Sierra Nevadas. His name was Pablo Gutierrez. The discovery by Marshall, it will be remembered, was in January, 1848. Pablo told me this at a time when I was calling him to account because he had absented himself the day before without permission. I was giving him a lecture in Spanish, which I could speak quite well then. Like many Mexicans he had an Indian wife; some time before, he had been in the mountains and had bought a squaw. She had run away from him and he had gone to find and bring her back. And it was while he was on this trip, he said, that he had seen signs of gold. After my lecture, he said, "Senor, I have made an important discovery; there surely is gold on Bear River in the mountains." This was in March, 1844. A few days afterward I arranged to go with him up on Bear River. He went five or six miles into the mountains, when he showed me the signs and the place where he thought the gold was. "Well," I said, "can you not find some?" "No," he said, "because I must have a 'batea.'" He talked so much about the "batea" that I concluded it must be a complicated machine. "Can't Mr. Keiser, our saddle-tree maker, make the batea?" I asked. "Oh, no." I did not then know that a batea is nothing more nor less than a wooden bowl which the Mexicans use for washing gold. I said, "Pablo, where can you get it?" He said, "Down in Mexico." I said, "I will help pay your expenses if you will go down and get one," which he promised to do. I said, "Pablo, say nothing to anybody else about this gold discovery, and we will get the batea and find the gold."

As time passed I was afraid to let him go to Mexico, lest when he got among his relatives he might be induced to stay and not come back, so I made a suggestion to him. I said, "Pablo, let us save our earnings and get on board a vessel and go around to Boston, and there get the batea; I can interpret for you, and the Yankees are very ingenious and can make anything." The idea pleased him, and he promised to go as soon as we could save enough money to pay our expenses. He was to keep it a secret, and I believe he faithfully kept his promise. It would have taken us a year or two to get enough money to go. In those days there were every year four or five arrivals, sometimes six, of vessels laden with goods from Boston to trade for hides in California. These vessels brought around all classes of goods needed by the Mexican people. It would have required about six months each way, five months being a quick trip.

But, as will be seen, our plans were interrupted. In the autumn of that year, in 1844, a revolt took place. The native chiefs of California, Jose Castro and ex-Governor Alvarado, succeeded in raising an insurrection against the Mexican governor, Micheltorena, to expel him from the country. They accused him of being friendly to Americans and of giving them too much land. The truth was, he had simply shown impartiality. When Americans had been here long enough, had conducted themselves properly, and had complied with the colonization laws of Mexico, he had given them lands as readily as to native-born citizens. He was a fair-minded man and an intelligent and good governor, and wished to develop the country. His friendship for Americans was a mere pretext, for his predecessor, Alvarado, and his successor, Pio Pico, also granted lands freely to foreigners, and among them to Americans.

The real cause of the insurrection against Micheltorena, however, was that the native chiefs had become hungry to get hold again of the revenues. The feeling against Americans was easily aroused and became their main excuse. The English and French influence, as far as felt, evidently leaned toward the side of the Californians. It was not open, but it was felt, and not a few expressed the hope that England or France would some day seize and hold California. I believe the Gachupines--natives of Spain, of whom there were a few--did not participate in the feeling against the Americans, though few did much, if anything, to allay it. In October Sutter went from Sacramento to Monterey, the capital, to see the governor. I went with him. On the way thither, at San Jose, we heard the first mutterings of the insurrection. We hastened to Monterey and were the first to communicate the fact to the Governor. Sutter, alarmed, took the first opportunity to get away by water, returning home. In a few days the first blow was struck, the insurgents taking all the horses belonging to the Governor at Monterey, setting the Governor and all his troops on foot. He raised a few horses as best he could and pursued them on foot. However, I understood that a sort of parley took place at or near San Jose, but no battle, surrender, or settlement.

Meanwhile, having started to return to Sutter's Fort, 200 miles distant, I met the Governor returning to Monterey. He stopped his forces and talked with me half an hour and confided to me his plans. He desired me to beg the Americans to be loyal to Mexico; to assure them he was their friend, and in due time would give them all the lands to which they were entitled. He sent particularly friendly word to Sutter. Then I went on to the mission of San Jose and there fell in with the insurgents, who made that place their headquarters. I stayed all night and the leaders, Castro and Alvarado, treated me like a prince. The two insurgents protested their friendship for the Americans, and sent a request to Sutter to support them.

On my arrival at the fort the situation was fully considered, and all, with a single exception, concluded to support Micheltorena. He had been our friend; he had granted us land; he promised, and we felt sure that we could rely upon, his continued friendship; and we felt sure, indeed, we knew, we could not repose the same confidence in the native Californians. This man, Pablo Gutierrez, who had told me about the gold in the Sierra Nevadas, was a native of Sinaloa, Mexico, and sympathized with the Mexican governor and with us. Sutter sent him with dispatches to the Governor stating that we were organizing and preparing to join him. Pablo returned, and was sent again to tell the Governor that we were on the march to join him at Monterey. This time he was taken prisoner with our dispatches and hanged to a tree, somewhere near the present town of Gilroy. That, of course, put an end to our gold discovery; otherwise Pablo Gutierrez might have been the discoverer instead of Marshall.

But I still had it in my mind to try to find gold; so early in the spring of 1845 I made it a point to visit the mines in the south discovered by Ruelle in 1841. They were in the mountains about twenty miles north or northwest of the mission of San Fernando, or say fifty miles from Los Angeles. I wanted to see the Mexicans working there, and to gain what knowledge I could of gold digging. Dr. John Townsend went with me. Pablo's confidence that there was gold on Bear River was fresh in my mind, and I hoped the same year to find time to return there and explore, and if possible to find gold in the Sierra Nevadas. But I had no time that busy year to carry out my purpose. The Mexicans' slow and inefficient manner of working a mine was most discouraging. When I returned to Sutter's Fort the same spring, Sutter desired me to engage with him for a year as bookkeeper, which meant his general business man as well. His financial matters being in a bad way, I consented. I had a great deal to do besides keeping the books. Among other undertakings we sent men southwest into the Sierra Nevadas, about forty miles from the fort, to saw lumber with a whipsaw. Two men would saw of good lumber about 100 or 125 feet a day. Early in June I framed an excuse to go into the mountains to give the men some special directions about lumber needed at the fort. The day was one of the hottest I had ever experienced. No place looked favorable for a gold discovery. I even attempted to descend into a deep gorge through which meandered a small stream, but gave it up on account of the brush and the heat. My search was fruitless.

The place where Marshall discovered gold in 1848 was about forty miles to the north of the saw-pits at this place. The next spring, 1849, I joined a party to go to the mines on and south of the Cosumne and Mokelumne rivers. The first day we reached a trading post--Digg's, I think, was the name. Several traders there had pitched their tents to sell goods. One of them was Tom Fallon, whom I knew. This post was within a few miles of where Sutter's men sawed the lumber in 1845. I asked Fallon if he had ever seen the old saw-pits where Sicard and Dupas had worked in 1845. He said he had, and knew the place well. Then I told him I had attempted that year to descend into the deep gorge to the south of it to look for gold. "My stars!" he said. "Why, that gulch down there was one of the richest places that have ever been found in this country;' and he told me of men who had taken out a pint cupful of nuggets before breakfast.

Fremont's first visit to California was in March, 1844. He came via Oregon, traveling south and passing east of the Sierra Nevadas, and crossing the chain about opposite the Bay of San Francisco, at the head of the American River, and descending into the Sacramento Valley to Sutter's Fort. It was there that I first met him. He stayed but a short time, three or four weeks perhaps, to refit with fresh mules and horses and such provisions as he could obtain, and then set out on his return to the United States.

Sutter's Fort was an important point from the very beginning of the colony. The building of the fort and all subsequent immigrations added to its importance, for that was the first point of destination to those who came by way of Oregon or direct across the plains. The fort was begun in 1842 and finished in 1844. There was no town until after the gold discovery in 1848, when it became the bustling, buzzing center for merchants, traders, miners, etc., and every available room was in demand. In 1849 Sacramento City was laid off on the river two miles west of the fort, and the town grew up there at once into a city. The first town was laid off by Hastings and myself, in the month of January, 1846, about three or four miles below the mouth of the American River, and called Sutterville. But first the Mexican War, then the lull which always follows excitement, and then the rush and roar of the gold discovery prevented its building up until it was too late. Attempts were several times made to revive Sutterville but Sacramento City had become too strong to be removed. Sutter always called his colony and fort "New Helvetia," in spite of which the name mostly used by others before the Mexican War was Sutter's Fort or Sacramento, and later Sacramento altogether.

Sutter's many enterprises continued to create a growing demand for lumber. Every year, and sometimes more than once, he sent parties into the mountains to explore for an available site to build a saw-mill on the Sacramento River or some of its tributaries, by which the lumber could be rafted down to the fort. There was no want of timber or of water power in the mountains, but the canyon features of the streams rendered rafting impracticable. The year after the war Sutter's needs for lumber were even greater than ever, although his embarrassments had increased and his ability to undertake new enterprises became less and less. Yet, never discouraged, nothing daunted, another hunt must be made for a mill-site. This time Marshall happened to be the man chosen by Sutter to search the mountains. He was gone about a month and returned with a most favorable report.

James W. Marshall went across the plains to Oregon in 1844, and thence to California the next year. He was a wheelwright by trade, but being very ingenious, he could turn his hand to almost anything. So he acted as carpenter for Sutter and did many other things, among which I may mention making wheels for spinning wool, and looms, reeds, and shuttles for weaving yarn into coarse blankets for the Indians, who did the carding, spinning, weaving, and all other labor. He had great, almost overweening confidence in his ability to do anything as a mechanic. I wrote the contract between him and Sutter to build the mill. Sutter was to furnish the means; Marshall was to build and run the mill, and have a share of the lumber for his compensation. His idea was to haul the lumber part way and raft it down the American River to Sacramento and thence, his part of it, down the Sacramento River and through Suisun and San Pablo bays to San Francisco for a market. Marshall's mind, in some respects at least, must have been unbalanced. It is hard to conceive how any sane man could have been so wide of the mark, or how anyone could have selected such a site for a saw-mill under the circumstances. Surely no other man than Marshall ever entertained so wild a scheme as that of rafting sawed lumber down the canyons of the American River, and no other man than Sutter would have been so confiding and credulous as to patronize him.

It is proper to say that under great difficulties, enhanced by winter rains, Marshall succeeded in building the mill--a very good one, too, of the kind. It had improvements which I had never seen in saw-mills, and I had had considerable experience in Ohio. But the mill would not run because the wheel was placed too low. It was an old-fashioned flutter wheel. The remedy was to dig a channel or tail-race through the bar below to conduct away the water. The wild Indians of the mountains were employed to do the digging. Once through the bar, there would be plenty of fall. The digging was hard and took some weeks. As soon as the water began to run through the tail-race, the wheel was blocked, the gate raised, and the water permitted to gush through all night. It was Marshall's custom to examine the race while the water was running through in the morning, so as to direct the Indians where to deepen it, and then shut off the water for them to work during the day. The water was clear as crystal, and the current was swift enough to sweep away the sand and lighter materials. Marshall made these examinations early in the morning while the Indians were getting their breakfast. It was on one of these occasions, in the clear, shallow water that he saw something bright and yellow. He picked it up--it was a piece of gold! The world has seen and felt the result. The mill sawed little or no lumber; as a lumber enterprise the project was a failure, but as a gold discovery it was a grand success.

There was no excitement at first, not for three or four months--because the mine was not known to be rich, or to exist anywhere except at the saw-mill, or to be available to anyone except Sutter, to whom everyone conceded that it belonged. Time does not permit me to relate how I carried the news of the discovery to San Francisco; how the same year I discovered gold on the Feather River and worked it; how I made the first weights and scales to weigh the first gold for Sam Brannan; how the richest of the mines became known by the Mormons who were employed by Sutter to work at the saw-mill, working about on Sundays and finding it in the crevices along the stream and taking it to Brannan's store at the fort; and how Brannan kept the gold a secret as long as he could till the excitement burst out all at once like wildfire.

Among the noted arrivals at Sutter's Fort should be mentioned that of Castro and Castillero, in the fall of 1845. The latter had been before in California, sent, as he had been this time, as a peace commissioner from Mexico. Castro was so jealous that it was almost impossible for Sutter to have anything like a private interview with him. Sutter, however, was given to understand that as he had stood friendly to Governor Micheltorena on the side of Mexico in the late troubles he might rely on the friendship of Mexico, to which he was enjoined to continue faithful in all emergencies. Within a week Castillero was shown at San Jose a singular heavy reddish rock, which had long been known to the Indians, who rubbed it on their hands and faces to paint them. The Californians had often tried to smelt this rock in a blacksmith's fire, thinking it to be silver or some other precious metal. But Castillero, who was an intelligent man and a native of Spain, at once recognized it as quicksilver, and noted its resemblance to the cinnabar in the mines of Almaden. A company was immediately formed to work it of which Castillero, Castro, Alexander Forbes, and others were members. The discovery of quicksilver at this time seems providential in view of its absolute necessity to supplement the imminent discovery of gold, which stirred and waked into new life the industries of the world.

It is a question whether the United States could have stood the shock of the great rebellion of 1861 had the California gold discovery not been made. Bankers and business men of New York in 1864 did not hesitate to admit that but for the gold of California, which monthly poured its five or six millions into that financial center, the bottom would have dropped out of everything. These timely arrivals so strengthened the nerves of trade and stimulated business as to enable the government to sell its bonds at a time when its credit was its life-blood and the main reliance by which to feed, clothe, and maintain its armies. Once our bonds went down to thirty-eight cents on the dollar. California gold averted a total collapse and enabled a preserved Union to come forth from the great conflict with only four billions of debt instead of a hundred billions. The hand of Providence so plainly seen in the discovery of gold is no less manifest in the time chosen for its accomplishment.

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