A Metal Far From Base

A tiny flake started the rush to California, but where gold is concerned, that isn't the half of it

Smithsonian Magazine | Subscribe

(Continued from page 1)

Though hardly anybody got rich from gold, legions profited from real estate and business — the business of supplying hordes of miners. One celebrated example is the merchant who, seeing how fast miners' pants wore out, began making them out of tough tent canvas, eventually securing them at key points with copper rivets. He was Levi Strauss, the inventor of Levi's.

But John Sutter, the man who might have profited most, the man on whose land gold was found, became a classic victim of the rush. A German immigrant, kindly, enterprising, and surely one of the most unlucky businessmen in history, Sutter was constantly starting new commercial schemes with folks like Marshall. Characteristically, Sutter commissioned him to build a sawmill too far up the American River to be practical. Sutter owned thousands of acres of California land. Miners simply swarmed over it, then filed claims on it. The law-abiding Sutter sought recourse in law (in a lawless territory) and the United States Land Commission. Fond hope. He lost everything. "What a great misfortune was this sudden gold discovery for me!" he wrote. "Instead of being rich, I am ruined, and the cause of it is the long delay of the United States Land Commission of the United States Courts, through the great influence of the squatter lawyers. . . ."

All because of a tiny flake barely big enough to put on display, the minuscule seed of dramatic change.

By Jan Adkins


Comment on this Story

comments powered by Disqus