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

yellow metal
This small piece of yellow metal is believed to be the first piece of gold discovered in 1848 at Sutter's Mill in California, launching the gold rush. National Museum of American History

It is a tiny thing, a flake of bright metal about the size of a contact lens. A card from the National Museum of American History lists its weight at just .0855 grams.

"San Francisco, 1848," the card reads. "This paper contains the first piece of gold ever discovered in the northern part of Upper California." Looking at it any American feels a surge of recognition: "Dwelt a miner, forty-niner, and his daughter, Clementine." This is the little glint of real gold, what the boys called "color," that James Marshall noticed in the tailrace at John Sutter's mill on the American River. We all know the story, or think we do. San Francisco, recently transformed from the village of Yerba Buena, with a population of about 800, quickly became a sprawling corrupt city. Its huge harbor was choked with hundreds of rotting ships that couldn't sail home because their crews had fled to the goldfields.

Even so, the rush was slower to start than is usually thought. James Marshall actually found the gold, a tiny nugget that he beat flat to test its malleability, on January 24, 1848. The find was not reported in the California Star, San Francisco's hand-cranked newspaper, until the first of April; even then there was no great stir. It wasn't until the 12th of May, after trader Sam Brannan waved a bottle of gold dust at a crowd, shouting "Gold! Gold! Gold! from the American River!" that the first rush began.

The military governor of the California Territory, Richard Mason, accompanied by his aide, a young lieutenant with a bright future named William T. Sherman, visited the goldfields on a fact-finding mission for a skeptical government in Washington. Sure enough, their report said, people were finding gold. In December 1848, in his State of the Union Message, President Polk acknowledged the gold strikes of California. By the end of the following year, 80,000 souls were already on their way west — about 42,000 overland and 38,000 by way of Panama or Cape Horn.

Gold was then valued at $18.80 an ounce; today an ounce sells for about $300. So the little flake at American History might now bring less than a dollar on the open market. Monetarily, it's hardly worth keeping, except as a historic collector's item worth thousands of dollars. Whatever its price, gold is an extraordinary metal, not only arbitrarily precious but possessed of fascinating properties in itself. The remarkable quality of gold is that it combines only with mercury, cyanide and aqua regia (a nasty mixture of nitric and hydrochloric acids). Tumbled and ground in the blender of the geologic past, it is still largely found in veins of pure metal. Unlike most metals, it also resists oxidation. Wherever gold lies buried, it keeps its sunlike glow forever.

It is also highly conductive electrically — your calculator and the computer I'm writing on have gold contact points — and is so malleable that it can be beaten out into leaf of unbelievable thinness, a few molecules deep. Yet even this whisper of material retains an extraordinary reflectivity and opacity, which is why gold is used in foil to protect satellites from sun damage and is laminated into sun shields in fliers' helmets.

The miners who worked on the American River in 1849 were following a trail of gold dust and nuggets washed downstream from large veins of pure gold in the Sierra Nevada. The malleability of gold allowed tumbling flakes to impact-weld themselves into larger and larger nuggets, and its shine made it easier to find.

In the first years they worked the streams swirling gold-laden silt in wide, shallow pans until only the heavier particles remained in the bottom. They also built rocker boxes and flumes with baffles in which the gold collected. Some miners even collected small flakes by anchoring a fresh sheepskin in the water; gold stuck to the lanolin, while finer silt was dissolved away.

History and romance have both softened the breathtaking hardships of the gold camps. Violence and despair were the depressing bottom line for most miners. Only a few got rich and many were ruined; this was probably one of the reasons miners often looked and acted a bit like madmen. What is usually ascribed to gold fever or rotgut whiskey or bad women was more likely due to poisoning by mercury, a much less benign metal than gold. One of the odd historical coincidences about the gold rush is that it was preceded a few years earlier by a less ballyhooed mercury rush. Mercury deposits were found in Northern California in a region quickly named Almaden, after the site of Spanish mercury mines that had supplied Europe with quicksilver since Roman times (the name has since been transferred to the California wine valleys nearby). Though we now know that mercury fumes aggressively attack the brain, beginning in the 1850s mercury was often used to consolidate and isolate gold. When mixed with gold-bearing dust, and heated, the mercury burned away, leaving melted clusters of gold. Miners often burned the mix in their cabins, breathing in toxic fumes.

Gold is an element distributed pretty much everywhere on the globe. The first serious American gold rush occurred in Georgia in 1829. There are gold rushes going on right now in Indonesia, Guyana and Brazil. One of the most impressive nuggets of gold — a lump bigger than a sweet potato — in the Janet Annenberg Hooker Hall of Geology, Gems and Minerals, in the National Museum of Natural History, was found in the very productive Whitehall Mine, owned by the United States Mint, only eight miles up the Potomac from the Natural History building and the Mall. Hikers can still pan gold out of the muddy Potomac River.

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.

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