1848 - GOLD!

        John Augustus Sutter, an entrepreneur's entrepreneur, created an empire for himself in California after coming to America from Switzerland, but he was not satisfied with his empire. (click here for more)

        The Sacramento valley had given Sutter a fresh start after a series of business failures in Switzerland.  After crossing the continent with one of Fitzpatrick's wagon trains, Sutter had built a small empire of 50,000 acres of land, orchards, a trading post and a fort, all on the present day site of the California state capitol.   What he needed now was a sawmill to produce lumber that could turn more of his dreams into real things.


         On Friday, August 27, 1847, Sutter noted in his journal that he "made contract and entered in partnership with James Marshall for a sawmill to be built on the American fork."  James Marshall, an amateur millwright from Hope Township, New Jersey, set off with his business partner, John Wimmer, to build Sutter a sawmill on the American River, forty-five miles from his trading post on the Sacramento River.  

Forty-niners working a placer claim in the California gold fields of the Sierra Nevada mountains.    

        On the morning of January 19, 1848, Marshall was checking the millrace driving the water wheel that powered the mill.  Something shiny in the bottom of the ditch caught his eye.   "I reached my hand down and picked it up; it      made my heart thump, for I was certain it was gold."  The nugget he found was the size of a small pea.  This moment of private astonishment would change the course of history.  Marshall had discovered gold on the south fork of the American River in California. (In the end, he never made a cent on his discovery.)

      Sutter tried to keep a lid on the news, but his efforts were no match for the lure of gold.  As Marshall and Sutter were waiting for the official assay, Marshall's men were finding more nuggets at the site of the millrace, and it wasn't long before other Californians got wind of the rumor (for more on the 49'ers, click here).

         The discovery of gold in California, and the opening of the overland trail, were two events that brought the Brule and Oglala Sioux into close contact with a class of white people that was unlike any they had previously met.  With fur traders they shared many interests, but with the gold diggers and agrarian settlers they had little in common.   These people hurried along the trail and managed to devastate everything they touched, including grasslands and rivers, streams and stands of timber.Gold Miners

         By April of 1849,  30,000 Americans had set out for the California gold fields by land.   Twenty-five thousand more left by clipper ships rounding Cape Horn. "Passengers on the clippers were fed like hogs," wrote one gold seeker.  The biscuits served to passengers, wrote one landlubber, "were invested with black bugs burrowing into it like woodchucks in a sand bank." 

         Others would sail to Panama, transit the isthmus by foot, and hope to catch a coastal steamer for the last leg up the west coast to California. 

         It seemed the entire nation was on the move, and many were on their way to California, a development that terrified the California Indians.  The 1849 massacre of 130 Pomo men, women and children who were fishing peacefully on a lake, was just the beginning of the atrocities that would kill five in six California Indians between 1850 and 1860.  Whites declared open season on California Indians and did not even attempt to stay within the law.