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Related Museum Links Museum Gold Rush Exhibits

San Francisco During the Gold Rush

Discovery of Gold in California, by Gen. John Sutter

An Eyewitness to the Gold Discovery

A Rush to the Gold Washings — From the California Star

Military Governor Mason’s Report on the Discovery of Gold

William T. Sherman and the Gold Rush

Dramatic Impact of the Gold Discovery, by Theo. H. Hittell

The Discovery — as Viewed in New York and London

Gold Rush and Anti-Chinese Race Hatred

California Gold Rush Chronology 1846 — 1849

California Gold Rush Chronology 1850 — 1851

California Gold Rush Chronology 1852 — 1854

California Gold Rush Chronology 1855 — 1856

California Gold Rush Chronology 1857 — 1861

California Gold Rush Chronology 1862 — 1865

Steamer Day in the 1850s

Sam Brannan Opens New Bank - 1857

Thomas O. Larkin’s Letters to the
Secretary of State about the Gold Discovery

Historian Theodore H. Hittell, in his History of California, wrote: “On June 1, Thomas O. Larkin wrote from San, Francisco to James Buchanan, secretary of state at Washington, an account of the discovery. It was then several weeks since the gold had commenced to come in, and by that time about twenty thousand dollars’ worth had been exchanged for merchandise and provisions.” Larkin arrived in California in 1831, and for many years had a store at Monterey. He was the first and only American consul to the Mexican government and was a confidential agent of the U.S., trying to bring about American occupation of California without war.”

This is the text of Larkin’s letter to Buchanan:

San Francisco (Upper California), June 1, 1848.

Photograph of Thomas LarkinSir: I have to report to the State Department one of the most astonishing excitements and state of affairs now existing in this country, that, perhaps, has ever been brought to the notice of the Government. On the American fork of the Sacramento and Feather River, another branch of the same, and the adjoining lands, there has been within the present year discovered a placer, a vast tract of land containing gold, in small particles. This gold, thus far, has been taken on the bank of the river, from the surface to eighteen inches in depth, and is supposed deeper, and to extend over the country.

On account of the inconvenience of washing, the people have, up to this time, only gathered the metal on the banks, which is done simply with a shovel, filling a shallow dish, bowl, basket, or tin pan, with a quantity of black sand, similar to the class used on paper, and washing out the sand by movement of the vessel. It is now two or three weeks since the men employed in those washings have appeared in this town with gold, to exchange for merchandise and provisions. I presume nearly 20,000 dollars of this gold has as yet been so exchanged. Some 200 or 300 men have remained up the river, or are gone to their homes, for the purpose of returning to the Placer, and washing immediately with shovels, picks, and baskets; many of them, for the first few weeks, depending on borrowing from others. I have seen the written statement of the work of one man for sixteen days, which averaged 25 dollars per day; others have, with a shovel and pan, or wooden bowl, washed out 10 dollars to even 50 dollars in a day. There are now some men yet washing who have 500 dollars to 1,000 dollars. As they have to stand two feet deep in the river, they work but a few hours in the day, and not every day in the week.

A few men have been down in boats to this port, spending twenty to thirty ounces of gold each—about 300 dollars. I am confident that this town (San Francisco) has one-half of its tenements empty, locked up with the furniture. The owners—storekeepers, lawyers, mechanics, and labourers—all gone to the Sacramento with their families. Small parties, of five to fifteen men, have sent to this town and offered cooks ten to fifteen dollars per day for a few weeks. Mechanics and teamsters, earning the year past five to eight dollars per day, have struck and gone. Several U.S. volunteers have deserted. U.S. barque Anita, belonging to the Army, now at anchor here, has but six men. One Sandwich Island vessel in port lost all her men; and was obliged to engaged another crew at 50 dollars for the run of fifteen days to the Islands.

One American captain having his men shipped on this coast in such a manner that they could leave at any time, had them all on the eve of quitting, when he agreed to continue their pay and food; leaving one on board, he took a boat and carried them to the gold regions—furnishing tools and giving his men one-third. They have been gone a week. Common spades and shovels, one month ago worth 1 dollar, will now bring 10 dollars, at the gold regions. I am informed 50 dollars has been offered for one. Should this gold continue as represented, this town and others would be depopulated. Clerks’ wages have risen from 600 dollars to 1000 per annum, and board; cooks, 25 dollars to 30 dollars per month. This sum will not be any inducement a month longer, unless the fever and ague appears among the washers. The Californian, printed here, stopped this week. The Star newspaper office, where the new laws of Governor Mason, for this country, are printing, has but one man left. A merchant, lately from China, has even lost his China servants. Should the excitement continue through the year, and the whale-ships visit San Francisco, I think they will lose most all their crews. How Col. Mason can retain his men, unless he puts a force on the spot, I know not.

I have seen several pounds of this gold, and consider it very pure, worth in New York 17 dollars to 18 dollars per ounce; 14 dollars to 16 dollars, in merchandise, is paid for it here. What good or bad effect this gold mania will have on California, I cannot fore tell. It may end this year; but I am informed that it will continue many years. Mechanics now in this town are only waiting to finish some rude machinery, to enable them to obtain the gold more expeditiously, and free from working in the river. Up to this time, but few Californians have gone to the mines, being afraid the Americans will soon have trouble among themselves, and cause disturbance to all around. I have seen some of the black sand, as taken from the bottom of the river (I should think in the States it would bring 25 to 50 cents per pound), containing many pieces of gold; they are from the size of the head of a pin to the weight of the eighth of an ounce. I have seen some weighing one-quarter of an ounce (4 dollars). Although my statements are almost incredible, I believe I am within the statements believed by every one here. Ten days back, the excitement had not reached Monterey. I shall, within a few days, visit this gold mine, and will make another report to you. In closed you will have a specimen.

I have the honour to be, very respectfully,


P.S. This placer, or gold region, is situated on public land.

Historian Hittell also noted, in his History of California, that: “Larkin afterwards wrote a second letter to Buchanan. This letter was dated from Monterey, June 28, 1848. Larkin had been to the mines and found them to be all he had heard, and much more than he had anticipated. ”
Monterey, California, June 28, 1848.

SIR: My last dispatch to the State Department was written in San Francisco, the 1st of this month. In that I had the honour to give some information respecting the new “placer, ” or gold regions lately discovered on the branches of the Sacramento River. Since the writing of that dispatch I have visited a part of the gold region, and found it all I had heard, and much more than I anticipated. The part that I visited was upon a fork of the American River, a branch of the Sacramento, joining the main river at Sutter’s Fort. The place in which I found the people digging was about twenty-five miles from the fort by land.

I have reason to believe that gold will be found on many branches of the Sacramento and the San Joaquin rivers. People are already scattered over one hundred miles of land, and it is supposed that the “placer” extends from river to river. At present the workmen are employed within ten or twenty yards of the river, that they may be convenient to water. On Feather river there are several branches upon which the people are digging for gold. This is two or three days’ ride from the place I visited.

At my camping place I found, on a surface of two or three miles on the banks of the river, some fifty tents, mostly owned by Americans. These had their families. There are no Californians who have taken their families as yet to the gold regions; but few or none will ever do it; some from New Mexico may do so next year, but no Californians.

I was two nights at a tent occupied by eight Americans, viz., two sailors, one clerk, two carpenters, and three daily workmen. These men were in company; had two machines, each made from one hundred feet of boards (worth there 150 dollars, in Monterey 15 dollars—being one day“s work), made similar to a child’s cradle, ten feet long, with out the ends.

The two evenings I saw these eight men bring to their tents the labour of the day. I suppose they made each 50 dollars per day; their own calculation was two pounds of gold a-day—four ounces to a man—64 dollars. I saw two brothers that worked together, and only worked by washing the dirt in a tin pan, weigh the gold they obtained in one day; the result was 7 dollars to one, 82 dollars to the other. There were two reasons for this difference; one man worked less hours than the other, and by chance had ground less impregnated with gold. I give this statement as an extreme case. During my visit I was an interpreter for a native of Monterey, who was purchasing a machine or canoe. I first tried to purchase boards and hire a carpenter for him. There were but a few hundred feet of boards to be had; for these the owner asked me 50 dollars per hundred (500 dollars per thousand), and a carpenter washing gold dust demanded 50 dollars per day for working. I at last purchased a log dug out, with a riddle and sieve made of willow boughs on it, for 120 dollars, payable in gold dust at 14 dollars per ounce. The owner excused himself for the price, by saying he was two days making it, and even then demanded the use of it until sunset. My Californian has told me since, that himself, partner, and two Indians, obtained with this canoe eight ounces the first and five ounces the second day.

I am of the opinion that on the American fork, Feather River, and Consumnes River, there are near two thousand people, nine-tenths of them foreigners. Perhaps there are one hundred families, who have their teams, wagons, and tents. Many persons are waiting to see whether the months of July and August will be sickly, before they leave their present business to go to the ‘Placer. ’ The discovery of this gold was made by some Mormons, in January or February, who for a time kept it a secret; the majority of those who are working there began in May. In most every instance the men, after digging a few days, have been compelled to leave for the purpose of returning home to see their families, arrange their business, and purchase provisions. I feel confident in saying there are fifty men in this ‘Placer’ who have on an average 1,000 dollars each, obtained in May and June. I have not met with any person who had been fully employed in washing gold one month; most, however, appear to have averaged an ounce per day. I think there must, by this time, be over 1,000 men at work upon the different branches of the Sacramento; putting their gains at 10,000 dollars per day, for six days in the week, appears to me not overrated.

Should this news reach the emigration of California and Oregon, now on the road, connected with the Indian wars, now impoverishing the latter country, we should have a large addition to our population; and should the richness of the gold region continue, our emigration in 1849 will be many thousands, and in 1850 still more. If our countrymen in California, as clerks, mechanics, and workmen, will forsake employment at from 2 dollars to 6 dollars per day, how many more of the same class in the Atlantic States, earning much less, will leave for this country under such prospects? It is the opinion of many who have visited the gold regions the past and present months, that the ground will afford gold for many years, perhaps for a century. From my own examination of the rivers and their banks, I am of opinion that, at least for a few years, the golden products will equal the present year. However, as neither men of science, nor the labourers now at work, have made any explorations of consequence, it is a matter of impossibility to give any opinion as to the extent and richness of this part of California. Every Mexican who has seen the place says throughout their Republic there has never been any ‘placer like this one. ’

Could Mr. Polk and yourself see California as we now see it, you would think that a few thousand people, on 100 miles square of the Sacramento valley, would yearly turn out of this river the whole price our country pays for the acquired territory. When I finished my first letter I doubted my own writing, and, to be better satisfied, showed it to one of the principal merchants of San Francisco, and to Captain Folsom, of the Quartermaster’s Department, who decided at once I was far below the reality. You certainly will suppose, from my two letters, that I am, like others, led away by the excitement of the day. I think I am not. In my last I inclosed a small sample of the gold dust, and I find my only error was in putting a value to the sand. At that time I was not aware how the gold was found; I now can describe the mode of collecting it.

A person without a machine, after digging off one or two feet of the upper ground, near the water (in some cases they take the top earth), throws into a tin pan or wooden bowl a shovel full of loose dirt and stones; then placing the basin an inch or two under water, continues to stir up the dirt with his hand in such a manner that the running water will carry off the light earths, occasionally, with his hand, throwing out the stones; after an operation of this kind for twenty or thirty minutes, a spoonful of small black sand remains; this is on a handkerchief or cloth dried in the sun, the emerge is blown off, leaving the pure gold. I have the pleasure of inclosing a paper of this sand and gold, which I from a bucket of dirt and stones, in half-an-hour, standing at the edge of the water, washed out myself. The value of it may be 2 dollars or 3 dollars.

The size of the gold depends in some measure upon the river from which it is taken; the banks of one river having larger grains of gold than another. I presume more than one half of the gold put into pans or machines is washed out and goes down the stream; this is of no consequence to the washers, who care only for the present time. Some have formed companies of four or five men, and have a rough-made machine put together in a day, which worked to much advantage, yet many prefer to work alone, with a wooden bowl or tin pan, worth fifteen or twenty cents in the States, but eight to sixteen dollars at the gold region. As the workmen continue, and materials can be obtained, improvements will take place in the mode of obtaining gold; at present it is obtained by standing in the water, and with much severe labour, or such as is called here severe labour.

How long this gathering of gold by the handful will continue here, or the future effect it will have on California, I cannot say. Three-fourths of the houses in the town on the bay of San Francisco are deserted. Houses are sold at the price of the ground lots. The effects are this week showing themselves in Monterey. Almost every house I had hired out is given up. Every blacksmith, carpenter, and lawyer is leaving; brick-yards, saw-mills and ranches are left perfectly alone. A large number of the volunteers at San Francisco and Sonoma have deserted; some have been retaken and brought back; public and private vessels are losing their crews; my clerks have had 100 per cent. advance offered them on their wages to accept employment. A complete revolution in the ordinary state of affairs is taking place; both of our newspapers are discontinued from want of workmen and the loss of their agencies; the Alcaldes have left San Francisco, and I believe Sonoma likewise; the former place has not a Justice of the Peace left.

The second Alcalde of Monterey to-day joins the keepers of our principal hotel, who have closed their office and house, and will leave to-morrow for the golden rivers. I saw on the ground a lawyer who was last year Attorney-General of the King of the Sandwich Islands, digging and washing out his ounce and a half per day; near him can be found most all his brethren of the long robe, working in the same occupation.

To conclude; my letter is long, but I could not well describe what I have seen in less words, and I now can believe that my account may be doubted. If the affair proves a bubble, a mere excitement, I know not how we can all be deceived, as we are situated. Governor Mason and his staff have left Monterey to visit the place in question, and will, I suppose, soon forward to his department his views and opinions on this subject. Most of the land, where gold has been discovered, is public land; there are on different rivers some private grants. I have three such purchased in 1846 and 1847, but have not learned that any private lands have produced gold, though they may hereafter do so. I have the honour, dear sir, to be, very respectfully, your obedient servant,


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