GOLD! GOLD! GOLD!
The California Gold Rush was the biggest and the richest of them all, but it was no different from any of those that followed in providing the majority of its participants with much rushing and little gold.
When forty-niners reminisced through beards grown longer and whiter, the strikes of the past became richer and the nuggets bigger, but the mournful truth is that most gold hunters would have done better financially staying at home and been considerably more comfortable.
Let there be no misunderstanding, though the gold across the Sierra Nevada was rich beyond belief, and many miners made strikes that deserve the adjective "fabulous." It was just that there was not enough gold in the streams to make everyone rich. Hubert Howe Bancroft, historian of the West, estimated that during the peak years of 1849 and 1850 the gold taken out averaged about $600 per miner.
Averages are usually misleading: this one, on examination, can mean only that for every miner who struck it rich, there must have been a platoon who hardly got to see what gold looked like.
It all began, as every schoolchild is taught, at the sawmill of John Sutter one January day in 1848. A Swiss immigrant, Sutter at the time ruled, benevolently and graciously, over an estate of 49,000 acres, which he had received from the Mexican government and had built into what, amounted to a self-sustaining kingdom. It lay in the valley of the Sacramento, still almost empty of settlers, and his settlement, called Sutter's Fort, was situated where Sacramento now stands.
In the summer of 1847 he sent a carpenter named James Marshall, in charge of a crew of men, up the South Branch of the American River to build a sawmill. Work proceeded through the next several...