Eldorado: The California Gold Rush

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9780312878320: Eldorado: The California Gold Rush
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With the exception of the call to arms in the North and South in 1861, no moment of nineteenth-century America was more electrifying than the shout, "GOLD ON THE AMERICAN RIVER!" first heard in San Francisco in the spring of 1848.
Within a year, tens of thousands of dreamers from around the world were making their way to the vast territory on the Pacific. All routes to San Francisco, gateway to the goldfields, were lengthy---six months on average---arduous, and dangerous: over land from the Missouri frontier and across the Rockies and Sierra Nevada; through the fever jungles of Panama to the Pacific; or 15,000 sea miles around Cape Horn.
In Eldorado, Dale L. Walker presents the full, colorful, character-filled story of this American epic: from the first traces of gold found in a riverside sawmill and the spreading of the news east of the Rocky Mountains to the great migration to California and the experiences of those who risked, and often lost, their lives at the rainbow's end.

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About the Author:

Born in Illinois, the son of a career army sergeant, Dale L. Walker is a journalism graduate of the University of Texas at El Paso whose 20 books reflect his varied historical interests: military and Western history, 19th century "Golden Age" journalism, biography, and Jack London studies. Among his books are Januarius Macgahan: The Life and Times of an American War Correspondent; Legends and Lies: Great Mysteries of the American West; The Boys of '98; Theodore Roosevelt and the Rough Riders; Bear Flag Rising: The Conquest of California; Pacific Destiny; and Eldorado: The California Gold Rush. He is a four-time winner of the Spur Award from Western Writers of America, the Owen Wister Award for life achievement in the history and literature of the American West, and many other awards, and is a member of the prestigious Texas Institute of Letters.

Walker, who lives in El Paso, Texas, with his wife of 43 years, Alice McCord, has been involved in virtually every aspect of the book business. He has served as a university press director, newspaper book page editor, magazine editor, fiction editor for Forge Books, book columnist and reviewer, and has written historical books, magazine work, and fiction.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Eldorado
IEMPRESARIOGold will be slave or master.--Horace, EpistlesONEA WANDERING LORD OF JEOPARDYON A GUSTY August day in 1839, a dozen or so American and European residents of the windblown village of Yerba Buena rowed out and boarded the Monsoon, a Boston trade ship and the sole vessel then anchored in San Francisco Bay. The occasion was a banquet celebrating a man preparing to plunge into California's northern wilderness on a quest none of his gathered friends could quite comprehend. In fact, for all the wit and wassail, toasts and tales of the occasion, the honoree himself remained as much a mystery as his mission.John Augustus Sutter had that effect on people. He always learned more of others than he permitted them to learn of him. A Bostonian named William H. Thomes, who as a teenager sailed to Alta California on the brigantine Admittance in 1844, attested to this. While his ship swung at anchor off Yerba Buena, Thomes said, "Captain" Sutter came aboard with a gang of laborers to deliver a lot of two hundred cowhides and some bundles of beaver furs. Shipboard scuttlebutt preceding the visit described Sutter as liege lord of a domain "way off, up the Sacramento River somewhere," where he had a strong fort and ten thousand savage Indians under his command. The young seaman described this fantastic personage as "a short, stout man, with broad shoulders, large, full face, short, stubby mustache, a quiet, reserved manner, and a cold blue eye, that seemed to look you through and through, and to read your thoughts, no matter how much you tried to conceal them ... ."In Thomes's time and for many years following, rumors about Sutter were so commonplace that the most scandalous of them scarcely raised an eyebrow: He had deserted his wife and children, leaving them penniless somewhere in Europe; he was rich as a maharajah and ruled like one over so much territory he had himself not seen the outer boundaries of it; he had Indian slaves and many Indian mistresses, and an army of cutthroats manning the battlements of his fort;he was friendly, gregarious, and generous, but such a dangerous man to cross that even the Mexican authorities who had bestowed upon him an immense grant of land gave him no orders, levied no taxes on him, and left him alone.And even in 1839, on the eve of his departure into the northern hinterlands of Alta California, those who raised their glasses to celebrate their friend knew little about him except that he seemed to be a man of several nations who was not really allied with any of them. 
 
JOHANN AUGUSTUS SUTTER, born in 1803 in Kandern, Grand Duchy of Baden, Germany, a few miles north of Basel, Switzerland, came from Swiss forebears. His father, a paper maker, moved the family to the Jura Mountain town of Neuchatel in 1819 and there Johann apprenticed with a bookbinder and received some education in a military academy. While he later claimed to have served as a captain of artillery in the Royal Swiss Guard of King Charles X of France, in fact he served in the Swiss army reserve corps in Bern with the undistinguished, bottom-rung rank of under-lieutenant.In about 1826 Sutter found work as a bookbinder in Leipzig and began a descent into debt that dogged him to the end of his days. By now he had married Anna Dübeld, and by 1834, while he was working as a draper's clerk in Burgdorf, Switzerland, had Anna, her mother, and four children under his rented roof, was threatened by an arrest warrant for nonpayment of loans and obligations, and was planning an escape from all of it.America appears to have been on his mind as the perfect place to flee. While there is no record of what inspired his choice, he must have conceived of the United States, particularly its unsettled western frontier, as a place where he could be swallowed up and start over with a new identity and an erased slate thousands of miles from his old burdens. At age thirty-one, like so many of his contemporary hearthside dreamers, he had certain Rousseauesque notions of pristine Arcadias far from the ancient, stultifying social mores, traditions, and laws--particularly laws--of Europe. He had read assiduously, sponging up every droplet of news from America. He may have had American friends and business acquaintances in Germany, France, and Switzerland, who fired his appreciation of the opportunities across the Atlantic. He had even picked up a workable knowledge of Englishin his scurryings around the continent, a step or two ahead of the bill collectors.For all his poverty of property and means--and conscience, for he did abandon his wife and children, condemning them to sixteen years of penury--Sutter possessed certain traits that were to serve him well in America and its Pacific outstations in the years ahead. He had a natural amiability and charm, and a quick, inventive, and eager mind. He had no grand schemes, nor even small ones, but was willing instead to be tugged along by chance and circumstance, letting opportunity happen without banging on its door. And he had a species of courage, a confident daring, seated in the enormity of his self-confidence. His biographer, Julian Dana, viewed him as "a wandering lord of jeopardy," a man who believed he could free himself from any snare and survive any vicissitude by the sheer force of his personality and will. Such a vanity would often require employing desperate measures, such as the one he contrived to outlive the distresses of his life in Europe--running away.That he did in the spring of 1834. He borrowed funds for the passage to New York and wrapped up his affairs by asking his brother Friedrich to look after Anna and the children, promising to send money as soon as he got some to send.He sailed from Le Havre in July and among shipboard acquaintances learned of the riches to be made in the great blank places on the charts of the trans-Mississippi west. Mexico, so the steerage chatter had it, had opened to outside trade and all manner of goods could be bought cheaply in Missouri and transported to the fabled trade emporium of Santa Fé where they earned huge profits, paid in silver and gold.(In fact, with the first American trade wagons reaching the old town in 1821, the year of Mexico's independence and Missouri's statehood, the Santa Fé trade flourished and its trails from the Missouri frontier were well trodden by the time Sutter heard of them.)A few days after debarking in New York, Sutter hurried on to St. Louis and there sought out the German colony in the bustling city, presenting his bogus Swiss Guard history and convincing the burghers to advance him funds for a plunge into the Santa Fé trade. He had nebulous plans but he was presentable, affable, a soldier, and a German--all trustworthy characteristics to his backers.In 1834, he reached Independence, on a bluff above the MissouriRiver and a few miles inside the western boundary of the United States. In this noisy hamlet, the main frontier depot for the mule-and ox-drawn trade caravans heading southwest on the eight-hundred--mile trek to Santa Fé, Sutter launched his chaotic, adventurous American career.The four years separating his advent in New York and his arrival in California are nebulous--he kept no records and wrote no journal. He did become a Santa Fé trader, for a time in partnership with a similarly impecunious German gentleman he met either on the Atlantic passage or in St. Louis. The two managed to outfit themselves, on credit advanced by the St. Louis merchants, with goods, wagons, draft animals, and horses, and joined the commercial caravans on the rutted trails between Independence, Bent's Fort on the Arkansas River, and Santa Fe.Sutter profited little from these excursions, or from horse-trading among the Apaches, Shawnees, and Delawares he encountered in his travels in Missouri and New Mexico. According to some of his friendlier contemporaries, he managed to send small sums of money home to Anna together with pleas for her patience, but this is probably a story of his own invention. If he felt any pangs of regret about leaving Anna and their children to an uncertain fate in Switzerland, he did not talk about it, write about it, or brood about it.Less friendly speculation relating to his first years in American and Mexican territory circulated many years later. He was said to have bilked his German financiers in St. Louis, in effect running west with their money and making no attempt to pay it back from his trade profits. There was even a story that he killed one man sent to collect a debt. California historian H. H. Bancroft dismissed this as a canard but did say that some of Sutter's activities in Missouri were "not favorable" to his reputation.The Swiss managed to bank some nonpecuniary profits from these opening years in the West. He came to know, either in Santa Fé or at Bent's Fort, such influential traders as Ceran St. Vrain and Charles Beaubien, both of whom had acquired land grants from Mexico, and Charles Bent who, with St. Vrain had constructed the great fort on the north bank of the Arkansas which flourished as a center of the Indian trade, collecting furs and buffalo robes and outfitting Santa Fé Trail merchants.The French-Canadian Beaubien, alcalde (a magistrate or mayor) ofTaos, seems to have befriended Sutter and told the Swiss tales of trapping expeditions he had made to California.Sutter's New Mexico experiences provided him a frontier education that would prove even more useful than his native charm and fake credentials. He learned the Spanish language, absorbed the rough niceties of frontier diplomacy--haggling with Mexican traders, bribing Mexican customs officers, and cajoling Mexican provincial army officers and bureaucrats--and absorbed the survival lore of the wilderness trail and camp.On a trip to Taos, the trade depot fifty miles north of Santa Fe, he encountered another French-Canadian trapper recently returned from the beaver streams of California. This unidentified man, Sutter later recalled, spoke dreamily of the golden warmth of the place, its fur riches, and the fortunes being made there by the "Bostons," the Americans bringing their merchant vessels around Cape Horn to San Diego, Monterey and points north. Foreigners, the trapper said, were welcomed. There were flags from many nations in the anchorages serving the hide and tallow trade. Governance was lax, laws almost nonexistent, Mexican port officials pliable, opportunities limitless and far less competitive than those along the Santa Fé Trail.Somewhere between Taos and the Missouri settlements, Sutter acquainted himself with the Perthshire nobleman William Drummond Stewart, a wealthy sportsman who roamed the Rocky Mountains, usually with an entourage of gentlemen hunters, servants and gun-bearers, as if on safari. Seventh baronet of Murthly Castle, late of the Fifteenth King's Hussars, and a veteran of the Peninsular War in Spain and of Waterloo, Sir William had hunted in the Oregon country and may have influenced the Swiss's forthcoming impromptu visit to the Pacific Northwest.Stewart invited Sutter to a hunt he was planning that summer of 1838. The Scotsman, who wisely traveled into the mountains with veteran mountain men as guides, was heading for the Wind River Range of the Rockies. He had attached his party to a caravan taking trade goods and supplies to the "rendezvous," the trappers' annual trade fair, to be held that year on the Popo Agie River in central Wyoming.Sutter tagged along, riding with Stewart and his retinue ahead of a wagon and pack mule train. Guide for the party was Irish-born Andrew Drips, a fabulous figure from the earliest days of the fur tradewho had dealt with most of the native tribes along the upper Missouri, and whose knowledge of the trails and beaver streams of the Rockies was matchless.The route, over the still dimly etched Oregon Trail, followed the Platte River 650 miles from western Missouri to Fort Laramie, a whitewashed adobe fort in prime buffalo lands, then plodded on northwest into the Wind River Mountains.Sutter later claimed to have met Kit Carson at the 1838 rendezvous and it is likely that he did. The little gray-eyed Kentuckian had been working traps in the Yellowstone country with another of the West's storied mountaineers, Jim Bridger, the year before, and with Bridger and several other American Fur Company trappers rode to the Popo Agie gathering that summer.(Sutter would get to know Carson better seven years hence, in far touchier circumstances, when Kit marched into California with John C. Fremont's expedition.)There were missionaries accompanying Andrew Drips's caravan to the rendezvous, among them William H. Gray, a Utica, New York, cabinetmaker, heading to Oregon's Willamette Valley as "secular agent" to the Congregationalist missions there, as well as Elkanah Walker and Cushing Eels and their wives, destined to minister to the Spokane Indians. They were to be guided west by Francis Ermatinger, a Canadian of Swiss heritage working for the Hudson's Bay Company. Sutter naturally sought out his countryman and once the rendezvous ended, joined Ermatinger's party as they resumed travel on the Oregon Trail.It is likely that Sutter met one of the most celebrated of mountain men during the Oregon Trail journey. This was Joseph Reddeford Walker, a giant Tennessean who had trapped the western mountains since 1819 and now, in 1838, was returning from California with a horse herd to sell among the trading posts of the Rockies. From him Sutter learned much about Alta California: In 1833 Walker had led fifty men from the Green River in Wyoming to the Mary's (later the Humboldt) River in northern Nevada, made a three-week crossing of the Sierra Nevada, and discovered the primeval Yosemite Valley. Afterward he and his company spent the winter in the Sacramento and San Joaquín River valleys.Ten years after their meeting somewhere near the South Pass of the Rockies, Sutter must have remembered the giant Tennessean whoblazed the trail in 1833 that thousands of gold hunters were following into California. 
 
THE ERMATINGER PARTY crossed the Rockies at South Pass, reached Fort Hall, a Hudson's Bay Company post on the Portneuf River of Idaho, and some weeks later Fort Walla Walla, the timber-walled Hudson's Bay trade center on the east bank of the Columbia River. Sutter seems to have visited the missions of the Walla Walla and Willamette Valleys before arriving at Fort Vancouver in October.He tarried there three weeks, touring the immense rectangular fort that had been built in 1825 on the north bank of the Columbia near the mouth of the Willamette. He admired its stout log palisades, its great gate with the Union Jack flying over it, its cannon-mounted bastions, and the scurrying of the workers, trades-, and craftsmen inside its ramparts. Here were shops for bakers, mechanics, smiths, coopers, tanners, wheelwrights, saddle and harness makers; and storehouses, worker quarters, kitchens, and a huge dining hall for the voyageurs returning from their trapping expeditions. He saw Indian trading posts, offices, chapels, a jail, a schoolhouse, a powder magazine, and houses for the chief factor and other fort officers. Surrounding the fort were gristmills, sawmills, orchards, and cultivated fields that were cleared and plowed by idle Hudson's Bay trappers in summer months. The company grew wheat, barley, corn, potatoes, and produce; had coops of chickens...

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