The Curse of Gold

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Two months had passed after the tragedy at Wailatpu, and the volunteers were still at The Dalles, when an event occurred that revolutionized the Pacific coast, changed the course of affairs throughout the United States, and visibly affected the entire world. It was the discovery of gold in California, or rather the discovery that it existed in quantity. The Spaniards had long known that there was gold in the country, and Mr. Dana, with Wilkes’s exploring expedition, had picked up auriferous rock in Oregon and on the Sacramento, but no one thought it to be in paying quantity, and no attention was paid to it. The Mormons claim to have worked the placers before Marshall made his discovery, but their story is either untrue, or so adulterated with untruth as to deserve no credence, besides being contrary to other evidence. The account of their discovery, as published in September, 1854, by George M. Evans, the professed discoverer, is, in substance, as follows: During the month of October or November, 1845, in a house or groggery on Pacific Street, San Francisco (as it is now called), a Mexican, who was called ‘Salvador,’ was shot because he had a bag of gold dust, described as about one thousand to two thousand dollars, and would not tell where he got it. At last, when dying, he pointed in the direction of San Jose Mountains, and said “Lejoa, lejos” (‘beyond, beyond’). (Evans then relates how, in consequence of this event, he looked casually for gold at a sand point of a small island opposite the entrance to Stockton, then called Lindsley’s Lake, and found some particles. This was in 1840, and the gold found was sent with other specimens to Peale’s Museum. Also, in August, 1847, Evans, with Major “Reading and T. W. Perkins, found gold in more abundance in the mountains between San Diego and the Gila River, but were driven away by hostile Indians.) When the Mormon battalion was disbanded in 1847, a number of the Mormons came to San Francisco, and among them was one Henderson Cox and one Beardsley, who boarded in the same house with me. They having worked in the Georgia mines, told me, in conversation on the subject, that they were about prospecting for a road (since called the Mormon Pass) for the Mormons to return to Salt Lake, and in so doing would prospect the streams in their route (this was in the end of August or first of September, 1847). I then described the death of Salvador, and where I found the gold, and gave them a chart of the country from memory. In the following January I returned to San Francisco from the journey above referred to, when I received an invitation to go to Mormon Island, so named afterwards by Henderson Cox. On the 19th of January, 1848, I went there, and with the bounty they gave me and what I worked out myself I had $19,000 on the 8th of February, 1848. On the 9th of February, I, with Henderson Cox, Beardsley, Beers, two shepherds, and a number more were in the lower end of the millrace, when Marshall, the overseer, and his little girl came in, and the child picked up a pretty stone, as she called it, and showed it to her father, who pronounced it gold. He was so excited about it that he saddled his horse and that day rode to Sutter’s Fort to tell Captain Sutter – but he did not believe it worth notice and for a while the idea died away. The Mormons wishing to keep their discoveries a secret from people not Mormons, worked out the gold and said nothing more. On the 1st of April, 1848, the first mail from San Francisco to Salt Lake was started, and a number of the California Star was printed purposely for that mail containing a special article, written by Dr. Fourgend and myself, concerning the minerals and metals of California, and among other mentioned metals was gold – but as the printer and publishers were (not) Mormons, the full facts were not stated. It was not until the 12th of May, 1848, that the existence of gold in quantity in California was publicly made known in San Francisco by Samuel Brannan, High Bishop of the Mormons, and of Vigilance Committee notoriety. Beardsley and Henderson Cox were killed at the foot of the Sierra Nevada in September, 1848. Marshall died either four days before he arrived home in the Eastern States with a barrel of gold, or four days from the coast.” It would hardly be anticipated that any person could be found so silly as to believe this story of earning a thousand dollars a day at Mormon Island on February 8th, and on February 9th, being in the mill race at Sutter’s sawmill, twenty-five miles away, working for wages, except he had first educated his faith by swallowing the revelations of the angel Moroni and other Mormon supernaturals. Yet some have believed it, and a cloud has been thrown on the just claims of Mr. Marshall, the discoverer.

The story of Marshall’s discovery in the race at Sutter’s sawmill has been told too often to need repetition. Sutter and Marshall agreed to keep the matter quiet until the gristmill near Sutter’s Fort was finished, but soon after the discovery Sutter sent down to Colonel Mason, military governor of California, at Monterey, and desired to preempt the land on which the sawmill and the race were situated, near the future town of Coloma. He was informed that the country was held by conquest, and that there were no laws for preemption, but that there was no probability that he would be disturbed in possession. The messengers who brought his letter also brought some of the newly discovered metal with them, to ask if it was gold. Lieutenant Sherman, now familiarly known as “Old Tecumseh,” who was acting as adjutant-general for Mason, bit the metal, and gave his opinion that it was. They went back, and it was soon known among the Mormon hands that there was gold in the river. They wanted to dig for it at the sawmill, but Marshall threatened to shoot them if they attempted it, so they prospected down the river and discovered the rich placer known as Mormon Island. They informed their fellow Mormons at Sutter’s gristmill, nineteen miles below, and they struck for higher wages. Sutter conceded their price, and they struck again, and so on till they wanted ten dollars a day. Then he stopped, and the mills were left to decay, while the Mormons went to work at the island, where they made from forty to one hundred dollars per day. Their accumulations soon began to circulate as far as San Francisco. Brannan & Co., the principal merchants at Sutter’s Fort, reported to Governor Mason that they had taken twenty six thousand dollars’ worth of gold, between May 1st and July 10th, in exchange for goods. At that time “High Bishop Brannan” had nothing to say about Mormon discoveries previous to January 28th. On June 1st, Mr. T. O. Larkin, of San Francisco, wrote the Secretary of State: “It is now two or three weeks since the men employed in these washings have appeared in this town with gold, to exchange for merchandise and provisions. I presume near twenty thousand dollars ($20,000) of this gold has, as yet, been so exchanged.” The excitement grew intense. Half of the houses in San Francisco were locked up. Merchants and professional men went with the mechanics and laborers. Soldiers deserted their posts and sailors their ships. One ship captain, seeing his men were bound to go, went with them, furnished the tools, and took a percentage. Travellers arrived on the coast, jocosely wrote home that the Californians had gone stark mad, and the next day were hurrying to the mines themselves. The news reached the East, and the adventurous and farseeing began to come. The reports, startling at the first, grew constantly in magnitude, and were soon fully confirmed by a long dispatch from Governor Mason, which was made a special message to Congress by the President. The messenger brought with him two hundred and thirty ounces of the gold. Doubt was removed, and the emigration overland and by sea became a great flood.

The event was looked at in strangely different ways. Some thought it a good thing; others very bad. The question of the effect of the extraordinary increase of gold in circulation was gravely canvassed by thoughtful men. Some thought it would alter the relative worth of gold and silver and unsettle all values; others said there were channels already opened into which it would naturally flow, without affecting the existing circulation. Even the local effect was variously speculated upon. Benton, the gifted and erudite, the friend and champion of the West, said in the Senate: “I am a friend to a gold currency, but not to gold mining. That is a pursuit which the experience of nations shows to be both impoverishing and demoralizing to a nation. I regret that we have these mines in California; but they are there, and I am for getting rid of them as soon as possible. Make the working as free as possible. … If you want revenue, raise it from the permits – a small sum for each – and upon the coinage. In that way it would be practicable to raise as much as ought to be raised. But revenue is no object compared to the great object of clearing the ground of this attraction, which puts an end to all regular industry, and compared to the object of putting the gold into circulation. I care not who digs it up. I want it dug up. I want the fever to be over. I want the mining finished. Let all work that will. Let them ravage the earth – extirpate and exterminate the mines. Then the sober industry will begin which enriches and ennobles a nation.” Mr. Benton said this because he had just demonstrated to the Senate that placers were transient things. He neglected to include this speech in his “Abridgment of the Debates,” or to refer to it in his “Thirty Years’ View.”

But this is not a history of the gold discoveries of California, and we must leave the subject, enticing though it be. What effect did this discovery have on the Indians? It was fraught with greater evil for them than any other one event in the history of America, except the discovery of America itself. Gold is a magnet that draws with irresistible force. No power has yet been found able to counteract its attraction. Cold, hunger, and every imaginable peril will not keep men from seeking it. No government has been able to hold its subjects from the spot where it could be found. The United States has repeatedly found itself helpless, and early adopted the policy, when gold was found on Indian reservations, of treating for the lands as quickly as possible, and moving the Indians away. As General Carleton put it, “The miners will go to their country, and the question which comes up is, shall the miners be protected and the country be developed, or shall the Indians be suffered to kill them and the nation be deprived of its immense wealth?” Through every nook and corner of the mountains the intrepid prospector has pursued his search, hiding from the Indians if he could, fighting if he must; dying, perhaps, but never giving up the search till he did die. When his search was successful, a new mining excitement broke out, a new district was populated, new roads were opened, and the Indians fell back. Indians seldom trouble a mining camp. They attack the stage, the emigrant wagon, and the supply train, and thus indirectly harass the miners; but the camp itself is not interfered with. Miners are usually “bad medicine” for Indians.

In “makeup” the early California population, as to its effect on the Indians, may be divided into three classes, and it is a fair type of all new mining region of the West. First, there was a large number of mountain men, i.e., trappers and restless spirits who had adopted wild life from choice. Many of them had lived with Indians, imbibed Indian superstitions, and adopted Indian customs. With them the killing of a hostile Indian, or one who from his tribal connection ought to be hostile, w8b an honor. They would steal the horses of unfriendly Indians, carry off their women, and scalp their dead without the least qualms of conscience. And why not! Their adopted brethren, the Indians, did the same things themselves. Second, there was a still larger percentage of desperadoes – villainous wretches whose sole redeeming feature was their bravery, and some lacking even that – to whom robbery was a business and murder a virtue. Does the reader think the statement a strong one? He may read the proof of it in the proceedings of a thousand vigilance committees, and if justice had been done he might have read it in ten thousand more. These men have made life a hell for the timid in every frontier settlement in the West, White men they oppressed as far as they dared, and Indians they treated as they found convenient. The very best of them committed crimes which were legally punishable with death, perpetrated indignities on persons they disliked, terrorized whole communities, and obtained a halo of romantic glory simply because people dared not talk about them. The third class, and it included the majority of the people, were men of decent character and sentiment, but they had little sympathy for the Indians in general. It was but a short time since the great removal of the tribes to the Indian Territory, and the sentiment against the red man was still strong in the Mississippi Valley. Many had seen instances of the frightful cruelty of the Indians, and many had been attacked on their overland journey when they had given no cause for it. Besides, they had absolutely no time to consider abstract questions of right and wrong. If white men became too troublesome they favored lynching and if Indians were troublesome they favored the speediest and most effectual way of stopping them. To know who was to blame was of minor importance; the point was that the community could not and would not be kept from the pursuit of wealth by anybody. It was on the same principle that a great railroad magnate once set fire to a wrecked freight train. He destroyed much valuable property, but he cleared the track. He had to take one of two evils, and so did they. Men of the first and second classes wronged the Indians; the Indians retaliated, usually on the innocent, because they were more convenient and less dangerous; the entire community was involved, and frequently innocent Indians suffered. Such is the oft repeated history of the mining regions of the West.

There was less of this in California than in other raining localities. The reason was that a part of the Indians submitted to the indignities put upon them, and the rest got out of the way. A few resisted and were killed. The reader of California story sometimes wonders that he does not find any record of the events of Indian wars. The reason is that there were none in the gold fields. There was one exception. In extreme northern California, above and on both sides of Yreka, there were Indians who would and did fight, but the troubles with them are properly a part of the Oregon wars, and will be considered in a subsequent chapter. South of these, throughout the State, was the great body of California Indians. In these there was no fight, and the so called wars with them were pure farces. They were degraded and brutal sensualists. There were probably never a dozen warriors among them who would not rather have eaten a substantial meal than killed an enemy. They had no arms but bows and arrows, which were not dangerous at over fifty yards. They were divided into numerous small tribes, of dissimilar languages^ and with no faculty for union. They were most arrant cowards. Even in their battles among themselves they displayed no bravery. They usually began war by challenge; heralds then met and arranged the time and place of the conflict; the armies advanced against each other, jumping about, with shouts and gestures, to distract the aim of the foe. Frequently, by agreement, armistices occurred, during which children from the opposing armies ran to the ranks of the other side and picked up arrows for use again. The battle generally terminated with the first blood drawn. They seldom scalped the dead, but occasionally ate pieces of their flesh, or cut off the head, hands, or feet for trophies. Their prisoners were exchanged or killed, they being almost the only Western Indians who did not practice slavery. With all his childish timidity, the California warrior could meet death with stoical fortitude, if it were inevitable, and he had one habit which was always aggravating, and often as dangerous to the white man as open war. He would steal – steal anything, at any time, and under almost any circumstances.

It has often been a subject for jest that the people of the frontier punished horse stealing more severely than murder, but the people of settled countries do not realize that horse stealing may mean death, and a cruel, lingering death at that. The emigrant who lost his stock on the plains was hopelessly stranded. If no one came along to help him, he and his family were almost certainly doomed to die. If other emigrants did find him, he still, usually, lost his wagon and goods, for those prairie ships could add but little to their cargoes. Other losses might be equally serious. Provisions ran short on that long overland trip and on the latter part of it, through what is now Nevada, money, often, would not buy food from other emigrants. There are men yet living who managed to get through that last stretch, only because they were Masons or Odd Fellows, and were given aid as Brethren after money had been refused. Even in the mines, stealing provisions was a grievous injury. At times any kind of meat cost one dollar per pound, and flour, sugar, coffee, and other supplies the same. Occasionally they got as low as twenty-five cents the pound, but not often. Theft might almost be equivalent to murder there. Indeed, Indian theft was frequently accompanied by murder, when the latter could be accomplished by stealth, or was thought necessary. It is not at all surprising that California miners had no love for Indians. It was a very natural thing.

The first trouble with Indians in California began on Mormon Island. A miner took some liberties with the squaw of an Indian chief; the chief objected, and was promptly killed. There were a few hostilities. A few whites were killed and some Indians. It was represented that troops were necessary, and a militia regiment was organized under “Col. William Rogers.” He took what supplies he wanted from Ringgold merchants and others, and began his campaign. His command had no engagements with the Indians, but succeeded in “protecting the settlers,” and piling up an immense bill of expenses which the State paid. By the winter of 1850-51 a remarkable misunderstanding of the situation had been brought about by men who were charged with scheming to bring on a war, and many citizens of California believed there was serious danger on the frontier. A local author stated that” thousands of miners were hemmed within narrow and unproductive limits during the whole of last winter (1850-51), because of the peril of explorations beyond populous settlements.” On March 1, 1851, Governor McDougal wrote the President: “The valley of Los Angeles, of the San Joaquin, of the tributaries of the Sacramento, and the country around the main sources of that river, and the northern coast, contain an Indian force estimated at not less than one hundred thousand warriors, all animated by a spirit of bitter hostility, and whom a pacific and forbearing policy encourages into renewed acts of outrage. Rendered bold by impunity and encouraged by success, they are now everywhere rising in arms, and every day brings the report of some new outbreak.” Unfortunately for the success of his appeal for authority to call out the militia, for service as United States troops, the governor neglected to tell what the outbreak referred to were.

His estimate of “one hundred thousand warriors” is the most preposterous statement made in connection with California Indian wars that has come to my notice. Superintendent Beale comes next with his anticipations of trouble, in 1853, in changing the hereditary mode of life of “one hundred thousand persons.” In 1856 Superintendent Henley succeeded in getting the number of California Indians down to 61,600. He professed to give a statement by reservations and counties, and in proof of his accuracy it is noteworthy that he dealt only in round numbers. Every number he gives, even of the residents at the reservations, ends in at least two ciphers. In reality the number of Indians, men, women, and children, in California, at any time after the discovery of gold, did not exceed 20,000. Don Antonio de Alcedo, the best Spanish authority, based his estimate on the returns of the Spanish missionaries in 1802, and stated the mission Indians at 14,931, the mustees and mulattoes at 1300, and the wild Indians at 16,000, making a total of 32,231. Mr. Schoolcraft adopted these figures in his census of 1850, but he neglected to take into consideration the ravages of smallpox in the year 1839, and their general rapid decline during the past decade. Forbes, in his “History of Upper and Lower California” (London, 1839), estimated the converted Indians at 18,683, and others 4342. Duflot de Mofras, an attache of the French legation in Mexico, estimated the mission Indians in 1834 at 30,620, but he made his estimate in 1842, when he visited California. This was after the missions had been taken away from the priests, and the mission Indians reduced to 4450, and Mofras’s sympathies were probably excited by exaggerated stories. He is not a very reliable statistician in other matters. He estimated the population of the Antilles at 3,500,000, for instance. As a fair offset to Mofras, we have Captain Wilkes, U. S. N., who travelled through California in 1841. He says, ” The number of Indians is variously stated at from twelve to fifteen thousand; but it is believed by some of the best informed, that their number, since the smallpox made its ravages among them, is not much more than one half of this number, or eight or nine thousand. The principal part of these are the tribes on the Sacramento.” He estimated the entire population of Alta California, whites, Indians, and mixed, to be about 15,000. The war department, in its estimate of 1848, put the number of wild Indians at 3000, and made the total for California, 16,930, but in this estimate the mission of La Purissima Concepcion is omitted, apparently by mistake. Under the priests, it was said to have 1000 Indians. With this correction the war department’s aggregate harmonizes reasonably with Aledo’s estimate, for it is agreed by all testimony that the number of Indians decreased very rapidly during the latter part of the Mexican occupation (1822-47), especially in the country about San Francisco, which was almost wholly depopulated. Said a decrepit Indian of Dolores to agent Johnston, in 1849, ”I am very old; my people were once around me as the sands of the shore – many – many. They have all passed away – they have died like the grass – they have gone to the mountains. I do not complain – the antelope falls by the arrow. I had a son – I loved him – when the palefaces came he went away – I know not where he is. I am a Christian Indian – I am all that is left of my people – I am alone.” by the census of 1860, in which, by mistake, the officials returned all the Indians in the State, instead of those subject to taxation, the number of California Indians was 17,798. In 1870 the census return was 7241, and the latest returns of the Indian Bureau at that date fixed the remaining Indians at 12,414; but it is quite probable that these two sums would give an overestimate of the whole number, and some Indians were probably counted in both. By the census of 1880, the taxed Indians of California were returned at 16,277, but by the statistics of the Indian Bureau, for the same year, the total of the Indians for that State was only 10,666, of whom 4648 were on reservations and 6018 not under agents. In 1884 the Indian Bureau returned 11,317 Indians in California, of whom 6759 were not under agents, and 4738 were on reservations. The character of the Indians was as much misrepresented by Governor McDougal as their number. The valley tribes, it is true, always represented the mountain tribes to be extremely fierce and warlike. They were so only in comparison with the valley tribes. They made some forays, ran off some cattle, and now and then killed a settler, but their most violent crimes were really crimes of stealth. Their murders were the murders of the Thug, not of the bravo. There were then in California, at the time Governor McDougal wrote, 3000 to 4000 ” warriors,” mission and wild, poorly armed, disunited, and of little or no spirit.

The national government did not furnish any more troops for California, but did send its quota of arms for 100,000 militia. Militia regiments had been raised and were about to take the field, when the general government altered its plans. Three commissioners were appointed to treat with the California tribes, and the militia was ordered to be held subject to their orders. The treaties they made were simply agreements for the Indians to go on reservations. The Indian titles were never extinguished in California as they were in the other States. Most of the tribes made the agreement gladly, but some of the mountain tribes feared to come in, on account of anticipated punishment, or because they preferred their mountain lairs and these were treated as hostiles. Catching these Indians and bringing them in constituted the “war of ’51 and ’52.” The Mariposa battalion did this work in the country bordering the San Joaquin Valley. Captain Kuykendall’s company brought in the Chowchillas, a tribe of the Kaweah family, who had been among the most active hostiles. Their chief, Jose Rey, had openly declared for war, and the tribe had committed several outrages. Before the organization of the militia a party of volunteers had marched against them, surprised their camp, killed twenty-three of them and mortally wounded Jose Rey, after which the Chowchillas had wisely kept out of the way of the whites. Captain Kuykendall succeeded in surprising their camp again, and killing a number of them, his loss being one man wounded by an arrow. After that the Chowchillas kept hid until they were nearly starved, and then came in and accepted the terms of the commissioners.

Captain Boling’s company brought in the Yosemite (Yosemitys, Oosamites), the dreaded “Grizzly Bears,” the terrible tribe that made their home in the wonderful cañon valley that perpetuates their name, the warriors whom the lowland tribes warned the whites especially to shun. Dr. Bunnell, a member of the company, has given a minutely detailed account of their work, and the sole hostility offered by these dangerous Indians, during several weeks that the company passed in searching the valley and neighboring country in parties of two and three consisted in rolling down some rocks at two soldiers, by which one of them was knocked down a declivity and badly bruised.  At no time did they offer to use a weapon, but kept their village concealed near the border of Lake Tenieya until they were finally discovered and captured. At their capture there was not an offer of resistance, the miserable wretches throwing up their hands and crying “pace! pace!” (peace! peace!). The war in and around the Sacramento Valley was of substantially the same character. Said Commissioner McKee, whose opportunities for knowing were unsurpassed, “The late war in that section was, I am told, a greater piece of tomfoolery and humbug than even the former on the Fresno and the San Joaquin. The State has been involved for some eighty or one hundred thousand dollars more without the slightest necessity, or accomplishing the least good.” The stores of the Indians (caches of acorns) were destroyed whenever found, and the Indians were obliged to come in or starve. The militia was disgusted. Says Dr. Bunnell, “We had discussed the matter in camp, and contrasted the lack of spirit exhibited by these people with what we knew of the warlike character of the Indians of Texas and of the Northwestern plains. In these comparisons, respect for our captives was lost in contempt. ‘The noble red man’ was not here represented. The only ones of the Pacific slope, excepting the Navahos, Pimas, and Maricopahs, that bear any comparison with the Eastern tribes for intelligence and bravery, are the Youmahs of the Colorado River, the Modocs, and some of the Rogue and Columbia river tribes, but none of these really equal the Sioux and some other Eastern tribes.”

When these fierce savages were all subdued, an improved reservation system was put in force by the government, in 1853. There were five reservations. Klamath reservation, on the river of that name, was occupied by the extreme northern tribes, not the ones of whom we have been treating; it cost about sixteen thousand dollars a year, was fairly well managed, and quite successful. The largest of the reservations of our Californians was Nome Lackee, west of the Sacramento, in the foothills of Tehama County. It had no game, no acorns, no fishery, and no rain, and hence, being useful for nothing else, was eminently fitted for a reservation. Adjunct to Nome Lackee was Nome Cult, a pretty valley of about 20,000 acres, about sixty miles southwest of the former, and across the Coast Range. The Indians did very well at this place, till the agent and employees got their relatives, friends, and partners to come in and settle there. Before long that place became too good for Indians, as we shall see presently. Mendocino reservation, below the cape of that name, on the Noyo River, was an excellent place. There were fish and mussels enough there for all the Indians located there, if it had not been that some white friends of the agency started a sawmill and tilled the river with logs, so that a fish could not get through. Tojon reservation, near the base of the Sierra Nevada, where it joins the Coast Range, in Southern California, was a nice, dry place, where the Indians were never bothered by rain or crops. There were also farms at Tule River and Mattole Valley, and finally, as public land was very scarce in California, the United States rented the farms of Mr. Vinsonhaller and Mr. Campbell, which were called respectively Fresno reservation and King’s River farm. Farming was supposed to be begun on a broad and liberal scale at these places, which were fitted up, on paper, regardless of cost. Tejon absorbed about $30,000 per year; Fresno the same; Nome Lackee nearly $50,000; Nome Cult about $10,000; and Mendocino $48,000. About $50,000 more went annually for the other reserves and general purposes, and by November, 1858, the sum of $1,173,000 had been invested in the California reservations.

MLA Source Citation:

Dunn, Jacob Piatt. Massacres of the mountains: a history of the Indian wars of the far West. Harper & brothers, 1886. Web. 1 April 2014. - Last updated on Sep 25th, 2013

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