Narrator: The news was astonishing, and it traveled swiftly around the world: gold -- precious gold -- had been discovered in California. Almost overnight, tens of thousands rushed off -- obsessed with striking it rich.
H.W. Brands, Historian: What the gold rush did was to give people permission to take risks, to gamble on life, in a way that they hadn't been willing to gamble before.
Isabel Allende, Writer: Gold represented the possibility of starting anew, of being a new person, inventing a new self. It's a metaphor for hope.
James Rawls, Historian: The Gold Rush was the first time people from all of the continents came together into one particular place. It didn't always work so well. We can look to that as a pivotal event in human history where you see created for the very first time a world class, multi-ethnic, multi-religious, multi-cultural society.
Narrator: Lured by the promise of gold, by the chance to change their lives in an instant, they would come: an impoverished aristocrat from Chile, anxious to recoup his family's fortune, and a strong-minded pioneer woman, who refused to be left behind in Missouri when her husband came down with gold fever ... a California school teacher with dreams of becoming a land owner, a sea captain's son from New England with everything to prove ... and a blacksmith from New York, who wrenched himself away from his wife and children, and risked all that he had in the hopes of securing a more prosperous future.
J.S. Holliday, Historian: Next to the Civil War in the 19th century, no other event, had a greater impact, more long-lasting reverberations, than the Gold Rush. It transformed obviously California, but more importantly, it transformed America.
Narrator: On May 12, 1848, an ambitious merchant named Sam Brannan shocked the tiny port town of San Francisco, California with an electrifying announcement:
Re-creation of Sam Brannan: "Gold! Gold! Gold from the American River!"
Narrator: Rumors had been circulating for months about a group of laborers who had been building a sawmill in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada, some 100 miles east, when one of them spied the gleam of gold in the racing water. Few in San Francisco had believed the story. Now Brannan showed them proof.
H.W. Brands, Historian: Once it became clear that the rumors of gold were for real, nearly everybody in California thought, "Can I drop what I'm doing and make a fortune mining gold?" A whole lot of people decided, yeah, they could. And off they went.
Narrator: Within a matter of days, most of San Francisco's 800 residents rushed off to the gold fields.
"The whole country resounds to the sordid cry of gold! Gold! Gold!" one newspaper reported, "while the field is left half-planted, the house half-built and everything neglected but the manufacture of shovels and pick axes."
Sam Brannan had started the frenzy, but he had no interest in digging for gold himself. An elder in the Mormon church, he'd come to California in search of a place for the Saints to call home, and been so impressed by the abundance of the region that he'd stayed -- even though most Mormons opted to settle farther east, near the Great Salt Lake. By chance, Brannan had opened a general store in Sacramento, not far from where the first nuggets were later discovered -- and now, he saw an easy path to riches.
J.S. Holliday, Historian: Sam Brannan was a commercial genius. And he realized that his store was going to be a goldmine, literally speaking, because he could sell everything that was needed to the miners right at the site where the gold was being dug.
Narrator: In the three months following his announcement, Brannan outfitted so many would-be miners that receipts at his store totaled some 36,000 dollars.
Meanwhile, he continued to spread the word. Under the banner of the newspaper he published, the California Star, he put together an extra edition extolling the "mineral riches of California," packed two thousand copies onto the only form of cross-country transportation then available -- a team of mules -- and sent it east to St. Louis.
It would take a good four months before the so-called "mule-train express" reached its destination. In the interim, Brannan planned to stock his store with every pick, pan and shovel he could lay his hands on. It was only a hunch -- but he was willing to bet that 1848 was going to be a very good year.
J.S. Holliday, Historian: Gold had been discovered many, many times, through the centuries -- by the Hittites, by the Egyptians, by the Spanish. And always in the past the gold belonged to the czar, to the king, to the emperor, to the person who had power, who had the capacity to say, "No, you keep out. This is my gold." In California, there were no forces here to protect the ownership of the gold. It belonged to those who could take it and carry it back home.
Narrator: When gold was discovered, California was in transition.
For much of the previous century, it had been a distant outpost on the edge of first the Spanish empire and then the Republic of Mexico.
As late as the 1840s, the entire region boasted only about 170,000 inhabitants. The vast majority were native peoples, many of whom lived in the valleys and foothills of the interior. Most of the rest were Californios, Spanish-speaking colonists who raised cattle on vast estates near the coast.
Lisbeth Haas, Historian: It was a land-rich society, versus a money-rich society. It was a pre-capitalist society based around large, land-owning families. It wasn't a society in which making money was held first and foremost.
Narrator: In 1847, the United States defeated Mexico in a two-year conflict known as the Mexican War. When the peace treaty was signed in early February 1848, Mexico was forced to cede an enormous swath of territory, including California, to the United States. Neither country was yet aware that gold had been discovered just days before.
H.W. Brands, Historian: One of the striking features of the Gold Rush was that it took place when there really hadn't been an effective American authority to replace the Mexican authority.
J.S. Holliday, Historian: People knew they could dig up the gold in California, put it in their pocket, no taxes, no inhibitions, no controls, no one here to keep the onslaught of tens of thousands of miners from rushing in and sweeping up the gold and taking it away.
Narrator: By the summer of 1848, the news of gold had reached the pueblo of Los Angeles, some 350 miles south of San Francisco.
Antonio Franco Coronel, a 30-year-old Californio, was among the first to pull up stakes and head for the hills. A former officer in the Mexican army and a respected civic leader, Coronel had been lured north by reports of immense fortunes dug out of the ground with nothing more than a spoon.
Years later, he would recall his first attempt at mining.
Reading, Antonio Franco Coronel: Everyone began to work at daybreak. Soon after a little digging we came to the gold deposits, and everyone who was working was happy with the results. I recovered about forty-five ounces of coarse gold. All the others, about one hundred and some odd persons, had brilliant results.
Albert Camarillo, Historian: Antonio Franco Coronel -- he's a man of modest means before the Gold Rush. He's not a big landowner. He's formerly a schoolteacher. They were finding nuggets of gold, right at the surface, under boulders, and quite happy because they were coming away with substantial amounts of gold.
Narrator: In his first three days, Coronel pocketed more than eight pounds of gold, roughly 2,000 dollars' worth -- enough to buy at least one hundred horses.
Susan Lee Johnson, Historian: Antonio Franco Coronel really made a killing. And those who arrived that early did very, very well indeed. The gold was easy to find, competition was not particularly intense, everyone was just focused on getting gold and often getting out.
Narrator: Throughout the foothills of the Sierra Nevada -- some 100 miles north and south of Coloma, the site of the initial discovery -- the story was the same.
H.W. Brands, Historian: The gold that was discovered originated in the quartz veins of the Sierra Nevada, but over eons had been washed downstream by glaciers and especially by water. It was gold that was lying essentially free in the gravel of streambeds. So all one had to do was look down, see it, and pick it up.
Narrator: That first summer, there were fewer than 5,000 people in the goldfields. The majority, like Coronel, were Californios, and the Indians who worked for them. But there were also native people working for themselves, Mexicans from Sonora, and small numbers of Hawaiians, Americans and Europeans -- many of them frenzied sailors who had abandoned ship as soon as they got to San Francisco.
H.W. Brands, Historian: One of the striking things about the experience in the gold fields was that it was--at least at first--extremely egalitarian. People were sufficiently busy trying to make their own fortune that they didn't worry about who was mining right next to them.
Narrator: North of where Coronel was digging, a fellow Californio recovered enough gold to pay off the ten workers he'd brought with him and return home with 14,000 dollars. Later, Coronel watched one man dig up an amazing 52 pounds of gold in just eight days. Another extracted enough in a matter of hours to fill his straw hat to the brim.
Reading, worker of Antonio Franco Coronel: He said he was going to the camp and then I asked permission to work his claim. He cheerfully granted it, and the result was I obtained seventeen ounces in some two hours of work.
J.S. Holliday, Historian: The Gold Rush of 1848 was a summer-long story of success, an absolute time of wonder, of people finding $75,000, of people making $20,000. Those are not hyped figures. Those are true facts. The stories of success in 1848 nurtured, stimulated, justified the impulse to come to California.
Narrator: News reached the port of Valparaiso, Chile in August 1848, aboard a ship carrying California gold. Word of its glittering cargo spread quickly.
Isabel Allende, Writer: In Chile it was pandemonium. Everybody signed up to come to California because people thought that you could find gold lying on the streets. And that was the news that the sailors were bringing, that you could really make a killing in less than three months, and go back and be rich.
Narrator: Among the Chileans who rushed to join the exodus was 41-year-old Vicente Perez Rosales.
Reading, Vicente Perez Rosales: The gold nuggets aroused in the minds of the tranquil Chileans an explosion of feverish activity. Businessmen prepared their cargoes; those who had little sold all for what it would bring in order to make the trip; those who had nothing either paid their passage by serving as sailors or pledged themselves to work on contract in exchange for the price of the trip to El Dorado.
Isabel Allende, Writer: Vicente Perez Rosales was from a very respected and wealthy family. But he was like the black sheep of the family. He was an adventurer and a writer at a time when being a writer was like being a -- I don't know -- something weird.
Susan Lee Johnson, Historian: Perez Rosales was of an elite, but his family had fallen on hard times. And as a young man, he pursued a number of different strategies to try to kind of recoup family fortune.
H.W. Brands, Historian: I guess you could describe him as an under-employed intellectual. He had engaged in one activity after another. He had been a cattle rustler, among other things. He didn't have much in the way of prospects.
Isabel Allende, Writer: And when he heard about the Gold Rush, he went wild.
Reading, Vicente Perez Rosales: For those who gave credence to the existence of California gold, the only imprudent ones were those who did not rush off.
Narrator: Perez Rosales recruited three of his brothers, a brother-in-law, three paid laborers and two servants to join him on the venture, and booked passage on the first vessel that could accommodate them -- a French barque scheduled to set sail that December.
Throughout the fall of 1848, as Perez Rosales and his companions made their preparations to head north, merchant vessels carried the news of gold to seaports around the world. Thousands of gold seekers were already en route -- from the Oregon Territory and the Mexican province of Sonora, from Hawaii and China and Peru. Thousands more would soon board ships in the port cities of Australia, Europe and Great Britain.
Reading, Vicente Perez Rosales: California was an unknown country full of dangers, and nevertheless, the risk of robbery, violence, sickness, death itself, were secondary considerations before the promise of gold.
James Rawls, Historian: The Anglo American people of the United States were convinced that God has placed His hand upon this nation in a special way and that the Promised Land lay to the West -- that all of the land from the Atlantic to the Pacific Ocean should become a part of the United States.
Madeline Hsu, Historian: California represented the last piece of territory in its expansion from the east coast to the west coast. And to have the Gold Rush happen that very same year, was almost as if there was a sign from God, a divine sign of approval of this process of expansion of the United States across the continent.
Narrator: In August 1848, Sam Brannan's mule train finally arrived in St. Louis, loaded down with copies of the California Star "extra" that told of the spectacular riches to be found in the gold district. Within days, local newspapers picked up the story.
Around the same time, letters sent by ship from California began to appear in newspapers in Philadelphia and New York. "Your streams have minnows," one writer boasted, "ours are paved with gold."
By the end of September, the entire eastern United States was buzzing with talk of gold.
Richard White, Historian: The kinds of stories that go along is some miner washing his beard out and getting $16 worth of gold. The gold is so thick, it's blowing into the curtains, and you wash the curtains and gold comes out.
James Rawls, Historian: The first response of most people who heard that news was incredulity. They heard stories of people finding gold nuggets like misshapen billiard balls, or the size of hen's eggs. I wouldn't believe that. Would you? No, course not. It's too good to be true.
Narrator: Then, in early December, President James Polk received a package from California: an official report from the gold fields and an oyster tin packed with 230 ounces of raw nuggets and dust. In his annual message to Congress, Polk validated the existence of California gold -- and the contents of the oyster tin were put on public display at the War Department.
J.S. Holliday, Historian: The President confirmed what were rumors. And that transformed the attraction of gold from one of uncertainty to one of affirmation -- that the abundance of gold in California has been testified to by officials of the government.
James Rawls, Historian: That's when people became true believers, and it was like a conversion experience. When finally it sunk in that it's true, they say they couldn't keep their legs still. They were doing new polka steps. It was like some kind of a mania.
Narrator: Newspapers ratcheted up the excitement. One paper estimated that it would take 100,000 men ten years to deplete the gold in California. Another claimed that a Missouri carpenter had "dug more gold in the last six months than a mule can pack." "Everybody is getting wealthy," the Plymouth Rock declared, "such a discovery has never been known since the commencement of the world."
Merchants, meanwhile, placed advertisements hawking everything from pick axes and pistols, to a curious new ointment called "California gold grease."
JoAnn Levy, Writer: Supposedly, you could rub it all over your body, go to the top of the mountain, and roll down, and the gold would adhere to your body. And at the bottom of the mountain you could just clean it up, and you would be a rich person.
Brian Roberts, Historian: The California Gold Rush is really America's first large-scale media event. In the 1840s, you have the rise of penny newspapers available to virtually any American. And they made the Gold Rush this very sensational story. They played up the idea that California was a place of enormous abundance. And so most people who joined the Gold Rush went into it with no doubt whatsoever that they were going to strike it rich.
Narrator: "I now saw these numbers," one reader recalled, "printed in glowing ciphers with all the lifelike, seductive reality of a lottery placard -- $2,000 certain, $20,000 probable, $100,000 possible."
Kevin Starr, Historian: It was a decade in which Americans were willing to take a chance. And so here's an opportunity on the part of a generation of young men to strike out. Young people looking for a breakthrough, looking for something else other than a ordinary round of days in their hometown.
J.S. Holliday, Historian: By winter of '48-'49, you had thousands of people -- in farms, in taverns, in cities, villages all across the 30 states -- gathering, debating, discussing how, when and where to get to California.
Narrator: But the lure of instant wealth also provoked intense anxiety. And all over the country, religious and community leaders railed against the national obsession with gold.
Re-creation: " ... must vaccinate their souls against this gold mania ... "
H.W. Brands, Historian: There were plenty of people who thought that riches weren't and shouldn't be an end in themselves, and that what was good about the United States was the result of the virtues of thrift and hard work and diligence. And if gold makes achieving success too easy, it might corrupt all the American values that made the United States so distinctive.
Richard White, Historian: The most common metaphor about the Gold Rush is gold fever. It will lead tens of thousands of people to take a course that normally they never would have taken, to go thousands of miles, to risk their lives, to risk their families who they're leaving behind. It does seem to Americans to be a sickness, and that's the way they describe it.
Narrator: In the industrial city of Troy, New York, Hiram Pierce, a 38-year-old blacksmith, and his wife Sara talked long into the night, weighing the pros and cons of California.
If Hiram went to the gold fields, he would leave behind not only his successful business, but also his responsibilities as church elder, city alderman, and president of the local fire department. Sara would have to look after their seven children alone.
Brian Roberts, Historian: Hiram Pierce was clearly very well connected in his community and very well established. He's not the kind of person you would expect to join the Gold Rush. There was probably a lot of stress on Hiram, especially in thinking about what the future was for blacksmithing. And of course with seven children, he felt, I think, certain pressures to do more for his family.
Richard White, Historian: The United States is moving away from a society in which most people were independent producers, and it's moving towards a wage labor society. This means for a lot of people, the future does not appear as bright to them as it should be. The Gold Rush gives them a chance to erase all that.
Narrator: But first, the Pierces and others would have to address crucial questions:
Where would the money for the journey come from? How would the farm or the family business stay afloat? And how long, exactly, was this absence to last?
Richard White, Historian: The Gold Rush ends up being a series of negotiations. They reach a deal. I will go, but only for a limited amount of time. I will send money back. If I don't succeed in such-and-such a time, I will be back.
Narrator: In the end, the Pierces decided to gamble their future. Just after dawn on March 6, 1849, Hiram said goodbye to his wife and children, and boarded a train bound for New York City. From there, he would set sail for California.
Malcolm Rohrbough, Historian: Sara Pierce and women like her would have regarded the departure as a kind of watershed in the history of the family. Nothing like this would have happened before. Nothing would have prepared them for the departure of members of the family, particularly for long periods at such a long distance. It would have been devastating.
Reading, Sara Pierce: When I think of the responsible place I occupy, my heart almost fails me -- I was so near destructed when you left that I did not know half the time what I was about -- it seems like an ugly dream.
Narrator: Throughout the spring and summer of 1849, they were leaving home. They were bakers and tailors, carpenters and farmers -- but they now called themselves "forty-niners," after the year many believed would change their lives.
At the docks in New York, one departing gold seeker threw his last five-dollar gold piece back toward shore, shouting, "I'm going where there is plenty more."
Brian Roberts, Historian: The forty-niners definitely had a sense that they were embarked on this great adventure. Very much like the story of Jason and the Argonauts in search of the Golden Fleece.
Malcolm Rohrbough, Historian: They thought they were participating in a historic event of the greatest importance. And one man writes to his parents, "We're leaving. You may look for me in the history books."
Narrator: Many of the forty-niners organized themselves into joint-stock companies -- the Perseverance Mining Company, the Old Harvard Company, the Wolverine Rangers -- and pooled their resources to buy supplies for the long journey to California.
Those with money enough to book passage went by sea. Some braved the voyage around the tip of South America, an odyssey of five, six, sometimes eight months. The rest, like Hiram Pierce, took the so-called "short cut" -- a ship to Panama, a sweltering walk or mule ride across the malaria-riddled isthmus, and then a steamer to San Francisco -- the gateway to the goldfields.
Most forty-niners opted for the more affordable third route: the grueling, often dangerous journey overland.
One of them was 30-year-old Luzena Wilson, who refused to be left behind when her husband came down with gold fever.
Reading, Luzena Wilson: I thought where he could go I could go, and where I went I could take my two little toddling babies. It sounded like such a small task to go out to California, and once there, fortune, of course, would come to us.
JoAnn Levy, Writer: Luzena Wilson was a strong woman; she was a woman cut out for the frontier; she wasn't afraid. You have to realize that the timid stayed home. This was an undertaking of great peril.
Narrator: On a bright spring morning, the Wilsons abandoned their small log cabin in Missouri, and joined the ever-growing caravan bound for California.
Reading, Luzena Wilson: Ahead, as far as the eye could reach, a thin cloud of dust marked the route of the trains; and behind us, like the trail of a great serpent, it extended to the edge of civilization.
Narrator: The Wilsons and thousands of others would inch their way west, across searing deserts and over seemingly endless mountain ranges--their oxen and over-laden wagons setting the pace at just two miles an hour.
None of those who set off in 1849 knew what lay ahead. All they could be sure of was that it would be many months before they got to California -- and many more still before they returned.
Reading, Hiram Pierce: In the midst of my loneliness I dream of home and see my dear wife and children and my bliss seems perfect and when I awake I feast on the reflection, although the thoughts are painful that thousands of Miles intervene. Could I feel and know that my family are well and happy, it would lift a heavy cloud.
Narrator: On February 18, 1849, after 51 days at sea, Chilean Vicente Perez Rosales, his brothers and companions, arrived in San Francisco. Their ship had barely dropped anchor when one of their countrymen came aboard.
Reading, Vicente Perez Rosales: He said that the reports in Chile were not a shadow of the reality; that the most no-account hayseed squandered gold like a Croesus, since to acquire that much-sought metal it was only necessary to bend down and pick it up.
Narrator: Perez Rosales and the others hurried east, toward the mountains to see for themselves.
What they found were other miners, hundreds of them. All around, men stooped in the icy river, swirling sand and water together in baskets or washbowls and finding gold -- "nuggets the size of hazelnuts," Perez Rosales remembered.
Reading, Vicente Perez Rosales: For the first three days the harvest was meager. But we were not long in accustoming ourselves to the California cradle: a very simple and ingenious apparatus that has all the advantages of a scoop on a colossal scale. In this device we lovingly rocked the infant gold and beheld it wax portentously. Our daily harvest varied between ten and twenty-two ounces of gold.
Narrator: But the mining district was daily becoming more crowded -- and more contested. Several thousand Americans had already arrived from the Oregon Territory, and they seemed hell-bent on pushing foreigners out.
Antonio Franco Coronel, who had left the gold fields for the winter, returned in March, eager to pick up where he left off. But everything had changed.
Reading, Antonio Franco Coronel: The campsites were almost separated by nationality. Then one Sunday there appeared notices that all those who were not American citizens had to leave the area within twenty-four hours; and those who did not comply would be forced to do so. This was supported by a group of armed men, ready to make good this declaration.
Lisbeth Haas, Historian: He hadn't experienced that anti-foreigner sentiment. That grew through March, where there were increasing numbers of signs. By April, Spanish-speaking miners were actually being thrown off of their finds.
Isabel Allende, Writer: Whites were not used to the idea that people of color were their equals. And when they had to rub elbows with them and work side by side, they got very angry. They felt that they had privileges and rights that the others did not.
Albert Camarillo, Historian: This is America now. It's a newly acquired territory only for Americans. So what are they saying to the Chileans to the Mexicans, regardless of whether you're a native born Californio or a Sonoran or a Chilean; that foreigners are out, right. "This is not your land. You have no right to mine. So you either leave on your own accord or we're gonna run you out. And worse yet, we may hang you."
Narrator: Coronel and his companions were working a particularly rich claim when they were confronted by more than a hundred Anglos armed with pistols and Bowie knives.
Reading, Antonio Franco Coronel: The head of their party addressed me. He made me understand that it was his property. Excited, I answered with some harsh words, but fortunately he did not understand me. Immediately, I could reflect that gold was not worth risking my life in this manner. For me, the gold mines were over.
Narrator: Anglo threats soon turned to actual violence -- but many foreign miners, like Perez Rosales and his brothers, refused to be intimidated.
Reading, Vicente Perez Rosales: The Americans found it hard to swallow the Chileans' intrepidness. The Chileans, in turn, detested the Americans, whom they constantly averred to be cowards.
Susan Lee Johnson, Historian: Perez Rosales was an elite. And when he came to California, he found discrimination against Chileans, regardless of their economic background. This must have been quite hard on a man like him, who was accustomed to being kind of at the top of-- the top of the heap and not the bottom of the heap.
Narrator: Perez Rosales had returned alone to San Francisco to get mail from home when he heard that Chileans had been attacked on the American River, near where his brothers were mining.
He headed back toward the gold fields at once. A few days later, he found his brothers in Sacramento -- unharmed, but stripped of everything they owned.
Reading, Vicente Perez Rosales: That very night we sat in committee to decide what was now to be done. No one was in favor of a return to Chile; rather it was unanimously determined to reenter the struggle against adverse fortune.
Narrator: Perez Rosales gave up on mining, but not on his hopes of striking it rich in California.
Narrator: By the middle of 1849, four thousand gold seekers were arriving in San Francisco each month. Twenty-year-old Alfred Doten, who had journeyed by sea from his home in Plymouth, Massachusetts, wrote back to his father while still in the harbor.
Reading, Alfred Doten: There are between two and three hundred sail vessels at anchor around us, to say nothing of those up the river. After dinner we went ashore. We barged up and down and all around the town and we saw all the sights and wonders, and plenty of the "dust."
Brian Roberts, Historian: Alfred Doten was the son of a sea captain, and he wasn't going to follow in his father's footsteps. By the time he's 20, Doten had accomplished absolutely nothing. And so he joined the Pilgrim Mining Company, and one of the main investors was his father. And you get the feeling that his father really was kind of almost forcing Doten to go to California to attempt to prove himself.
Narrator: Doten senior -- the descendent of sober-minded Pilgrims -- had raised his son to resist all forms of worldly temptation. But no amount of moral instruction could have prepared young Alfred for San Francisco.
Reading, Alfred Doten: There are very few women here, but plenty of liquor of all kinds--cheap. Every house nearly is a gambling house, and gambling is a common pastime. Fortunes are lost and won in five minutes. 36,000 dollars was risked upon the turn of a single card, and lost. Money is nothing here.
Isabel Allende, Writer: At the beginning, San Francisco was a male place -- shooting and drinking and betting and gambling and that's what it was about.
J.S. Holliday, Historian: It's a city of lewd places, of music, of mirrors, a city of women seated at bars with their bosoms barely covered. Think of the thrill, of the excitement for a farm boy from Illinois, sitting next to a live woman having a drink, smoking cigarettes, smoking cigars, having champagne, envisioning maybe she'll go upstairs to a room with me. This is a world unlike anything--back in Indiana, back in Maryland--anyone had ever heard of.
Narrator: Just a year before, San Francisco had been a sleepy village of some 800 people. Now, it was "an actual metropolis," one newspaperman marveled, "that seemed to have accomplished in a day the growth of half a century."
Reading, Alfred Doten: The houses cannot be built fast enough, and half the houses and stores are tents. Land is higher here than in Boston or any other city, and a small piece of land to pitch a tent on rents for 150 dollars a month.
Narrator: Gold extracted from the rivers and streams of the Sierra Nevada here lined the pockets of madams and mail carriers, storeowners, saloonkeepers, and cooks.
Business was so good, that the merchant Sam Brannan was already planning a spate of new enterprises in the city, including several hotels, a string of commercial warehouses and a large central wharf to accommodate the cargos that were now piling up on the city's muddy shoreline.
J.S. Holliday, Historian: From the very beginning, California is a consumer market, because you have tens of thousands of men with millions of dollars, and they need everything. They need boots and more boots. They need shovels. They need pick axes. They need billiard tables and chandeliers and mirrors and whiskey. My God, whiskey and champagne and wine and beer. All of this had to be brought to San Francisco. We're talking about a town one and half, two years old, which has become a port comparable to Baltimore, comparable to Philadelphia, overnight.
Narrator: By the time Hiram Pierce arrived, in July 1849, the entire world seemed to have converged on San Francisco, and its streets were thronged with a more motley assemblage of humanity than ever could have been encountered in Troy, New York.
Reading, Hiram Pierce: Went ashore and found such a wild state of things as almost to intoxicate a person without giving 50 cents a glass. The pedestrians and laborers, with their peculiar costumes and fixings, present a singular and unique appearance. As much of a mixed Congregation as ever Peter preached to.
Historian: To experience San Francisco in 1849, to be on the streets, is to experience a kind of feverish excitement of being on the edge, of experience being intensified. There was a restlessness, a sense of new beginnings, a sense of optimism about the future but also fear about the risks that would be encountered.
Narrator: Nearly every one who descended on San Francisco in 1849 would have agreed that it was a singular place. But most of them couldn't wait to get out of there and start digging for gold.
Reading, Hiram Pierce: This morning, I am well and hearty and full of hope. I shall burst some of these diggings wide open this summer.
Narrator: Hiram Pierce had already been away from his blacksmithing business and his family for five months when he finally got to the goldfields. He set up camp on Mormon Island, not far from where gold first had been discovered, and got right to work.
Reading, Hiram Pierce: Went out prospecting and find every stone and foot of ground has been turned over. Newcomers are arriving constantly. Men are coming and going. They try the different diggings and hear great reports and run from place to place.
J.S. Holliday, Historian: When they got to California, the one fact of life that shocked them was the tens and scores of thousands of miners who got there before they did. You went on the banks of the Mokelumne, you go up on the Feather River, the Yuba, the Cosumnes, and here you can't find a place to dig, there are so many people.
Narrator: Some 90,000 gold seekers rushed into California over the course of 1849, roughly three quarters of them from the United States -- northerners and southerners, slaves and free blacks. The rest, one American wrote, "came from every hole and corner of the globe." California now had a greater concentration of immigrants than any other place in the United States.
More than half of them were in their twenties. Nine out of ten were men.
They pitched their tents and tree branch shelters wherever gold was found, giving rise to scores of improvised settlements -- Jackass Flat, Shirt Tail Canyon and Murderers Bar; Loafers Hollow, and Gouge Eye.
Reading, Hiram Pierce: Rose early and walked to the diggings. Made a small show. All of us got much less than an ounce. It is very much like work.
Brian Roberts, Historian: As soon as he arrived, Hiram discovered, like virtually all forty-niners did, that gold mining was enormously hard work. They had envisioned just picking up gold, and here they were literally turning the landscape inside out.
J.S. Holliday, Historian: What you're dealing with are rocks, and the more you remove, you just keep finding more and more rocks. It is devastatingly disappointing. Your fingers are crushed and your fingernails fall off. The work at hand is horrendous.
Malcolm Rohrbough, Historian: A company of four miners, in order to achieve 20 dollars each, which was the hoped-for wage, would probably need to wash 800 buckets of dirt a day and you divide that by 10 hours, and you think about washing 80 buckets an hour. This is very, very difficult physical labor on a continuing basis.
Narrator: Worse still, everything in the gold district was wildly overpriced: one dollar for an egg, five for a pound of tea, and upwards of eight for a second-hand shovel. At his general store in Sacramento, Sam Brannan was now pulling in as much as 150,000 dollars a month.
Hiram Pierce found it difficult even to meet his daily expenses.
Reading, Hiram Pierce: My dear and faraway wife, this gold is by no means diffused over the whole country. Some get one, two, or even five hundred dollars some days. But half an ounce -- about eight dollars -- is the average. You see from this how grossly things have been misrepresented.
Malcolm Rohrbough, Historian: The great bonanzas of the summer and fall of 1848 were behind them. The stories of men who went out and found a couple of thousand dollars in a week at the time were true. But they were no longer true.
H.W. Brands, Historian: Still, for years, there were enough stories of new gold discoveries, of people striking it rich, to keep those people who were in the mines working, to get them to move to new places, and to keep new arrivals from the east coming. And that's what kept them going.
Narrator: Six days a week the miners dug and washed and dug some more. Then came Sunday.
Brian Roberts, Historian: The miners wouldn't work on Sunday. And when they weren't at work, there wasn't much else for them to do except to go to the gambling halls, to go to the brothels, and to pretty much run wild.
Narrator: To many of the young men who had spent the Sundays of their lives in hard-backed church pews, the miners' day of rest was a revelation. Even Alfred Doten, the descendant of upright Pilgrims, soon gave himself over to temptation.
Reading, Alfred Doten: Sunday, February 20 -- We went into Steve's store and showed him and all the rest of the Italians there how like fools we could act if we pleased. Steve's woman played on a grinding organ, and we danced to the music. Bill was sitting by the side of Steve's woman feeling of her knees, while Young was performing the Highland fling with his back on the ground and his heels in air, under the table. This is one of the best 'benders' I have been on for a long time.
Isabel Allende, Writer: It was a very freeing experience. It was a feeling that "Wow!" you could do anything you want and nobody's watching. It's like a time for yourself, a time to be wild. Very tempting for a young man.
H.W. Brands, Historian: It was as though once they crossed the desert, or once they rounded the horn or crossed the isthmus, they had gone into this zone where the old rules didn't apply. People would say, "We do things in California that we wouldn't do anywhere else." The sort of institutions that normally created expectations for people -- institutions of school, of church, of politics -- just didn't exist in California.
Narrator: In an effort to keep some kind of order, miners created their own informal laws. And as Alfred Doten explained in one letter home, justice was often astonishingly harsh.
Reading, Alfred Doten: Lynch law prevails here. Two men were hung for stealing two hundred dollars, and a little boy had his ears cropped close to his head, for stealing 1400 dollars. There is a man now under sentence of death, for murder at the mines.
Richard White, Historian: People hang people. These are not things which normally would take place in New England. But there's a sense that what's happening here is that people are slipping the bounds, that this is a society which is becoming defined largely in terms of the acquisition of wealth. And there is this fear that they will let their worst instincts come out.
J.S. Holliday, Historian: Miners were not concerned with law and order and a societal structure such as you would have had back east, where you're talking in terms of the future. The future for the miner is to leave California. That's his future. He may be tempted to stay, but he's always thinking about going home.
Narrator: On November 13, 1849, as a steady rain fell in the Sierra Nevada, California held its first general election.
Demands for some sort of civil authority had been mounting for months. But back in Washington, the United States Congress had been too preoccupied with the question of slavery in the newly acquired territories to formally establish a government for California. Unwilling to delay any longer, 48 Californians had convened in the town hall at Monterey in September, and had hammered out their own constitution.
Now, although only about 12,000 people cast ballots, the constitution passed -- and without waiting for approval from Washington, California promptly declared itself the nation's 31st state.
On New Years Day 1850, one of California's newly-elected Senators set sail for the nation's capital to press for his state's immediate admission to the Union.
Kevin Starr, Historian: I think the 100-yard dash for statehood suggested ambition on the part of Californians. That right from the beginning, there were those who envisioned the California that would be there after the Gold Rush, the California that could be this great new Pacific commonwealth.
Narrator: Gold had thrust California onto the national and world stage. It had lured tens of thousands to a place they otherwise would never have gone -- giving rise to one of the most cosmopolitan societies on Earth and telescoping decades' worth of development into a single chaotic year.
As a new year dawned, many wondered how gold would shape the future.
Reading, Vicente Perez Rosales: Mining had gone badly for us. In spite of our energetic exertions we had lost time, and time was a capital superior to all our profits.
Reading, Alfred Doten: Our company has resolved to stick together, but how long we shall hold together is uncertain, for gold turns the heads of the wisest.
Reading, Hiram Pierce: Ten months since I left home and have not made a dollar. The Lord must open something entirely unexpected to enable me to do much of anything.
Reading, Sara Pierce: How I wish you were here. I must try to be as patient as I can, but, oh, how long time seems. How can I endure it? Do come home as soon as possible.
Narrator: How would the thousands of families torn apart by the prospect of instant wealth weather the strains of separation?
Could the opportunity that California offered be extended to all? Or would competition and greed cause the violence in the gold district to spin out of control?
And could a transient place like California, a place where the primary motive was to get rich and get out, ever truly become like the rest of America?
In the days and months to come, the quest for gold would create an entirely new society on the Pacific coast. Along the way, both California and America would be forever transformed.
Narrator: On a March morning in 1850, Missouri native Luzena Wilson and her family crested a steep rise and cast their eyes over the mining town of Nevada City, California.
Reading, Luzena Wilson: Great, brawny miners wielded the pick and shovel, while others stood knee-deep in icy water, and washed the soil from the gold. Every one seemed impelled by the frenzy of fever, so intent upon their work they scarcely had time to breathe.
Narrator: Along the main street, Wilson spotted a makeshift establishment called Womack's Hotel, offering meals for a dollar. Its roof was nothing more than a bolt of canvas -- but the tables were crowded with miners and Womack, whoever he was, seemed to be raking it in.
Wilson had every reason to believe she'd do just as well. Not long before, she'd been approached by a miner who had offered her five dollars for a single biscuit.
JoAnn Levy, Writer: That's a week's wages at home. She's stunned. She's silent. She can't even reply to him. He takes the silence for reluctance and doubles the offer. Ten dollars!
Narrator: Now, in Nevada City, she figured to make a killing.
Reading, Luzena Wilson: With my own hands I chopped stakes, drove them into the ground, and set up my table. I bought provisions at a neighboring store, and when my husband came back at night he found 20 miners eating at my table. Each man as he rose put a dollar in my hand and said I might count him as a permanent customer. I called my hotel "El Dorado."
Narrator: Nearly everything was in short supply in the gold district -- boots and blankets, hammers and nails, bacon and salt and butter.
But nothing was more scarce than a woman. One night in Nevada City, the Wilsons attended a dance where the men outnumbered the women nearly ten to one.
Reading, Luzena Wilson: The ball went on, notwithstanding the number of ladies. Some of the men tied handkerchiefs around their arms and airily assumed the character of ballroom belles.
Richard White, Historian: California in the 1850s is the most bizarre place on the North American continent. This is a society that's over 90 percent male. So what you have is a society in which all the roles usually taken by women are vacant.
Susan Lee Johnson, Historian: Whatever it was that men wanted from women, was in great demand in the early years of California. Many work in dance halls, many are engaged in sexual commerce. And particularly Anglo American men who are apart from their womenfolk will pay top dollar to play cards at a French woman's gaming table, or dance with a Mexican or Chilean women in a dance hall.
Isabel Allende, Writer: You would pay anything to sit near a beautiful woman and have a drink. And men would sometimes pay just to hear them talk or sing, and not necessarily to have sex with them. They reminded them of home. And I think that that's so touching. I mean, the need for beauty and for softness and for decency in a place that was so wild, talks about the human soul.
JoAnn Levy, Writer: The women who had domestic skills suddenly found that they could be paid for them, that you could sew and iron and cook and clean, and provide some bed for some poor guy who doesn't have anything but a tent, but you manage to make up a little shack or something and call yourself a boardinghouse keeper, and he can come in, and suddenly you're in business and you're making money.
Isabel Allende, Writer: It was a place where women had opportunities they didn't have elsewhere. For example, in England or in Chile women worked, and it was the husband or the brother who would collect the salary. Women didn't own anything. And so the freedom of California was very tempting. I would have come. Of course I would have.
Narrator: Wilson was soon doing so well that her husband decided to give up gold mining and come on as her business partner in the El Dorado. Within six months, they had ten thousand dollars invested in the hotel and an adjoining store, and owned a stock of goods worth ten thousand more.
Reading, Luzena Wilson: These were indeed "flush times." I became luxurious and hired a cook and waiters. Maintaining only my position as managing housekeeper, I retired from active business in the kitchen.
James Rawls, Historian: In Gold Rush California, men from the United States who had lived lives presumably as upright citizens, came to California with great avarice. They were coming here to get rich quick. And they were frustrated men, because they were not getting rich quick, and they're looking for someone to blame. What is the cause of my own failure? It's not me. It's someone else's fault.
Narrator: Ever since the first American miners had arrived in California, they had been trying to expel foreigners from the gold fields. But for every one driven out, it seemed, another had come to seek his fortune.
Now, in 1850, there were more than 80,000 Anglo American miners in California, competition was at a fever pitch and anti-foreign sentiment was on the rise.
Richard White, Historian: As you devote more and more labor to getting less and less gold, then it becomes in the interests of people to exclude other people from the diggings. And the best way to do this is on the basis of race and nationalities, as far as the Americans are concerned. They consider California their country, and they are more and more racist in the sense that they see all non-white -- as they define it -- peoples as inferior.
James Rawls, Historian: Some of the most efficient miners in the early days of the Gold Rush came from Latin America, where there'd been a great deal of mining before. And so from the perspective of the Anglo American miners, who were frustrated with their own failure, the Latino miners became their prime object of hatred, to eliminate them as a source of competition.
Narrator: In the spring of 1850, Anglo gold seekers persuaded the newly-elected legislature to pass the Foreign Miners Tax, a steep levy that was meant to be imposed on all non-Americans. In practice, it was Spanish-speaking miners who were most often forced to pay.
James Rawls, Historian: It really was a prohibitive tax. It was not designed to raise revenue. It was designed to prohibit the mining of Mexicans and other Latin Americans in California. And it had a devastating effect. Within one year of that law's passage, an estimated 10,000 Mexican miners left California.
Narrator: "Three-fourths of the Mexicans who were here a month ago have left," one American noted, "with a rather bad opinion of Los Yankees."
Other Mexicans took to the hills and began to terrorize the mining camps, stealing whatever they could, and often killing those who got in their way.
Susan Lee Johnson, Historian: That increase in violence, some of it probably was perpetrated by Mexicans, but it got to a point where virtually any sort of violence or theft that took place was kind of automatically blamed on Mexicans in the diggings.
Narrator: As the hysteria mounted, newspapers throughout the mining district began to attribute the crimes to a single individual -- a man by the name of Joaquin Murieta.
Isabel Allende, Writer: Joaquin Murieta was like the symbol of all bandits, the metaphor for crime. There is absolutely no proof that Joaquin Murieta existed. Probably, there were several Joaquins, several gangs. Sometimes a crime was committed in Los Angeles in the morning, and another crime committed in Sacramento at noon, and they would say it was Joaquin Murieta. How could Joaquin Murieta get from Los Angeles to Sacramento in three hours? I don't know. But that was in the mentality of people.
Narrator: The specter of Murieta whipped the local Anglo population into such a frenzy that state legislators commissioned a party of Rangers to hunt him down. Eager to collect the one thousand dollar reward, the Rangers shot someone dead, cut off his head and pickled it in a jar of whiskey. The head was later sent on a touring exhibit around the gold country.
Richard White, Historian: The death of Murieta signifies how heavily the tide has turned; that the monopolization of violence is now going to be largely in the hands of Americans. The ability of Mexicans to resist grows less and less. But interracial violence is going to continue on through the 1850s.
Reading, Hiram Pierce: Monday, February 25, 1850. Worked hard and got nothing. My back and one leg quite lame.
Narrator: More than a year had passed since Hiram Pierce had left his family in Troy and come to California in search of gold. In that time, he'd lived in a crude log cabin that he'd built himself, slept night after night on a mattress of pine needles, and suffered everything from back aches and chills to scurvy -- all in the now-fading hope that he might strike it rich.
Reading, Hiram Pierce: Friday, March 1. I feel uneasy about my back and legs. I rather fear for the future. Dug eight dollars. Thursday, March 21. Prospected and dug ... and got nothing.
Richard White, Historian: The Gold Rush really seems to offer this chance for independence. American miners really believe any man who's willing to labor will be equal to other men, and will be able to get large rewards for their labor. But gold quite simply is in some places and not in other places. So men can be 20 yards away from each other, working just as hard, one man strikes gold and the other one doesn't. One man makes his fortune, the other one doesn't. So as miners begin to see it, it's not just labor they're talking about now. This is about luck.
Narrator: Hiram had given mining his all. He'd toiled from sunup to sundown, day after day. But time and time again, in his letters home to Sara, he had been forced to admit defeat.
Reading, Hiram Pierce: I feel most deeply to regret that I have earned nothing to enable me to make any remittance. I am sorry I cannot fix things up as usual or better for you.
Brian Roberts, Historian: Sara really counted on the gold to come at a certain time as her family's needs became pressing. When she received the news that Hiram was not going to be able to send any money back home, it was extremely disappointing, but you get the feeling that Sara immediately started to kind of adjust to that reality.
Narrator: Sara learned to fend for herself. She borrowed money from family members, called in debts owed to Hiram, and rented out his blacksmith shop.
Reading, Sara Pierce: I guess you will begin to think I am getting to be quite a business character. You would laugh to see me at work. I am my own tinker, have set nine fruit trees, mended my own stove grate in the oven, moved the front-room stove out alone, in fact, I am kept very busy here.
Brian Roberts, Historian: As Hiram's absence continued, you can see Sara becoming more confident with her abilities. Women were not supposed to engage in public business, and yet here is Sara, thriving in the business world. It became, I think, an enormous source of pride to be able to do Hiram's work plus her own.
Narrator: But when Hiram's stay in California stretched into a second year, Sara began to grow impatient.
Reading, Sara Pierce: My dear husband, if I can get you back, I should be willing to live on very small fare. Your presence here is better far than gold. All there is would not tempt me to endure half the anxiety of the past year.
Reading, Hiram Pierce: I am more anxious to get home than you are to have me come. I saw a man picking up a piece of gold near our house worth one hundred dollars. Such seems to be the luck of some. It may not be my fortune to get much, but I shall make an honest effort.
Malcolm Rohrbough, Historian: The more difficult it was in the gold fields and the fewer the returns, the longer they saw themselves as having to stay in California. They were engaged in what they themselves saw as a lottery. And whatever the odds, if you had a ticket in the lottery, you might win. If you weren't digging in the mines, you didn't have a ticket.
H.W. Brands, Historian: You could try and fail, try and fail, try and fail, do it ten times, do it twenty times. But if you kept at it, you might finally strike it rich. And that would pay for all of your failures in the past. Now, this is quite different than the attitude that most people had back in the East, where failure in business was connected to a sense of moral failure. Virtue as a basis of success in California was almost beside the point.
Narrator: Desperate to turn a profit, Hiram Pierce threw in his lot with a group of miners and headed north -- to a steep canyon along the Merced River, inhabited mainly by rattlesnakes and grizzly bears. The plan was to stake a claim there, and try out a costly new technique known as river mining.
J.S. Holliday, Historian: Instead of working on the banks and the creek beds of a river, they would build a flume maybe 15, 20 feet wide. And when the river was low, they would build a dam and divert the water from the riverbed into the flume, and thereby opening up the riverbed. You could then dig the gold in the bottom of the river. Each year a new river would be flumed; a new hope would be nurtured to dig out a fortune. And sometimes those fortunes were indeed dug out.
Malcolm Rohrbough, Historian: What had been kind of a day-to-day harvesting of gold is now deferred to the end of the mining season, when they have mined the river bottom. Thus it raises the stakes and it raises the dangers of failure.
Narrator: Pierce had risked his last dollar investing in the scheme. Now, there was nothing to do but pray that it worked.
Narrator: By the early 1850s, the hunt for gold was spreading farther into California's interior, and miners were encroaching on lands that had been inhabited for centuries by Native Americans -- among them the Yokut and Maidu and Modoc, the Miwok, Nisenan and Pit.
James Rawls, Historian: California was the most diversely populated region within native North America. Native people were living in sparsely-settled villages throughout the entire region of California. Every mountain, every river, every valley had a name. California was rich in resources. They were living, I would say, an abundant life.
Narrator: Now, with the foothills of the Sierra Nevada overrun with gold seekers, Indians found themselves locked in a fierce struggle for their survival.
Richard White, Historian: Miners are moving into lands that Indians are using for fishing, they're using for hunting. When you start mining a stream, you kill the fish runs. When miners come in in large numbers, they kill or drive off the game. Indians retaliate by taking white livestock. Whites retaliate by killing Indians. And then you get wars, which escalate very quickly.
Frank LaPena, Professor of Native American Studies: If you have starving Indians and they're seeing cattle that are around, you kill cattle and eat them. Well, somebody kills your cattle, okay, that's grounds to go out and get that criminal, whoever that is. And then the first village that they come to, and they'll just kill them. They said, "Well, it's an Indian. They're all the same." And they had nothing to do with it.
Narrator: In an effort to bring the native population under the state's control, California lawmakers passed what they called "An Act for the Government and Protection of Indians."
James Rawls, Historian: The name of the law sounds benign, but the effect was malign in the extreme degree. Any white person under this law could declare Indians who were simply strolling about, who were not gainfully employed, to be vagrants, and take that charge before a justice of the peace, and a justice of the peace would then have those Indians seized and sold at public auction. And the person who bought them would have their labor for four months without compensation.
Frank LaPena, Professor of Native American Studies: There's a white person found with a small Indian child. And he said, "I am protecting him. He's an orphan." And they say, "Well, how do you know he's a orphan?" He said, "I killed their parents."
Narrator: Ad hoc white militias conducted routine raids on Indian encampments -- burning their huts and stores of food, slaughtering the adults, and seizing many of the children.
Meanwhile, communities throughout California offered bounties for Indian ears, scalps, heads.
James Rawls, Historian: The Indian hunters were acting on their own initiative. But the state of California passed legislation authorizing more than a million dollars for the reimbursement of additional expenses that the Indian hunters may have incurred.
Narrator: In the two decades after the discovery of gold, 120,000 Indians -- four-fifths of California's native population -- would be wiped out -- most by starvation or disease, others at the murderous hands of whites.
Isabel Allende, Writer: The Gold Rush to me is a time of extremes. People who were very decent teachers, for example, in Massachusetts or someplace like that -- turn out to be brutal people in California because it was allowed. There was impunity. When there is power with impunity, people do horrible things.
Richard White, Historian: "Genocide" is a word I hesitate to use, but what happens in California is very close to genocide. You're talking about a kind of horror, which even at the worst of American Indian relations rarely takes place. But it becomes almost the norm in California.
James Rawls, Historian: It was mass murder that was legalized and publicly subsidized. California entered the Union, during the Gold Rush era, shining with gold, but also dripping with blood.
Narrator: In the months since Vicente Perez Rosales had been driven from the gold fields, he and his brothers had made money any way they could. They had sold dry goods, run a makeshift hospital for malaria patients, even dug graves.
Reading, Vicente Perez Rosales: What remained? We began to think that the day we set up a hat factory, men would be born without heads. Until finally, the sight of gold dust scattered around the floors of restaurants suggested the idea of opening a hotel.
Narrator: San Francisco seemed the most promising place for the venture.
Fueled by the constant comings and goings of thousands of miners, it had grown exponentially -- its population skyrocketing to almost 30,000 by the end of 1850.
Perez Rosales paid three thousand dollars for a lot on Dupont Street that just a year before would have sold for pennies, and hastily banged together his hotel -- a two-story wooden structure that boasted seven rooms and a well.
Reading, Vicente Perez Rosales: We hired a famous French cook named Monsieur Michel, who -- in addition to room and board -- earned a total of $8,400 a year, a good deal more than a minister of state earns in Chile; and setting up over the door a large sign that read Citizens' Restaurant, we opened for business.
James Rawls, Historian: It was an axiom at the time that the real chance for success in the Gold Rush was not in mining the gold -- any fool might want to try that -- but rather the wise man knew it was mining the miners. Men such as John Studebaker who was making wheelbarrows and wagons, or Levi Strauss who was making his famous pants for the miners out of sailcloth, or dry goods merchant Charles Crocker. It was those merchants, many of whom did not actually go up into the gold fields who were making the biggest profits.
Narrator: Sam Brannan who had done so much to spread the word of gold was doing especially well. From a single store in Sacramento he'd built an empire of hotels and warehouses and retail shops, and was on his way to becoming California's first millionaire.
Perez Rosales and his brothers also prospered -- at least for a time. Then, disaster struck.
Reading, Vicente Perez Rosales: The fire spread in every direction as rapidly as it sometimes spreads through the grain fields in Chile at harvest time. The flames licked farther and farther, roaring and surging, more terrible still with the explosion of powder casks. With fire all about us, we, like the entire population, owed our salvation to hasty flight.
Narrator: Like most of the improvised city, the structures on Perez Rosales's street had been constructed mainly of canvas and board. And in a matter of minutes, the entire neighborhood was ablaze.
It was one of seven fires to sweep through San Francisco in just eighteen months.
Residents swept up the ashes and began to rebuild. In the years to come, wooden structures would give way to brick and stone, residents would raise a fire department, and the city would take on an air of permanence.
JoAnn Levy, Writer: By the end of 1853, we had 12 daily newspapers in San Francisco. This gives you a sense of what it was. Nine insurance companies, the consulates of 27 foreign governments, brick buildings six stories high where there used to be sand dunes. That was the transformation of San Francisco. That was what gold accomplished.
Narrator: By then, Vicente Perez Rosales would be long gone. Just seven days after fire consumed his restaurant -- rendering all that he'd invested worthless -- he and his brothers gave up on California.
Reading, Vicente Perez Rosales: After more than a year away, we finally embraced our tearful mother in peaceful Chile. Like so many others, we went out for wool and came back shorn.
Reading, Alfred Doten: This morning, the most sublime scene was presented to my view that one can well imagine. The whole Joaquin valley was covered with an impenetrable mist, and from the base of the mountain to the coast range, naught could be seen but one vast sea of fog with a surface unbroken, while the coast range loomed up clear and distinct in the distance. Is there a single human being on the face of the earth who could gaze on such a scene as this and say in his heart, 'There is no God'?
Narrator: Alfred Doten, the ship captain's son from Plymouth, had a sweetheart and a family waiting for him at home. But with each passing month, he fell more deeply under the spell of California.
His mining company, like scores of others, had failed. Its members had thrown their charter into the fire and disbanded. But dashed hopes did not drive Doten back east.
Susan Lee Johnson, Historian: Alfred Doten began to live a life of dissipation. He became a drunk, a womanizer; he pursues sexual relationships, particularly with women of color, native women, Mexican women. He felt that women of color simply are not women or certainly not ladies in the same way as women of his class and race. And so he feels quite free to pursue these short-lived sexual relationships, and feels little moral compunction about it.
Reading, Alfred Doten: "Maria" has fell in love with me and wants to have me for her lover as she is a yellow gal and it would hardly do for me to marry her legally -- She is worth 15.00 dollars -- She is a real good looking girl of fine shape and no doubt a fine bedfellow.
Narrator: Though he would continue to mine, Doten eventually opened a store -- a combination provisioning post and dance hall. There, he spent many a day playing his fiddle, downing whiskey after whiskey, and throwing himself headlong into brawls.
Reading, Alfred Doten: Sunday, August 15 -- Had a small bit of a scrape in the evening with Bob Paine, he being drunk, and as he darned and insulted me somewhat, I made him see stars and put him out of doors.
Narrator: At one point, after an Anglo miner was murdered in a bar fight, Doten rounded up a posse to track down two Mexicans accused of the killing. The pair was given a brief, informal hearing -- and then hanged from a tree.
Reading, Alfred Doten: After they had hung about half an hour, we left them to swing in the wind till morning. The night was dark and fearful and rendered the scene awful and terrific in the extreme.
Brian Roberts, Historian: This was a young man who was really expected to do well in life. In California, he undergoes just an amazing change. He just freely embraces all of the vices, the violence of California. And you get the feeling that Doten has kind of reinvented himself in California, cut himself off from his past, cut himself off from his father.
Narrator: From time to time, Doten would be haunted by thoughts of his life back in Plymouth. One night, he dreamt vividly of his father.
Reading, Alfred Doten: I dreamed that he appeared to me and bade me "good-bye" as he was about to die. He gave me a blessing, bidding me "keep a stiff upper lip and do battle with the world as long as the world would show fight." With these words he died. God bless the old man. And may I yet see him alive and well in his old age.
Narrator: In late October 1850, a steamer entered San Francisco harbor and hoisted a banner bearing a long-awaited message. California had been admitted to the Union as the nation's 31st state.
San Francisco erupted in celebration. American flags flew from every staff and rooftop. Cannons boomed. And people from all over the world paraded together through the streets, certain that California was poised on the brink of a glorious future.
J.S. Holliday, Historian: The governor got up and he made a speech and he said, "Our state is a marvel to ourselves and a miracle to the world. And that wasn't hype. That wasn't Chamber-of-Commerce talk. That was the truth. California began, from its moment of birth, as a marvel and a miracle.
Narrator: In the decade ahead, California would continue to lure newcomers by the tens of thousands -- women from the North and South, come to join their husbands; farmers and merchants and industrialists looking to cash in on one of the most prosperous economies on the North American continent; and, in the early 1850's, huge numbers of Chinese, in search of opportunities unheard of in their homeland.
Madeline Hsu, Historian: Chinese called California Gum San, which means the Gold Mountain. As it looks like California's economy is going to be developing more, as California becomes part of the American nation, they're willing to go out and seek that chance and hope to make more money out of it.
Narrator: Small numbers of Chinese had been arriving in California ever since gold had been discovered. Three hundred or so had come in 1849; 450 the next year.
Now, suddenly, the trickle turned to a flood. Twenty thousand Chinese passed through the San Francisco Customs House in 1852 alone -- 2,000 of them in a single day.
Most were farmers from the impoverished province of Guangdong, who had paid their passage by indenturing themselves to merchants in nearby Hong Kong. Once in California, Chinese mutual assistance societies found them work to repay the debt.
Madeline Hsu, Historian: Chinese are very good at getting organized. And very soon after Chinese start coming to San Francisco, they started forming these associations and they were organized on the basis of native place and on the basis of kinship. People pay membership dues, and these associations provide Chinese with a common interest group in which the members will help each other out. And protect the interests of Chinese in the United States.
Narrator: Many of the new immigrants went to work as miners, often banding together with other Chinese in the goldfields.
H.W. Brands, Historian: The Chinese tended to stick to themselves. This was a matter of race; it was a matter of language; it was a matter of religion. It was in part because the Americans didn't want to have anything to do with them. They formed very coherent communities in places like Chinatown in San Francisco, but equivalents even in the mining camps.
Madeline Hsu, Historian: White Americans had a consciousness of Chinese as being this other civilization, this other race of people, and in the mindsets of many, as being intrinsically different and incompatible. And so when Chinese become too much of a presence, the resentment immediately arises.
Narrator: Under pressure from whites, state lawmakers forced the Chinese to pay the Foreign Miners Tax, which by now had been greatly reduced.
The Chinese resigned themselves to paying the tax. To avoid conflict with whites, they concentrated on working claims that had been abandoned by others -- and through sheer diligence managed to make them pay. Before long, tax payments made by the Chinese miners would account for nearly one quarter of California's revenue.
Other Chinese immigrants, meanwhile, settled in San Francisco or Sacramento, and made their money as fishermen, launderers and cooks.
Richard White, Historian: The Chinese are simply going to be subordinated, but allowed to participate in the Gold Rush economy, which in some way they're very, very necessary to. They're going to be abused, but they're not going to be driven out. California never does become, as the miners would say, a white man's society, because as much as people are subordinated, as much as people are driven out, they don't disappear. They don't vanish.
Madeline Hsu, Historian: Despite the hostile circumstances, despite the discrimination, many Chinese did find the United States to be the place that they considered home. There were a lot of ways for Chinese to make money, to attain a standard of living that would not have been possible for them back in China.
Narrator: There was Wah Lee, who had opened the first Chinese laundry in San Francisco, and quickly made himself a fortune ... and Yee Fung Cheung, who had given up mining to launch a busy herbal medicine practice ... and Yee Ah Tye, an English-speaking merchant who had been nearly destitute when he first arrived, but now owned his own mining company and had a hundred men in his employ.
In time, the success stories would drift back across the Pacific. By 1870, there would be more than 48,000 Chinese in California.
Richard White, Historian: The hardest thing for most people to do is to go back and admit failure. They've committed themselves -- both in their own eyes and, remember, the eyes of people they left behind -- to be a success. California is a very hard place to get out of. And one of the things that keeps you from getting out is your own pride, your own sense of disappointed ambitions.
Narrator: When Hiram Pierce first arrived in California in 1849, it was with the idea of filling his pockets with gold and making a speedy return to the East. But more than a year had passed, and so far nothing had gone according to plan.
Now, he had invested everything in one last-ditch effort. He and his mining partners had spent the past six weeks digging a canal -- a trough some 700 feet long and 16 feet wide. The next step was to divert the river and mine the riverbed.
Reading, Hiram Pierce: We have expended about 3,000 dollars in time and money -- 12 of us -- and I am afraid it will not pay. It is going to be a difficult job to get the water out.
Narrator: For several weeks, Pierce and the others worked the riverbed furiously. But instead of a vein of gold, they found only an impenetrable mass of rocks and boulders.
Reading, Hiram Pierce: It is impossible with our tools to get down to the ledge. We concluded to abandon it and give it up as a total loss. The river has risen three feet on account of rains. I think strongly of home.
Narrator: Pierce finally had had enough. A few days later, he sold his shovel for two dollars, along with some other personal effects, and headed back to San Francisco. From there, he set sail for home, not a penny richer than when he left.
Reading, Hiram Pierce: My dear but I hope not lonely wife, I have made an honest effort but the Lord has for some cause unknown to me ordered it otherwise. I will not longer sacrifice all that is dear on earth or worth living for, for the hope of gain. I have suffered voluntary banishment long enough. I cease and subscribe myself, Your Returning Prodigal.
Narrator: By 1851, the surface gold in California was mostly gone. Rich deposits still remained, but they could only be reached by sinking shafts deep into granite hillsides, or blasting away at ancient streambeds with high-pressure jets of water.
Before long, the lone miner with his pan and shovel had been pushed aside by companies employing large crews that worked for a weekly paycheck.
Richard White, Historian: You might be getting a better wage than you were back east, but you're a wage laborer. That's not what you came here for. So, as time goes on, California betrays them. Even though they do better than they might have done back east, this wasn't really what they had in mind.
Narrator: Staggering sums continued to be pulled from the California ground -- an average of nearly 60 million dollars a year throughout the 1850s -- but now, corporate investors pocketed most of it.
Many discouraged forty-niners headed home. Others would keep chasing the dream across the American West -- from California to the Rocky Mountains to Nevada's legendary Comstock Lode.
Richard White, Historian: These are people who come out for the Gold Rush, promising to come back, but end up drifting from mining rush to mining rush, each time thinking this new place is going to be the place they get their stake. Most of them never will. But they can't admit the failure. They can't go back.
Narrator: Alfred Doten was among those who never returned. Months passed, then years. Eventually, he made a name for himself as a newspaperman in Nevada -- but the big strike always eluded him. As time went by, he would slip further and further from his family in Plymouth, and drink more and more heavily.
Reading, Alfred Doten: Oct 2, 1900. My forty-niner arrival in California anniversary -- 51 years -- poorer than when I arrived, but richer in humanity and appreciativeness between man and man than ever. Expended about a dollar celebrating the event with other old forty-niners.
Narrator: Doten wiled away his last years on a barstool, trading nickel glasses of whiskey for romantic tales of the days of forty-nine. He never saw his father again.
Narrator: The Wilson family had done well in California. They had made money fast -- and in quantities that would have been unimaginable back in Missouri.
So when a fire burned them out of Nevada City, in early 1851, Luzena and her husband gave no thought to going back home. Instead, they headed west toward the coast.
Reading, Luzena Wilson: We were fascinated by the beauty of a little valley, which already bore the name of Vaca. We made up our minds, if possible, to buy land and settle.
Narrator: The Wilsons bought a small plot near a spring-fed stream, where they opened another hotel, and planned to try their luck at farming.
Many other Americans decided to put down roots as well.
Throughout California, Spanish-speaking natives saw their vast estates invaded by American squatters, then lost in bitter lawsuits. Open grazing lands became orderly rows of barley and wheat. And as nearly every steamer and stagecoach brought in wives and children, the frenetic energy that had fueled the gold rush gradually gave way to the more restrained tempo of settlement.
Reading, Luzena Wilson: The old-time Sabbath amusements of riding bucking mustangs into the saloons, drinking all day at the various bars, playing poker, and finishing the day with a free fight are things of the past. Now the little town has grown civilized.
Narrator: Within eight years of settling in Vaca valley, the Wilsons owned most of the town that had grown up around them, and had established themselves as one of the wealthiest families in the county. Luzena, the one-time pioneer from the Missouri frontier, lived out her last years in a hotel in San Francisco, buying and selling real estate and socializing with some of the city's most fashionable ladies.
H.W. Brands, Historian: The gold rush was all about people willing to make great gambles. California presented to people a new model for the American dream -- one where the emphasis was on the ability to take risks, the willingness to gamble on the future.
Brian Roberts, Historian: Prior to the Gold Rush, you see every once in a while in newspapers talk about a transcontinental railroad. And typically, it's seen by observers as funny. I mean, this is a wild dream. You know, why not build a railroad to the moon? After California, people don't mock that kind of idea anymore. You could have these enormously large dreams.
Kevin Starr, Historian: The myth of the Gold Rush tends to want to extract a kind of glorious adventure, untouched by any ambiguity. It wasn't that. As much as was gained, much was lost. The Gold Rush is a chance to create a new society; the Gold Rush is also the exclusion of others from the society that's created. But this sense of breakthrough, of new beginnings, of expanded possibilities, comes directly from the Gold Rush.
Isabel Allende, Writer: It was a time when the best and the worst of people was on the surface. All lives were extreme. People were living, uh, on the edge. The gold rush created this place that we call today California, and changed thousands of people. Everything was possible. And I think that's what the gold represented. It was a metaphor for a new life.
NARRATOR: Nearly two years after he had left home, Hiram Pierce was finally reunited with his family in Troy. He was so changed by the hardships he had suffered that few of his friends even recognized him.
Having found no gold to speak of, Pierce was soon back to blacksmithing, working day in and day out, just like before. But as his daughter put it: "he never got over his California fever." More than a decade after he came home, he was still talking of the Golden State, and laying plans to return there, buy a farm, and give mining another go.
Hiram Pierce died before he could make his dream a reality. But in the years that followed, four of his seven children would leave Troy for good -- and go to live in California.