It has always been understood that the 1848 discovery of gold in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada influenced the battle over the admission of California to the Union. But now, in this revelatory study, award-winning historian Leonard L. Richards makes clear the links between the Gold Rush and many of the regional crises in the lead-up to the Civil War.
Richards explains how Southerners envisioned California as a new market for slaves and saw themselves importing their own slaves to dig for gold, only to be frustrated by California’s passage of a state constitution that prohibited slavery. Still, they schemed to tie California to the South with a southern-routed transcontinental railroad and worked to split off the southern half as a separate slave state. We see how the Gold Rush influenced the squabbling over the Gadsden Purchase, the Kansas-Nebraska Act, the repeal of the Missouri Compromise, and various attempts to take Cuba and Nicaragua. We meet David Broderick, a renegade New York Democrat who became a force in San Francisco politics in 1849, and his archrival William Gwin, a major Mississippi slaveholder and politician who arrived in California with the intent of making it a slave state and himself one of its first senators. Richards recounts the Washington battles involving Taylor, Clay, Calhoun, Douglas, Davis, Webster, Fillmore, and others, as well as the fiery California political battles, feuds, duels, and perhaps outright murder as the state came shockingly close to being divided in two.
When war did break out efforts were made to push California to secede, but there was little general enthusiasm for secession, and many prominent Southerners went off to join the Confederate Army. And with the South out of the Union, the Pacific Railroad Act passed, insuring a comfortably northern route.
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Leonard L. Richards, professor of history at the University of Massachusetts, took his degrees at the University of California, Berkeley and Davis. He has also taught at San Francisco State College and the University of Hawaii. His Gentlemen of Property and Standing: Anti-Abolition Mobs in Jacksonian America won the 1970 American Historical Association’s Albert J. Beveridge Award. The Life and Times of Congressman John Quincy Adams was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in 1987, and The Slave Power: The Free North and Southern Domination, 1780—1860 took the second-place 2001 Lincoln Prize. He lives in Amherst, Massachusetts.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
The chain of events that led to the killing began in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada on a cold morning in late January 1848. That morning, as every morning for the past several months, Jennie Wimmer had been working over a hot woodstove. Her task at the moment was making soap. Technically, she was the cook and laundress for a crew of white men, mainly Mormons, who were building a sawmill on the south fork of the American River. In fact, however, she had so alienated the Mormons that they no longer ate at her table.
Initially the men had welcomed her. Tired of their own cooking and eager to have a woman in the kitchen, they had even accepted the fact that she always served the choice portions of pork and mutton to her husband, Peter, and her seven children. But she had treated them shabbily and worn out her welcome. Whenever she rang the dinner bell, she had expected them to appear at once, and on Christmas morning, when they had taken extra time washing up, she had bawled them out, telling them that “she was Boss” and that they “must come at the first call” or go without breakfast. With that, they had “revolted from under her government” and decided to build their own separate cabin and cook for themselves.
What had made matters worse was that Jennie Wimmer wasn’t an old tyrant. She was a young one, just twenty-six years old, much younger than some of the men. She also cursed, and, like most white women in California at this time, she had been around.
Christened Elizabeth Jane, but always called Jennie, she was the daughter of a Virginia tobacco farmer who in 1838 had moved his family to Lumpkin County, Georgia, to mine gold. There she and her mother had run a boardinghouse for local miners, and there she had met a young miner named Obadiah Baiz. They had married and moved to Missouri in 1840. He had died in 1843, leaving her a widow with two children. She then married Peter Wimmer, a thirty-three-year-old widower from Cincinnati with five children. In the spring of 1846 the Wimmers decided to leave the United States and head west to Mexican California. They joined a wagon train of eighty-four migrants, trekked across the Rockies and Sierras, and arrived at Sutter’s Fort, in what is now Sacramento, on November 15, 1846.
The following spring the owner of the fort, Johann Sutter, decided to build a sawmill for his rapidly expanding agricultural empire. He, too, had been around. He had fled Switzerland for New York in 1834, leaving behind a wife and four children, large debts, and a warrant for his arrest. He then went to Missouri, New Mexico, Oregon, Hawaii, and Alaska before he reached California in 1839. Since then he had become a Mexican citizen and persuaded the governor of California to grant him a huge tract of land in the Sacramento valley, which he had dubbed New Helvetia. He was now forty-four years old and saw nothing but glory days lying ahead.
The site Sutter picked for his sawmill was some forty miles from his home base, on the south fork of the American River, in a place that came to be known as Coloma. Had Sutter been in his native Switzerland, he could have found plenty of millwrights who knew how to tap the power of falling water. But in the Sacramento valley finding a skilled millwright or even a millwright’s apprentice was next to impossible. So to oversee the operation Sutter turned to James Marshall, a thirty-seven-year-old New Jersey carpenter who had tried his hand at ranching in the Sacramento valley and failed miserably.
Sutter assigned thirteen of his Mormon hands to work under Marshall. They were part of a larger contingent of eight hundred Mormons who had been sent by Salt Lake City to earn money fighting in the Mexican War. This contingent in 1847 had come to Sutter’s Fort on their way back to Utah. About eighty had stayed to work, not for wages, but for horses and cattle to take home with them. Sutter still had nearly fifty Mormon hands. He thought that they were the best workers he had ever encountered. The men he assigned to Marshall had agreed to stay until the following spring. Then they planned to head east across the mountains to join Brigham Young and their fellow Saints on the shores of the Great Salt Lake. They, too, had been around. One of their leaders, Henry Bigler, had survived the anti-Mormon wars in Missouri and Illinois and now was an elder in the Mormon church.
Sutter also employed Maidu Indians. He essentially rented them from tribal leaders. He had for years, using some as personal servants, others to dig irrigation ditches and plant his orchards. He didn’t think much of their work habits, but they cost him much less than the Mormons, and so he decided to have one Maidu crew dig the race for his sawmill. To oversee them he hired Jennie Wimmer’s husband, Peter. The camp also needed a cook and a laundress, and for those duties Sutter hired Jennie, not knowing that her dictatorial ways would drive Henry Bigler and his fellow Mormons to the point of rebellion.
As luck would have it, however, Jennie Wimmer had one skill that the others lacked. Thanks to her time in Georgia, she knew how to tell the difference between gold and fool’s gold. That knowledge proved helpful when Peter brought to her kitchen a pebble that James Marshall had found earlier that morning in the freshly dug tail race. The find had excited Marshall, so much so that he ran back to his Mormon crew, shouting: “Boys, by God I believe I have found a gold mine!”
The workers, however, had been skeptical. They had tested the metal, biting and hammering it to see if it was brittle, and found that it was malleable. But they still had doubts. So, too, did Marshall. The chips he found just didn’t have enough luster, he thought, to be gold. Didn’t gold glisten? He wasn’t certain. Nor was Peter. But Jennie knew what to do with the pebble Peter handed her. She tossed it into a kettle of soap she was making, knowing that it would corrode if it was fool’s gold. She then finished making the soap and set it off to cool. The next morning one of the hands asked her about the pebble. “I told him it was in my soap kettle. . . . A plank was brought for me to lay my soap onto, and I cut it in chunks, but it was not to be found. At the bottom of the pot was a double handful of potash, which I lifted in my two hands, and there was my gold as bright as could be.”
James Marshall then braved a drenching rain to take the news to Sutter. He found Sutter writing at his office desk, totally surprised to see him. Hadn’t Marshall just received all the supplies he needed? To Sutter’s further surprise, Marshall then insisted that the door be locked and asked for two pails of water and a scale. He then showed Sutter what he had found, and the two men spent the next couple of hours consulting the American Encyclopedia and doing one experiment after another. They bit and hammered the metal to see if it was malleable. They doused it with nitric acid to see if it would tarnish. They weighed it against silver. They weighed it a second time—and then a third. They immersed the scales into a pail of water to see if it had greater specific gravity and sunk to the bottom. Finally, after again consulting the American Encyclopedia, they pronounced it gold.
Sutter decided that the discovery must be kept secret. The next day he rode up to Coloma. “I had a talk with my employed people all at the Sawmill” and asked “that they would do me the great favor and keep it a secret.” But he forgot to silence Jennie Wimmer and her sons. They told all who came by, including a teamster, Jacob Wittner, who carried the news back to Sutter’s Fort. Sutter himself also had loose lips, and by March the news had reached San Francisco.
The first reports were dismissed as nonsense. Legends, talk, and boasts of gold had been heard many times before. Just six years earlier, in 1842, gold had been found in the mountains just north of Los Angeles, but the find played out quickly. Maybe Coloma would just be more of the same. The two weekly San Francisco newspapers, The Californian and The California Star, treated the first reports with casual indifference.
In downplaying the reports, the Star’s owner had an ulterior motive. The newspaper belonged to Sam Brannan, a dapper and friendly man who seemingly spent half his time serving God, the other half serving mammon. A twenty-nine-year-old Maine native, Brannan had been a Mormon leader for most of his adult life. When he was fourteen years old, his sister had married a Mormon missionary, and he tagged along with the honeymoon couple to what was then the Mormon headquarters in Kirtland, Ohio. He had converted to the faith, helped build the first temple, and become a printer. He was then sent to New York City as the East Coast publisher of Mormon literature. He made valuable commercial contacts there and by age twenty-five had become a rich man.
Then, in 1844, when anti-Mormonism erupted into a full-scale war in Illinois and the killing of the church’s founder, Joseph Smith, in a Carthage jail, Brannan was ordered to move the East Coast Mormons out of the United States to safer ground. Brannan bought a schooner, the Brooklyn, to transport seventy men, sixty-eight women, and a hundred children. They sailed south, around Cape Horn, to what was supposed to be a sparsely populated haven in northern Mexico. They arrived in Yerba Buena, soon to be renamed San Francisco, on the last day of July 1846. The town was a sleepy place, a shack town of maybe five hundred residents. There, to Brannan’s disgust, he saw an American flag flying, signaling that California was about to become U.S. property.
Brannan didn’t bring just his people to California. He also brought his entrepreneurial skills. On the Brooklyn he had loaded a printing press, the makings of a sawmill and a flour mill, and tools ...
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