I N return for the great tract of land ceded to the United States Mexico received 15 million dollars. But the Mexicans little knew what a golden land they were parting with, and what a bad bargain they were making. Nine days before the treaty was signed gold was found in California. But news travelled slowly in those days, and the treaty was signed before the Mexicans knew of the great discovery.
Some time before this a Swiss named Sutter had settled in the Sacramento Valley. He had prospered greatly, and had become a regular little potentate, ruling the whole district round.
He had thousands of horses and cattle, and hundreds of men worked for him, both white men and Indians. Now he wanted to build a saw mill and a man named Marshall, a settler from the East, undertook to build it for him.
Marshall was a moody, queer tempered man. But he was a good workman. So about fifty miles from Sutter's fort the saw mill was begun. Now one day while Marshall was walking beside the mill stream inspecting the work he saw something yellow and shining among the loose earth and gravel which was being carried down by the stream. At first he thought little about it, but as again and again he saw these shining grains he at length thought that they might be gold and picked some up.
Next morning he again went to inspect the mill stream and there he found a piece of the shining stuff bigger than any he had found the day before. Marshall picked up the piece, and when he felt it heavy in his hand he began to feel a little excited.
Could it really be gold? he asked himself. Marshall did not know much about gold, but he knew that it was heavy, and that it was fairly soft. So he bit it and hammered it with stones, and finding that it was easily beaten out he at last decided that it was indeed gold.
So he mounted his horse and rode off to Sutter to tell him of his wonderful discovery. It was a pouring wet day in January, and when Marshall reached the fort he was soaked through. But he took no thought of that, and marching right into Sutter's office with something of an air of mystery asked for a private talk.
Sutter wondered what had brought Marshall back from the mill, and he wondered still more at the mysterious air.
Soon he understood. For Marshall took out a little bag, and emptying what it held into his hand, held it out to Sutter.
"I believe this is gold," he said.
"It certainly looks like it," said Sutter, in surprise.
Then Marshall told how he had found it in the mill stream, and that he believed there were tons of it.
Sutter was a very great man in the countryside, and he had things which no one else dreamed of having. Among these was an Encyclopædia. So he looked up the article on gold and read it carefully. And then the two men tried all the tests they had at command, and at last came to the conclusion that the shining grains which Marshall had found were certainly gold.
Sutter would have been glad to keep the secret for a little time, at least until his mill was finished. But such a secret could not be kept. Soon every one round knew of the great discovery. The sawmill was left unfinished, the workmen went off to dig for gold, and everyone else followed their example.
The towns were deserted, shops and offices were shut up, houses were left half built, fields were left unploughed, horses and cattle roamed about uncared for. High and low, rich and poor, lawyers, doctors, labourers, threw down their tools or their pens, turned the key in the door, and departed for the gold fields.
Some went by sea, and those who could not get passage in ships hired any small craft which they could find. They put to sea in the most rotten or frail little boats, willing to brave any danger if only they might at length reach the land of gold.
Others went by land, some rode on horseback or drove in a waggon, others went on foot all the way, carrying with them nothing but a spade or shovel.
It was a mad rush for wealth. Every one as soon as he heard the wonderful news was seized with the gold fever. When ships came into port the sailors heard the news, and they deserted wholesale, and the ships were left to rock at anchor without a soul on board. Prisoners broke prison and fled to the gold fields. Warders followed, not to take them but to remain and dig. Newspapers could not be issued, because the printers had all run off; every industry was neglected except the making of spades and picks. And the price of these rose and rose till they could not be had for less than ten dollars apiece, and it is said that even fifty dollars was offered for one.
But in some places upon the gold fields picks and shovels were not needed, for all the men had to do was to pick at the seams with their pocket knives to get enough gold to make them rich.
At first it was only from California, Oregon and the Western settlements that men rushed to the gold fields. For although the telegraph had been discovered a short time before this there were neither telegraphs nor railroads in the West. But soon, in a wonderfully short time too, the news spread. It spread to the Eastern States, then to Europe, and from all over the world the rush came.
Every ship that would float put to sea. Many instead of going their usual routes sailed for California, the whale fisheries were neglected and the whalers took to mining. The fleets of all the world seemed to make for the shores of America.
Across the Continent, too long trains of lumbering waggons drawn by oxen slowly wound. They were tented over and were so huge that whole families lived in them, and they were given the name of prairie schooners. All day long they crawled along and as dusk fell they gathered into groups. Fires were lit, tents pitched for the night. Then early next morning the travellers would be astir again, and so day after day through lonely uninhabited wildernesses the caravans moved on.
In one unending stream great tented waggons, carts, carriages, horsemen or even walkers moved along, all going in the same direction, to the golden land of the West.
Many were the dangers these adventurous travellers had to brave. There were dangers from hostile Indians, and from wild animals, from lack of food and water, and above all from sickness. Cholera broke out in these slow-moving trains, and many a man who had set out gaily found a grave by the wayside, and never reached the land of his golden hopes.
The road too was strewn with broken down waggons, and the bones of oxen and horses, and many had to finish their weary journey on foot.
But in spite of all mischances hundreds and thousands reached the gold fields, and all over the Sacramento Valley, or wherever gold was found, little towns sprang up.
These were towns of wooden shanties and canvas tents. And whenever the gold gave out, or news came of some richer mine, the diggers would forsake the little town, and rush off somewhere else. And no sign of life would be left in the once busy valley save the weather-worn huts and the upturned earth.
Some men made fortunes almost in a day, many returned home well off. But by far the greater number returned poorer than they came, and with their health shattered by the hardships of the life. Many more never returned at all, but found a nameless grave among the lonely valleys.
Others made fortunes again and again, and lost them as quickly as they made them. For though at first the men who went to the gold fields were for the most part young, and strong, and honest, the greed of gain soon brought all the riff-raff of the towns. Many men joined the throng who had no intention of working, and who but came to lure the gold away from those who had found it.
So gambling saloons, and drinking saloons, sprang up everywhere, and many a man left them poorer if not wiser. Murders became frequent, but men thought little about them. Every man went armed, and if he could not protect himself it was his own fault.
Theft was looked upon as a far worse sin. For everybody lived in frail wooden huts or open tents. They had no means of locking up their gold, and thought nothing of leaving it lying about quite unprotected. But when criminals and lowdown ruffians began to come things were changed; until at last many were afraid to have it known that they possessed gold lest they should be murdered for it.
Among the many who did not make fortunes out of the finding of gold were Marshall and Sutter. Neither of them was lucky as a miner and both of them died in poverty.