Tourists follow in footsteps of California's Forty-Niners

The California gold rush attracted prospectors from around the world. Today, it's mainly tourists...

The California gold rush attracted prospectors from around the world. Today, it's mainly tourists who pan for gold. FOTOLIA PHOTO

MITCHELL SMYTH, Special to QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 11:35 AM ET

COLOMA, Calif. -- There's a little plaque on a pedestal and nearby a short path runs down to a stream. All very ordinary. It's hard to believe that what happened on this spot changed the history of the United States.

In 1848 the stream was a cutoff of the American River, a narrow channel that funnelled the current from a water wheel that drove a sawmill.

Inspecting that "tail race" one morning, the mill manager, James Marshall, saw something glitter. It turned out to be gold and when the news got around it sparked the greatest mass adventure in world history since the Crusades.

A museum and visitor centre just across the road in the Marshall Gold Discovery State Historic Park tells how at first only the scattered population of the west coast knew about the find in the Sierra foothills east of Sacramento. The news didn't reach the east, where most of the U.S. population lived, until late in 1848.

The following year, 1849, the rush began. Ever since, the gold seekers of that and the following few years have been known as the Forty-Niners.

Boom towns grew up overnight on the 250-km swathe of land that covered the rich vein of gold -- the "Mother Lode." Towns like Angels Camp (where rookie writer Mark Twain lived for a while), Hangtown (later renamed Placerville), Grizzly Gulch, Chinese Camp, Poker Flat, Grass Valley (where the European courtesan Lola Montez went walking with her pet bear on a leash), Rawhide and Carson Hill, where the largest nugget ever found in the United States -- a whopping 88.5 kilos -- was dug up in 1854.

The era of the maverick miner with pick, shovel and pan lasted until 1855. By then the surface gold had been scooped up and the large corporations with heavy machinery took over.

That petered out, too. There's still gold to be found but it's tourists who come moiling for it. And locals are making a buck telling amateur prospectors how to get it.

One of them is Brent Shock, who runs Gold Prospectors Expeditions in Jamestown. He leases a section of a creek where, he says, gold is still being found.

"We supply the information and we take you there so you can do the prospecting on your own," Shock says. "Yes, gold is found. But oftentimes you don't hear about it; they don't talk. They want to keep it for themselves, for souvenirs."

There are museums all over Gold Country. They explain that more than 250,000 gold seekers (argonauts) arrived in the first six years, but most didn't make their fortunes and drifted on to other strikes.

Those who succeeded sweated 65 million ounces (at $15 an ounce, almost $1 billion) from these hills and valleys in the six years the bonanza lasted.


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Many whose names would later become famous got their start in the gold fields.

-- Levi Strauss brought bolts of "serge de Nimes" (cloth from Nimes, France) and made a lot of money tailoring pants for miners. "De Nimes" was anglicized as "denim" and jeans were born.

-- John Studebaker made wheelbarrows for miners and used the proceeds to expand his brothers' small business into the Studebaker carriage (and later auto) empire.

-- Would-be authors Mark Twain and Bret Harte founded their careers on writings about Gold Country, Twain with the short story The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County and the book Roughing It; and Harte with such short stories as The Outcasts of Poker Flat and Tennessee's Partner.

-- Grass Valley miner and store owner George Hearst moved to San Francisco and bought a newspaper for his son, William Randolph Hearst, who expanded it into America's largest newspaper chain.

-- A reconstruction of the cabin where Mark Twain lived sits on its original spot (though some dispute this) on Jackass Hill. And the stump of "the hangman's tree," which features in Bret Harte's Tennessee's Partner, still stands in the ghost town of Second Garotte.

-- The man who started the gold rush didn't benefit from it. James Marshall, after years of futile prospecting, became a blacksmith, then an alcoholic and died in poverty. Today his statue overlooks the spot where he stooped to change history.

-- Bull vs. bear fights were popular amusements for the miners. The bull would try to throw the bear in the air; the bear would try to bring the bull down into its pit. This gave rise to a piece of financial jargon: A bull market goes up, a bear market down.