Saints and Gold: 1848

Richard O. Cowan and William E. Homer, California Saints: A 150-Year Legacy in the Golden State (Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, 1996), 105–26.

Latter-day Saints were intimately involved in the discovery of gold in 1848. Under the direction of foreman James Marshall, several Saints were employed digging a race for Capt. John A. Sutter’s sawmill on the American River. “Some of the Mormon boys had been raised among the gold mines in the Southern States,” Addison Pratt pointed out, “and among the hills about the upper mill they saw strong indications of the precious metal.. . but as their work press’d them hard, they had no time to spare for prospecting, altho it was often talked of.” [1]

The crew’s cook, Elizabeth Jane (Jenny) Wimmer, a Latterday Saint who had lived among the gold mines of Georgia, was dismayed. The men detested the water she put on the table because it characteristically had a heavy sediment in it. They teased her when she suggested, from her experience with the gold mines in the South, that the sediment could be gold dust. No one bothered to check into it.

The Discovery of Gold

Pages from Henry Bigler's journal, showing date of gold discoveryPages from Henry Bigler's journal, showing date of gold discovery

For many years, the precise date of the gold discovery was a topic of debate. However, the diary of Henry W. Bigler, a Mormon Battalion soldier, ended the controversy. Bigler’s entry for 24 January 1848 reads: “Monday 24th this day some kind of mettle was was found in the tail race that that looks like goald.” [2] A former Mormon Battalion private, James S. Brown, nephew of Capt. James Brown, later described what happened:

It had been customary to hoist the gates of the forebay when we quit work in the evening, letting the water through the race to wash away the loosened sand and gravel, then close them down in the morning. . . . On January 23 . . . Mr. Marshall came along to look over the work in general, and went to where the tail race entered the river. There he discovered a bed of rock that had been exposed by the water the night before. . . . Mr. Marshall called me to him as he examined the bed of the race, and said: “This is a curious rock.” Then he probed a little further, and added: “I believe it contains minerals of some kind, and I believe there is gold in these hills.”

Mr. Marshall was determined to investigate further, but it was no use that night. He rose and said: “We will hoist the gates and turn in all the water that we can tonight, and tomorrow morning we will shut it off and come down here, and I believe we will find gold or some other mineral here.”

Each of us went our way for the night, and did not meet again till next morning. I thought little of what Marshall had said of finding gold, as he was looked on as rather a “notional” kind of man; I do not think I even mentioned his conversation to my associates. At an unusually early hour in the morning, however, those of us who occupied the cabin heard a hammering at the mill. “Who is that pounding so early?” was asked, and one of our party looked out and said it was Marshall shutting the gates of the forebay down.

This recalled to my mind what Mr. Marshall had said to me the evening before, and I remarked, “Oh, he is going to find a gold mine this morning.”

A smile of derision stole over the faces of the parties present. We ate our breakfast and went to work.

This was the 24th day of January, 1848. When we had got partly to work, Mr. Marshall came, with his old wool hat in his hand. He stopped within six or eight yards of the sawpit, and exclaimed, “Boys, I have got her now!” Being the nearest to him, and having more curiosity than the rest of the men, I jumped from the pit and stepped to him. On looking into his hat I discovered ten or twelve pieces or small scales of what proved to be gold. I picked up the largest piece . . . held it aloft and exclaimed, “Gold, boys, gold!”

At this juncture all was excitement. We repaired to the lower end of the tail race, where we found from three to six inches of water flowing over the bed of rock.

As soon as we learned how to look for it, since it glittered under the water in the rays of the sun, we were all rewarded with a few scales. [3]

Reconstructed sawmill at gold discovery siteReconstructed sawmill at gold discovery site

Present on that day were several Latter-day Saints. Positively identified are Henry W. Bigler, James S. Brown, William James Johnston, Alexander Stephen, and Azariah Smith. William W. Barger and the Peter Wimmer family were other Latter-day Saints employed at the site.

Peter Wimmer later described how Mr. Marshall gave him a nugget and told him to have Jenny “boil it in saleratus [baking soda] water; but she being engaged in making soap, pitched the piece into the soap kettle, where it was boiled all day and night. The following morning the strange piece of stuff was fished out of the soap, all the brighter for the boiling it received.” Marshall gave her the gold nugget, and she is said to have worn it on a necklace for many years. [4]

Over the next month, the men panned as much as twentyfive dollars per night while being paid one and one-half dollars per day by Sutter to finish the mill, which was completed on 11 March. Most of Sutter’s workmen deserted him, leaving projects unfinished and crops rotting in the fields. “One after another of my people disappeared in the direction of the gold fields” Sutter later recalled. “Only the Mormons behaved decently at first. They were sorry for the difficulties in which I found myself, and some of them remained on to finish their jobs. But, in the long run, they too could not resist the temptation.” [5]

California map

Meanwhile, Latter-day Saints were involved in other gold discoveries. On 2 March, Sidney Willis and Wilford Hudson, both former Battalion soldiers, made one of the richest finds further down the river at what came to be known as “Mormon Island.” [6] When Sidney Willis and his brother Ira went to San Francisco on business and informed Samuel Brannan of their discovery, Brannan advised all Battalion men to go to work in the mine and pay their tithing to him as head of the Church. [7] Brannan also received a report of the discovery from his partner, Charles Smith, in the store at Sutter’s Fort. When a Swiss teamster came in to buy some brandy, Smith requested payment in cash. The teamster instead offered him gold dust. Skeptical, Smith went to Sutter, who confirmed that the substance was gold. “The secret was out,” Sutter lamented. [8]

Publicizing the Gold Strike

James Marshall, who was a partner with John Sutter, feared that “it would break him up in business” if news of the gold strike got out before the mill was completed. He was also (unsuccessfully) petitioning Governor Mason for a clear title to the land, which was being leased from the Indians. “He there fore asked the brethren to keep everything quiet,” Addison Pratt reported, and “the Mormon boys were true to him and continued their labors with him . . . until the mill was running.” [9] The two weekly newspapers in San Francisco, the Californian and the California Star, first mentioned the discovery rather casually in mid-March.

However, Brannan’s 1 April edition of the Star broke the news to the world. He was organizing an express mail service from San Francisco to Independence, Missouri, using Mormon Battalion riders to carry his newspaper east. With this promotional issue of the Star, he hoped to test his new mail service and at the same time convince those coming west on the Oregon Trail to turn south to California. The gold discovery was treated in the last paragraph of a larger piece on the virtues of the Sacramento Valley, where his store was located:

It has a mine of gold and a probable estimate of its magnitude cannot be derived from any information we have received. It was discovered in December last [actually 24 January], on the south branch of the American Fork, in a range of low hills forming the base of Sierra Nevada distant 30 miles from New Helvetia [Sutter’s Fort]. It is found at a depth of three feet below the surface, and in a strata of soft sand rock. Explorations made southward, the distance twelve miles, and to the north five miles, report the continuance of this strata, and the mineral equally abundant. The vein is from twelve to eighteen feet in thickness. Most advantageously to this new mine, a stream of water flows in the immediate neighborhood, and the washing will be attended with comparative ease. [10]

Samuel Brannan thus became the first in a series of promoters to capitalize on California’s allure. His promotion, like so much that followed, was biased by his involvement in land speculation. He wanted an ever-increasing stream of immigrants who would be willing to pay high prices.

On 3 April, Brannan loaded two thousand copies of his booster edition onto a launch and headed out with them. At the embarcadero, two miles below Sutter’s Fort, a packtrain of mules waited to take the papers east—a journey that had significant consequences. Six of the ten men accompanying the train were Latter-day Saints, five of them known by name: William Hawk and his son Nathan, Silas Harris, Richard Slater, and Sanford Jacobs.

With the newspapers heading east, Brannan proceeded to the gold country to see for himself the riches that could be had there. He liked what he saw and took immediate steps to get his share. Foreman James Marshall had given the Battalion men permission to hunt gold at Sutter’s mill, claiming 50 percent of all that was found. [11] Samuel Brannan, also in a position of power, now followed his example.

There is no evidence that either Marshall or Brannan ever had any authority to grant mining privileges or take a cut of the findings. Nevertheless, Brannan entered into an agreement with the Willis brothers to collect 30 percent “tithing” from those working at Mormon Island. Brannan also made certain that his store was well-stocked and that he was secure in his partnership with the Willises. He then returned to San Francisco on his launch.

Gold Fever Hits the California Saints

Problems in the Church’s San Francisco Branch had not gone away. In a letter to Brigham Young dated 29 March 1848, Brannan asserted that there were “many calumniators” leveling charges against him because of “jealousy and misrepresentation.” He claimed that branch president Addison Pratt lacked “natural stableness of purpose and firmness in decision and character” and was therefore unable to resolve this dissension. Brannan was convinced that because he had not received his own temple endowment blessings, those who had received them were “disputing [his] priesthood, and joining their influence with the slanderer, in order to strengthen their own influence and exalt themselves.”

Perhaps to increase his influence, he organized with two others “The United Order of Charitable Brothers.” He reported confidentially to President Young that a “subordinate lodge” called “Samaritan Lodge No. 1” included “the majority of the most respectable citizens of this place.” [12] At a Sunday service one month later, Brannan sought to dispel criticism against him by delivering “a lecture on the disaffection that existed in the branch and called for those that found fault with him to bring forth their charges.” [13]

On Wednesday evening, 10 May, Brannan called another meeting. He told the Saints about the gold mine the Willis brothers had found and “gave his advice for all to go & work in it.” [14] Shortly thereafter he decided the time was right to make this news even more public. With a bottle of gold dust in one hand, and waving his hat with the other, Sam went through the streets of San Francisco shouting, “Gold! Gold! Gold from the American River!” [15] Within a week the city was deserted, and Brannan and others no longer had any hired help. The Star then sought to diffuse the mounting gold fever, labeling it “a sham as supurb [a] takein as was ever got up to guzzle the gullible.” [16]

Nonetheless, prospects of great and sudden wealth upset old standards of faith and judgment. Even the little school, which had begun classes just six weeks earlier with ten students and had rapidly expanded to thirty-seven, was deserted. The schoolmaster bought a gold pan and left, as did most of his students. Henry Bigler described the residents of the area as “panic-struck and so excited and in such a hurry to be off, that some of the mechanics left their work, not taking time even to take off their aprons.” [17]

The first rush was to Mormon Island. One hundred to 150 Saints flocked there, to be followed later by people from every part of the United States. Gold seekers worked in groups of five, each working five square yards of land. They generally worked Monday through Saturday, each making from ten to fifty dollars a day. So numerous were the Latter-day Saint miners by this time that the name “Mormon” was given to many sites: Mormon Island, Mormon Bar, Mormon Gulch, and so forth.

Branch president Addison Pratt had already been thinking about leaving California to rejoin his family in Utah. Because he saw “no prospects of the condition of the branch changing for the better,” he resigned. [18] He boarded one of the first boats to Mormon Island, leaving behind the house he and fellow South Seas missionary Seth Lincoln had built. Brannan appointed Lincoln as branch president in Pratt’s stead, but there was not much of a branch. John Horner summed up the situation: “The gold mines being discovered . . . threw the ship Brooklyn company into confusion. It was disorganized, the settlement was abandoned, and every member thereafter followed the counsel of his own will.” [19]

Sutter observed that during March and April only “small parties of curious people from San Francisco” had passed the Fort on their way to the gold fields. “The big rush did not set in until the middle of May; then the whole country seemed to have gone mad. Merchants, physicians, lawyers, sea captains left their wives and families in San Francisco in order to become gold diggers. . . . Everything was in confusion and most people did not know what to do.” [20]

There was good reason for this excitement: what they found was incredible, and it was there for the taking. With no more equipment than a pick and shovel or pan, almost everyone who tried found his share. The gold had been deposited in stream beds and rock crevices, little by little, over vast periods of time. Now it lay exposed and inviting, diversified into dust, flakes, and even “fist-sized nuggets.” “The gold existed in such abundance that it was not so much mined as harvested.” [21] It is estimated that as much as ten million 1848 dollars was gleaned by the end of the year.

Initially, the most common method of extraction was to scoop up a panful of gravel from a stream and swirl it around in water, flushing the lighter gravel and dirt over the side and leaving the gold dust, flakes, and nuggets in the bottom. Soon it was apparent that the only limitation to how much gold one found was the amount of gravel that could be scooped and washed.

An ingenious device called a “rocker” was invented at Mormon Island. Made from wood, it was about the size and shape of a baby cradle. It was tilted at an angle and fitted with a screen at the top end which filtered out the coarser particles.

It had a slanted, riffled bottom that settled the gold in the grooves as the water and lighter gravel washed through. Rocking the gadget with one hand and scooping up water and gravel with the other allowed an individual to multiply the amount of stream gravel processed. When two men cooperated, even more could be handled.

Sutter observed, “The clever fellows did not stay in the gold fields, but returned immediately to San Francisco to buy up everything that they could lay hands on.” [22] As Latter-day Saints deserted their little town, it was filled by enterprising Chinese immigrants—mostly merchants, traders, and men of means, few of whom went into the mining district. [23] Within a year, the Chinese in San Francisco numbered several hundred. They set up shops on Sacramento Street between Kearny and DuPont [Grant] Streets, sometimes “squatting” on properties the Latter-day Saints had abandoned. [24] Today, excepting the monument on Portsmouth Square commemorating the little schoolhouse, almost all evidence of the dynamic Latter-day Saint settlement has been effaced. Only a few scattered streets with the original pioneer names of Brooklyn, Joice, Glover, Corwin, Pratt, etc., remain in and around Chinatown. In another part of town, a major street bears Brannan’s name.

Street named for Samuel Brannan in modern San FranciscoStreet named for Samuel Brannan in modern San Francisco

Undoubtedly, one of the “clever fellows” Sutter referred to was Brannan, whose 30 percent “tithing” could have amounted to quite a sum. There were conflicting understandings as to where this money would go. According to Brannan’s original agreement with the Willises, 10 percent would be earmarked as regular tithing—10 percent his share for securing a title and 10 percent for a temple he maintained would be built in California. “The most I made in a day was sixty five dollars after the toll was taken out,” Azariah Smith stated, “which was thirty dollars out of a hundred, which goes to Hudson and Willis, that discovered the mine, and Brannon who is securing it for them.” [25]

On the other hand, a skeptical Addison Pratt was told that the entire amount would go to the Church to buy cattle for the Saints in the Salt Lake Valley. “I had seen enough of Brannan’s tricks,” he reported, “to convince me that the church would never see any cattle brought to them through that channel. There was much dissatisfaction on the part of the brethren that went up from Francisco about it.” Pratt suspected that if he set the example of not paying this “unjust” tax, others would follow. Brannan could then turn over to the Church what he had already collected and claim that he could have sent much more if Pratt had not “come out against it.” Therefore, Addison reluctantly paid what Brannan demanded. [26]

Though fortunes were made easily and quickly by many Latter-day Saint miners in 1848, their gold was slippery. Battalion soldier and miner Andrew Workman tells of being discharged with his brother, then going north, panning a fortune of five thousand dollars, having it stolen, going back again, “doing well,” purchasing a string of forty mules, having them stolen, then mining off and on afterward without much success. Another Brooklyn passenger, Ashbell Haskell, was among those working for Sutter. He panned gold after work—amassing enough to be comfortable the rest of his life—bought some mules, loaded them with his gold, headed for Salt Lake City, but was never heard from again. [27]

The worth of California and whether such a faraway place could be adequately governed were divisive issues in the United States Congress. Some had been urging the nullification of the treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo which had ceded Upper California to the United States. Governor Mason and his aide, William Tecumseh Sherman (later a Civil War general), came to the mines on 4 July to celebrate and to get samples of gold to persuade Congress that California was worth keeping.

After an impressive Fourth of July celebration at Sutter’s Fort, the governor’s party dispersed in mid-afternoon to observe the gold-seeking. Specimens of gold were sought at both Coloma and Mormon Island, where miners lined the stream beds in knee-deep water, hundreds of rockers in motion. “Tradition says Governor Mason held samples in his hand and asked Elder William Glover to select the most convincing nuggets.” These were then soldered to an old tea caddy and dispatched via military escort to Washington, D.C. [28]

When one of the miners asked Governor Mason what right Samuel Brannan had to collect his 30-percent gold tithing, he quipped: “Every right if . . . you Mormons are fools enough to pay it.” [29]

Leaving for Zion

In 1848 some of the five hundred Latter-day Saints in California were planning to go to the Great Basin as quickly as weather and means permitted. At least three distinct groups left that year. The two from Southern California probably knew nothing of the gold strike. The third, from the north, left after deciding they had panned enough.

The first group to leave California in 1848 was a party returning to the Great Basin with needed supplies. In October 1847, when Jefferson Hunt had reached the Salt Lake Valley with the earliest returning Mormon Battalion members, he found a critical need for food. He proposed sending an expedition to Southern California where he knew there were ample supplies of grain and cattle.

Because Brigham Young had returned to Winter Quarters to lead groups of Saints to the Great Basin the following season, the High Council—the presiding body remaining in Salt Lake—considered and approved Hunt’s proposal on 13 November. A selected small group was sent to “explore the southern route to California,” to buy seed, grain, and cattle, and to inform military leaders there that the Saints were not interested in raising another Battalion. A party of eighteen men, including Jefferson Hunt and Orrin Porter Rockwell, departed three days later. Following the Old Spanish Trail, the group passed through Cajon Pass into Southern California and reached the Williams Ranch on Christmas Eve.

Bearing the nickname “Son of Thunder,” Porter Rockwell was one of the most interesting Latter-day Saints to come to California. He spent much of his life as a U.S. deputy marshal successfully pursuing Western outlaws. He claimed that Joseph Smith had promised him that if he never cut his hair, he could not be killed. Hence, he came to be known as the “latterday Samson.” [30]

The group from Salt Lake City purchased wheat at the old Franciscan San Gabriel mission near Los Angeles and secured other needed supplies in Southern California. Traveling with pack mules, they left for home on 14 February 1848 and arrived there in May. Rockwell, however, did not return with them. On the trip, they suffered many difficulties, including the loss of half of the two hundred cattle purchased. [31] They did, however, bring much seed wheat, which was greatly needed in Salt Lake.

Some “Mormon Volunteers” who had reenlisted and served in San Diego formed the second group going to the Rockies. They had an understanding with army officials that they would be discharged in the spring of 1848 so they could meet their families and plant crops in Utah.

When Jefferson Hunt arrived in Southern California, he brought with him an “epistle” from Church headquarters which validated the soldiers’ intentions to obtain as early a discharge as possible. With Porter Rockwell available to guide them (having just traversed the route), the soldiers decided to leave. They had learned that a recent act of Congress offered any soldier serving in the army for one full year a bonus of either 160 acres of land or one hundred dollars in “treasury scrip.” Much to the surprise of their army leaders, the Latterday Saint men forfeited this bonus in order to rejoin their families. They were officially discharged on 14 March 1848, four months short of a full year’s enlistment. While a majority chose to stay in California, a company of thirty-five men, 135 horses and mules, and one wagon went with Rockwell via the Williams Ranch and Cajon Pass to the Salt Lake Valley. This party was the first to take a wagon along this route. [32]

The “gold country” Saints were the third group to leave. “Home keeps running in my mind,” Azariah Smith wrote in his diary on 19 December 1847, “and I feel somewhat lonesum especially Sundays, but my heart leaps with the expectation of getting home [to a place he had never seen] in the spring, and again it sometimes shrinks for fear that I will fail for want of means, but 1 keep up as good courage as I can.” [33] He noted how “men, women and children, from the Bay and other places in California, were flocking to the gold mine, by the dozens, and by wagon loads.” But he insisted that his only objective was to eke out enough to supply himself for the journey home. [34]

A group gathered, planning to depart on 15 April. Yet deep snows prevented them from going that early. Another, larger group was set to leave on 1 June. This departure was also postponed because of a heavy Sierra snowpack (and perhaps to mine a little more before leaving).

The men working for Captain Sutter agreed to notify him of their intended departure early enough for him to hire replacements, which would be difficult, since few men were willing to work for wages. Sutter noted that “so long as these people have been employed by me they have behaved very well, and were industrious and faithful laborers and when settling their accounts there was not one of them who was not contented and satisfied.” [35]

In early June, the postponed groups began gathering just southeast of Hangtown (now Placerville) at a large green meadow they called Pleasant Valley. While waiting for the snow to melt, they discovered gold there as well and thus spent their idle time prospecting. Believing a more southerly route could be forged by using Carson Pass, through which John Fremont had entered California four years earlier, three men were sent to scout this trail.

The scouts were ambushed, murdered, and thrown into a shallow grave near a spring. When they did not return, the main group, consisting of forty-five men, set out in twenty-two wagons on 3 July, under the leadership of Jonathan H. Holmes. Women and children were discouraged from going with them because of the untested road. William Coray’s wife, Melissa, who had traveled the entire Battalion route, went anyway. Smaller groups later joined them, bringing the total party to sixty-five men and two women. The second woman was Brooklyn passenger Rachel Reed, recently married to Battalion veteran Franklin Weaver. Also in the group was a San Francisco convert, Francis Hammond, who later settled in Huntsville, Utah, and became the boyhood bishop of future Church president David O. McKay. [36]

The following day, as they climbed the Sierras, they shot echoing salutes with two cannons they had purchased from Sutter to help defend Zion. The salute was their contribution to Governor Mason’s Fourth of July celebration below. On 19 July the emigrants discovered the buried bodies of the three scouts—evidence of the danger confronting small groups. Naming the place Tragedy Spring, the travelers held a brief service and reburied the scouts beneath a tree on which they carved an inscription: “To the Memory of Daniel Browett, Ezra Allen and Henderson Cox Who were supposed to have been murdered and buried by Indians on the night of the 27th of June, 1848.” Allen’s pouch, filled with gold dust, was found in the brush. This was eventually given to his widow, who made a wedding ring from part of the gold and used the remainder to finance her journey across the Plains from Iowa to Utah. [37]

Tragedy spring treeTragedy Spring tree

The site was memorialized in 1921 by the Native Sons of the Golden West. After the tree fell, the part bearing the inscription was preserved and eventually placed in the visitors center at the Marshall Gold Discovery State Park in Coloma.

By early August this group had developed a wagon road through the Sierra Nevada. They eventually reached the Salt Lake Valley on 28 September. [38]

Sutter’s Problems and Brannan’s Fortunes

In the summer of 1848, Capt. John Sutter’s son came to California. The elder Sutter had established his city-fort alone, leaving his family behind in Europe. Now this eminent pioneer had serious problems. Gold seekers squatted on his property, and their numbers were too great for him to stop them. Wages for hired help rose tenfold. In addition, he had seen the great wealth that men like Brannan were amassing through the sale of merchandise to miners. Sutter had tried, unsuccessfully, to set up a group of rival stores. By fall, unable to cope with the rapid change, he became dissipated by alcohol and financial difficulties. The Russian-American Company threatened to foreclose on his holdings. He was also deeply in debt to Brannan. In October he deeded all his property to his son and gave him power of attorney.

Meanwhile, the demand for goods at Brannan’s stores was so great that he emptied his San Francisco stock entirely, as well as every ship anywhere in the vicinity and some as far away as the eastern U.S. and the Orient, trading goods for gold. When he could not find warehouse space, he converted ships deserted by their gold-seeking crews into storage facilities.

Brannan sold his newspaper, which was less profitable than the stores, to his assistant, Edward Kemble, for eight hundred dollars. Kemble also bought the rival Californian and merged the two, first calling the new paper the California Star and Californian, then the Alta California, which became one of the nation’s most respected newspapers.

During the fall Brannan also paid fifty thousand dollars for Charles Smith’s interest in the Sacramento store, which was thereafter called “S. Brannan & Co.” [39] He then purchased a store at Mormon Island, giving the management to his former New Hope colony chief, William Stout, and opened a third store at Coloma. This gave him the major share of the mercantile trade in gold country. He became California’s wealthiest man, its first millionaire, and an embodiment of the “California way of life.”

He then formed an alliance with the younger Sutter and convinced him to divert Sutter’s property to their partnership. This twosome, together with other partners, developed a city on the property and named it “Sacramento” after the river it fronted. “It was easy for Sam Brannan to win my son over to his favorite project of a city near the Fort,” the elder Sutter reflected. [40]

Brigham Young on Seeking Gold

While all this was going on in California, Brigham Young was on the Plains leading Saints westward. Just when he learned about the gold discovery is not known. Perhaps it was when Brannan’s newspapers traveled through, or in mid-July when he received a letter from Church authorities in Salt Lake City indicating that some of the Saints there were becoming affected with “what we call the California fever.” [41]

President Young penned a reply dated 17 July urging the Saints to “get cured of the California fevers, as quick as they possibly can, and let neither them, nor any other fevers trouble them any more, for I am well assured that if you do, the Lord will bless you and prosper you.” [42]

At the end of September, the wagon train loaded with gold from Northern California arrived in the Salt Lake Valley. When Brigham Young reached the Valley at about that same time, a substantial number of the Saints already had their bags packed for California. On 1 October he reminded them that the Spaniards had looked for gold; consequently, they had been divested of their greatness and almost lost their God. In contrast, the English colonists, who had paid attention to agriculture and industry, had waxed strong. He elaborated: “If we were to go to San Francisco and dig up chunks of gold, or find it here in the valley, it would ruin us. Many wanted to unite Babylon and Zion; it’s the love of money that hurts them. If we find gold and silver, we are in bondage directly. To talk of going away from this valley we are in, for anything, is like vinegar to my eyes. They that love the world have not their affections placed upon the Lord.” [43] This was the first of many such pronouncements by President Young against those wanting to go to California.

But in the Salt Lake Valley, gold, or other liquid capital, was needed to finance various public works. Although Samuel Brannan was collecting 30 percent “tithing” from the gold miners, he was sending none of these funds to the Church in Salt Lake. Therefore, as an alternate means of securing capital, Brigham Young decided to send some men to California as “missionaries” to mine gold for individuals and for the Church. Most of these assignments were kept confidential because he did not want to cause a mass exodus. [44]

Although there was no public mention of it at the October 1848 general conference, as many as three groups of gold missionaries were sent to California or went with President Young’s blessing. The last of these was formed on 26 November, when Elder Amasa Lyman, Porter Rockwell, and about eighteen others were called “to go to California bay, on a mission.” [45] However, it was so late in the year that Rockwell and Elder Lyman did not go until the next spring.

Brigham Young also began a minting operation in November 1848. Those coming to the Salt Lake Valley with raw gold dust and nuggets were encouraged to deposit the gold in exchange for coin from the mint. During the next three years, well over one hundred thousand dollars in California gold was minted. Thus, as one historian has concluded, for Latter-day Saints “the most important crop of 1849–1851 was harvested, not in the Salt Lake Valley, but at Sutter’s Mill, near Coloma, California.” [46]

The News Spreads East

Copies of the California Star found their way to St. Joseph, Missouri, where the news was republished on 28 July 1848. On 19 August, the New York Herald published the discovery. Even though the Herald article was credited to a “California correspondent,” the wording was exactly the same as that of the 1 April article in Brannan’s Star, which had just reached the East. Though the Herald gave Brannan no credit, it plagiarized his words which had been printed on the old press brought around the Horn on the Brooklyn. Thus Brannan helped trigger gold fever not only in San Francisco and along the West Coast, but also throughout much of the world. [47]

On 17 August, California’s Governor Mason issued an official report to Washington. He predicted that there would be enough gold taken out of the country to pay for the war with Mexico more than a hundred times over. On 1 December his report reached Washington, D.C., along with the goldencrusted tea caddy, which was placed on public display in the War Department. The debate over California’s wealth was over. President Polk declared in his 5 December State of the Union Address that “the accounts of the abundance of gold in [California] are of such an extraordinary character as would scarcely command belief were they not corroborated by the authentic reports of officers in the public service who have visited the mineral district and derived the facts which they detail from personal observation.” [48]

Given legitimacy by the presidential declaration, what had been rumor through much of the country now became substantiated fact. Ships began heading for California. From towns and villages throughout the United States, wagons began rolling to the West. The local gold rush was over. An international gold rush was on.


[1] Andrew Jenson, comp., “The California Mission,” 24 January 1848 (hereafter CM); LDS Church Archives.

[2] Henry W. Bigler, Bigler’s Chronicle of the West, ed. Erwin G. Gudde (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1962), 88.

[3] James S. Brown, Life of a Pioneer (Salt Lake City: Geo. Q. Cannon & Sons, 1900), 96–101.

[4] Quoted in Rodman W. Paul, The California Gold Discovery (Georgetown, Calif.: Talisman Press, 1966), 135, 176–77.

[5] Erwin G. Gudde, Sutter’s Own Story (New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1936), 208–9.

[6] Hubert H. Bancroft, History of California (San Francisco: The History Co., 1888), 6:48.

[7] Bigler, 108.

[8] Gudde, 201.

[9] CM, 24 January 1848.

[10] California Star, 1 April 1848.

[11] Azariah Smith, The Gold Discovery Journal of Azariah Smith, ed. David L. Bigler (Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 1990), 110 n. 43.

[12] Journal History, 29 March 1848 (hereafter JH); LDS Church Archives.

[13] John Borrowman Diary, 30 April 1848; typescript in possession of Larry C. Porter, Brigham Young University.

[14] Borrowman Diary, 10 May 1848.

[15] Bancroft, 6:56.

[16] California Star, 20 May 1848.

[17] Bigler, 111.

[18] CM, 24 January 1848.

[19] John M. Homer, “Voyage of the Ship ‘Brooklyn,’” Improvement Era 9, no. 10 (August 1906): 795.

[20] Gudde, 212.

[21] T. 11. Watkins, California, An Illustrated History (New York: American Legacy, 1973), 84.

[22] Gudde, 212.

[23] James O’Meara, “The Chinese in the Early Days,” Overland Monthly 3 (May 1884): 477–78.

[24] Thomas W. Chinn, ed., A History of the Chinese in California (San Francisco: The Chinese Historical Society of America, 1969), 9–10.

[25] Azariah Smith, 115.

[26] The Journals of Addison Pratt, ed. S. George Ellsworth (Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 1990), 337.

[27] J. Kenneth Davies, Mormon Gold: The Story of California’s Mormon Argonauts (Salt Lake City: Olympus, 1984), 48, 67–69.

[28] Annaleone D. Patton, California Mormons by Sail and Trail (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1961), 46.

[29] Memoirs of General William T. Sherman, 4th ed. (New York: D. Appleton, 1875), 1:53.

[30] See Richard L. Dewey, Porter Rockwell: A Biography (New York: Paramount Books, 1986) and Harold Schindler, Orrin Porter Rockwell: Man of God, Son of Thunder (Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 1983).

[31] Dewey, 146; Pauline Udall Smith, Captain Jefferson Hunt of the Mormon Battalion (Salt Lake City: The Nicholas G. Morgan, Sr., Foundation, 1958), 132–35.

[32] John F. Yurtinus, “A Ram in the Thicket: The Mormon Battalion in the Mexican War” (Ph.D. diss., Brigham Young University, 1975), 620–24.

[33] Azariah Smith, 107.

[34] Ibid., 115.

[35] Brown, 130–31.

[36] Norma B. Ricketts, Tragedy Spring and the Pouch of Gold (Sacramento: Ricketts, 1983), 38.

[37] Ibid., 17, 30–31.

[38] Yurtinus, 634–37; see also Kenneth N. Owens, “The Mormon-Carson Emigrant Trail in Western History,” Montana: The Magazine of Western History, 42 (winter 1992): 14–27.

[39] Samuel Brannan, “A Biographical Sketch Based on a Dictation,” 6, MS, C-D 805; Bancroft Library, University of California at Berkeley.

[40] Gudde, 220.

[41] JH, 9 June and 20 July 1848.

[42] Ibid., 17 July 1848.

[43] Ibid., 1 October 1848.

[44] Davies, 69–73.

[45] JH, 26 November 1848.

[46] Leonard J. Arrington, Great Basin Kingdom: An Economic History of the Latter-day Saints, 1830–1900 (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1958), 66.

[47] Douglas S. Watson, “Herald of the Gold Rush,” California Historical Society Quarterly 10, no. 3 (September 1931): 298–301.

[48] James D. Richardson, ed., A Compilation of the Messages and Papers of the Presidents (Washington: Bureau of National Literature, 1911), 4:2486.