"Becoming California, a series that brings the California Gold Rush alive with the people who lived it."
Tales of Golden River Beds Turned Eyes to California

by Don Baumgart

As California moved into that memorable year of 1849, a four letter word attracted the attention of Eastern publishers who produced a flurry of books for an eager world-wide audience.

The word was "gold" and the books were trail guides on how to reach California and the fields where men were becoming pick-and-shovel millionaires. Many of the "guides to gold" publications tended to replace accuracy with enthusiasm.

"Reports that have every prestige to win belief and confidence, have been borne to us," Fayette Robinson wrote in the preface of his 1849 New York published pamphlet, "representing the territory of California as a realization of the old fable of El Dorado, stating that the streams run over beds of gold, and that the mountains are masses of precious ore."

The country's spirit of enterprise had been aroused, Robinson added, uttering one of the few accurate statements in his booklet California and Its Gold Regions.

Glowing pictures painted by booklet writers often failed to match gold field reality. In an old copy of one guide book the author's initials, D.L., were explained in pencil by a frustrated miner: "Damn Liar!"

Eastern newspapers soon discovered that stories about finding gold sold newspapers. They quickly set out to feed the gold fever of the 17 million people living "back home" in the 30 United States. Most communities had residents anxiously awaiting word from family members who had headed West. Some papers ran letters from gold seekers camped at St. Joseph and Independence, Missouri, waiting to start the big adventure, putting together wagons and supplies for the trail to California.

The New York Herald published four special issues devoted to California in December of '49, in which an enthusiastic East Coast map maker had put the Coloma sawmill gold discovery site 25 miles from Monterey, instead of the actual 165.

One eastern newspaper writer claimed mining gold in California took no skill at all. "The workman takes any spot of ground or bank he fancies, sticks his pick or shovel at random, fills his basin, makes for the water, and soon sees the glittering results of his labor."

By this time a 25-cent paperback guidebook was in bookstores. The most accurate of the lot, Tribune writer G.G. Foster's The Gold Regions of California did contain some accurate information.

Franklin Street's surprisingly candid pamphlet was published in Cincinnati after he hit the gold fields in August of 1850. His description was not one of golden stream beds. "Those mining districts, which had heretofore been very productive," he wrote, "were now becoming exhausted..."

"Every gulch and ravine in the whole country were, by the first of October, completely filled, while every road and bypath were crowded with a floating population, or itinerant miners, who were continually wandering from place to place...in search of some untenanted spot, in which to try the realities of their golden dreams."

Street warned his readers that the gold fields had become too full of people; less and less gold had to be divided among more and more new arrivals.

Two years before the Gold Rush started, a party of settlers bound for California followed the instructions in an early guide book. Written by Lansford Hastings, the book was said by some to be the cause of the heavy westward migration that summer of 1846. Thinking, "If the words are printed on paper, they must be true," the westward bound party of 20 wagons split from its companions, followed the instructions and embarked on a newer route West.

Hastings was no stay-at-home writer; he was on the trail up ahead of the immigrant party. Crossing the Great Salt Lake in Utah the party found a note written by Hastings left behind to tell them they were thirty-eight or forty miles, two days' hard drive, from water. The actual distance turned out to be closer to eighty.

Author George Stewart describes the thirst-driven march: "Women and children plodding along forlornly...cattle frenzied and half-blind with thirst; men driving cattle, carrying water pails over their arms, and cursing Hastings who had enticed them into this disaster."

It was only the first bum steer given by guide-book author Hastings to what would become known as the Donner Party.

— end —
(Copyright 2001, Don Baumgart)

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