"Becoming California, a series that brings the California Gold Rush alive with the people who lived it."

Some Mining Camps Faded Others Grew To Be Cities

by Don Baumgart

Forty-Niner R.J. Steele wrote, "The town of Auburn is one of the oldest in the state, having been a mining camp of considerable importance early in 1849. Of the first discovery of gold upon its site, or in its neighborhood, there is...no reliable account."

Auburn, located on the American River, was close to the spot where James Marshall made his golden discovery. Mormons working for Marshall left Coloma in March of 1848 and made the second major gold discovery on the American, on a river bar near what now is Folsom. The spot quickly gained the name Mormon Island.

According to some a Frenchman, Claude Chana, is thought to have first turned the precious metal to light in Auburn Ravine on the 16th of May, 1848.

By mid-July trading posts had sprung up at what was to become Auburn to supply the American River miners, and a population gathered around the trading center. Auburn was then called "Wood's Dry Diggings" after John Wood, believed by others to have been the first miner to unearth gold in the Auburn Ravine.

Obviously there is some confusion as to who made the first Auburn area strike.

We like to call Marshall's January Luck "the discovery of gold in California." Not so. In 1842 a Mexican rancher in southern California turned up some of the yellow stuff, but his interest was cattle ranching, not grubbing in the dirt, and his discovery was soon forgotten.

Had it not been for U.S. President James Polk's war with Mexico, which yielded California and much of the West in settlement of the dispute -- and of course Marshall's well-publicized discovery, Mexican cattle ranching may have remained the area's major occupation.

The nation's attention had been directed West in August of 18O3 when Lewis & Clark began their three-year expedition to the Pacific Coast by starting down the Ohio River. A Shoshone woman, Sacajawea, and her French husband who had won her in an evening of gambling, accompanied the expedition as guides. She bore a son, Jean Baptiste Charboneau during the trip.

"In late 1848 a J.B. Charboneau reportedly joined a mining camp at Buckner's Bar, east of what was to become Auburn," writes M.E. Gilberg in her book, Auburn, a California Mining Camp Comes of Age. By 1861 Sacajawea's son had given up the gold hunt and was working as a clerk at Auburn's Orleans Hotel.

Lured again by the golden promise, Charboneau headed for a new strike in Montana, but never made it. Pneumonia ended his life in Oregon in 1866.

George Fitch headed for the gold fields and Auburn, becoming stranded in Panama along with several thousand other gold seekers awaiting ships north to San Francisco. During the wait Fitch, recognizing that the thirst for information was as strong as the hunger for gold, started an English language newspaper, the Panama Star. He wrote the stories, set the type and sold the printed copies to his fellow strandees. The paper's life was five issues, plus an "extra" the day he boarded the ship "Oregon" for California.

He arrived in Auburn the fall of 1849 and later described his disappointment to readers of the Cleveland Herald. "...success of a few individuals is trumpeted abroad. The misfortunes of the many are kept in silence."

The first white woman to arrive in Auburn was Harriet Crandall, who came west with her husband. "We had some strange experiences coming up from Sacramento," she recalled, her words brought back by Ms. Gilberg. Travelling to Auburn she and her husband met a party of miners heading home after a day's work.

"They had been up there about a year, and when they saw me they nearly went crazy. You see they had not seen a white woman for so long, and they said that sometimes they had never expected to see one again." The woman-starved miners wanted only one thing. "Nothing would satisfy them but we must camp right there and I should cook dinner for them."

Many mining camps turned to ghost towns when the gold played out, but Auburn found itself connected by roads to surrounding mines and to Sacramento. Emphasis shifted from miners to merchants, families replaced footloose young men, and the camp became a city.

— end —
(Copyright 2002, Don Baumgart)

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