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In our era we are familiar with examples of nations that have experienced impressive development because of sudden infusions of wealth from a single natural resource and then faced chaos and decline when the resource was exhausted and no other basis for stability was available. One thinks, for example, of Venezuela and Nigeria where prosperity was tied to petroleum and then slowed radically as oil reserves were depleted, because profits were not used to produced a diverse economy, a sound political infrastructure, and a treasury surplus to sustain the country during difficult periods. One can also think of counter-examples, such as Norway, where profits from petroleum have been invested in sovereign wealth funds designed to ensure balanced development and social equity over the long term.

In the middle of the nineteenth century, California had the potential to become a state based too much on one resource, but instead crafted a future that, while not without problems, was filled with great possibility because it was based on multiple sources of strength.

In 1848, as a result of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, which ended the U.S.-Mexican War, California became a possession of the United States. That same year, extensive deposits of gold were discovered in the Sierra Nevada Mountains in the areas north and south of the Sacramento River and its tributaries. As news of the discoveries spread, huge numbers of wealth seekers made their way to California from Asia, Australia, Latin America, other parts of the United States, and Europe. Even though many people did not find gold, others did, and their stories produced a mania and a single-minded view of California as a place known for quick riches and nothing more.

There were, however, more farsighted people who suspected that the bonanza would not last forever; and they asked themselves whether it might be possible to create a more multifaceted California that would not disintegrate after the gold was gone.

Bayard Taylor
Bayard Taylor

One of the people who thought rigorously about California’s future at mid-century was Bayard Taylor (1825-1878), a talented journalist whose reporting continues to be a highly informative exploration of the identity of the Golden State.

Bayard Taylor grew up in Chester County, Pennsylvania. His father was a wealthy farmer and his parents were Quakers. Possessed of great literary ability, Taylor made his way to New York City where he gained prominence as a poet, travel writer and journalist. During his lifetime he journeyed to and wrote widely read books and articles about many places, ranging from Hawaii to Egypt to Japan. In his last years he served as a U.S. diplomat in Germany, where he died.

In 1848, Taylor caught the eye of Horace Greeley, the founder and editor-in-chief of the New York Tribune, which was by the 1840s the most influential newspaper in America. Greeley commissioned Taylor to go west and write articles for East-Coast readers about the new mining regions. In June 1849, aged twenty-four, Taylor left New York by ship, made a hazardous journey across the Isthmus of Panama, and then sailed north, arriving in San Francisco after brief stops in Mexico. During the voyage to California and after arrival, Taylor regularly composed “letters” about the places and people he encountered, intending that each letter eventually be reprinted in the Tribune.

San Francisco 1848, as illustrated in Taylor's book Eldorado
San Francisco 1848, as illustrated in Taylor’s book Eldorado
San Francisco 1849, as illustrated in Eldorado
San Francisco 1849, as illustrated in Eldorado

Taylor’s letters duly reported on the Gold Rush. But he soon began to focus upon a story that he judged to be of more importance. With the shift in California from Mexican to American rule, an older society was waning in influence, and a new one was beginning to take shape. The challenge of adjustment was being intensified by the sudden arrival of thousands of migrants, and there was a possibility that Yankee California might be a house of cards if the gold ran out, the gold seekers left, and the area had no basis for any kind of life except the sleepy rancho society of the earlier Mexican period.

In pursuit of his curiosity about California’s future, Taylor wrote articles covering many aspects of the world he encountered. In San Francisco he described the phenomenally rapid physical growth of the city, the kaleidoscopic interplay of peoples as diverse as Hawaiians, Chinese, Chileans, Malays, and Kansans, the harbor crowded with ships, the juxtaposition of gambling dens and churches and the powerful energy one could feel at every turn. He journeyed by mule across the Central Valley and wrote vividly about mining camps in the Sierras. He traveled by schooner through the Delta to the new and rapidly expanding town of Sacramento. He explored deteriorating Spanish missions and visited ranchos still run by the original Mexican families. He walked from San Francisco to Monterey, stopping for numerous conversations along the way.

Sacramento, from Eldorado
Sacramento, from Eldorado

Two aspects of California’s future interested Taylor in particular: One was government, the other the role California might play in the larger world.

The first issue, government, was arising at a time when national political leaders in Washington DC were anxious to consolidate the United States into a transcontinental nation. Annexation of California in 1848, by means of the treaty that confirmed America’s victory in the U.S.-Mexican War, provided just such an opportunity. And eagerness to strengthen ties to California became even greater as the Gold Rush increased the area’s population, offered a new source of wealth for the Treasury, and provided secure locations for military and naval bases. The dominant concern of leaders in the East was speed in achieving these specific goals.

What interested Taylor was the way in which political leaders in California made enlightened use of Eastern eagerness. Rather than simply throwing together a hasty, slapdash proposal for statehood and sending it off to Washington DC, California’s leaders came together in a carefully deliberative convention in the temporary capital at Monterey and crafted a constitution that provided for growth that could be sustained even without a large supply of gold.

Taylor was impressed by the conscientious, thorough manner in which convention delegates addressed difficult issues that had long-term implications. For example, the delegates carefully discussed slavery (voting to prohibit it), where to put the eastern border of the new state (locating it along the eastern side of the Sierras), and how to regulate land ownership (approving a system that integrated older laws based on Spanish land grants and newer laws based on Eastern forms of property rights).

Monterey, from Eldorado
Monterey, from Eldorado

Taylor was also impressed by the inclusiveness of the convention. Many delegates were chosen to represent U.S. interests, including, for example, the military hero John C. Fremont, the prominent Monterey newspaper editor Walter Colton, and the landowner John Sutter whose properties near Sacramento had been the location of the earliest gold discoveries. But, Taylor noted, there were also delegates representing the earlier Mexican order, such as the powerful landowner Mariano Vallejo and Andres Pico, the military leader from southern California who had been defeated by Fremont and had signed the surrender documents. Broad representation of this kind would help to ensure an orderly political and economic future.

After the constitutional convention ended, Taylor prepared to leave California, return by ship to New York, and oversee final publication of his “letters” in Horace Greeley’s Tribune, followed by collection of the articles into a book with illustrations based on his journey. But before departure he penned some final reflections concerning the larger question of California’s ideal role in an expanding America. Taylor imagined a California connected to the entire Pacific region. With enthusiasm he wrote that “the new Highway to the Indies, forming the last link in that belt of civilized enterprise which now clasps the world, has been established under my country’s flag.” He envisioned that California, with its varied topography, mixture of cultures, and potential for many kinds of economic activity, might well become “the Italy of the West.” Such a comparison has since become commonplace, but Taylor was among the first to make it.

In his concluding observations, Taylor declared that San Francisco was the place in California that most impressed him. He believed it would someday be the “New-York-of-the-Pacific.” And in one of the most powerful of his “letters” he wrote: “Of all the marvelous phases of the history of the Present, the growth of San Francisco is the one which will most tax the belief of the Future. Its parallel was never known, and shall never be upheld again. I speak only of what I saw with my own eyes. When I landed there, a little more than four months before, I found a scattering town of tents and canvas houses, with a show of frame buildings on one or two streets, and a population of about six thousand. Now, on my last visit, I saw around me an actual metropolis, displaying street after street of well-built edifices, filled with an active and enterprising people, and exhibiting every mark of commercial prosperity…. Like the magic seed of the Indian juggler, which grew, blossomed, and bore fruit before the eyes of his spectators, San Francisco seemed to have accomplished in a day the growth of half a century.”

If Taylor could have returned to California in later decades, he would have seen that the state in many ways did not live up to his hopes. In the second half of the nineteenth century, California was marred by racist violence directed at Native Americans and Asians, profligate exploitation of natural resources, political corruption, and consolidation of land ownership in too few hands. Nevertheless, and thanks in great part to visionaries like Taylor who were present at its birth, California did develop in multi-faceted ways that have laid the basis for relatively stable political and social order and a very large role in the life of the United States and the world.

Bayard Taylor’s ancestral home in Chester County, Pennsylvania

Eldorado: Adventures in the Path of Empire, based on Taylor’s reports in the New York Tribune, was first published in 1850. A modern, annotated edition was published in 2000 by Heyday Books and Santa Clara University.




Everyone knows there was a gold rush in California in 1849.  Less appreciated, however, is the fact that the rush was not always as intense as we might think, and followed a slow-fast-slow rhythm, not only because of the processes needed to get to the gold, but also because the rush was greatly affected by the methods of communication available at the time, which were enormously different from those of today.

In February 1848, as one of the results of victory in the U.S.-Mexican War, California came under American control. The region at that time was sparsely settled, inhabited by Native Americans, Mexican farmers and ranchers, and some 3,000 Americans, widely dispersed across the region, who in some cases had entered illegally during the years of Mexican rule, and in other cases had been welcomed by Mexico to help develop the economy.

The first English language newspaper in California, the Californian, was published in 1846 in Monterey by Walter Colton, the chaplain of the U.S. frigate Constitution, who chose to settle in California and who had been editor of the Philadelphia North American.

Walter Colton

To the north, in the settlement of Yerba Buena (the future San Francisco), the state’s second paper, the California Star, appeared in1847. Its publisher was Samuel Brannan, who had previously been the proprietor of two Mormon papers, The Prophet and the New York Messenger.

Samuel Brannan

Almost immediately, Brannan and Colton began a competition for readers and carried on a war of insults with each other in the pages of their publications. But, even though the two were competitors, both Brannan and Colton were like most other western newspaper publishers of the era in that they did not go out of their way to print information about interesting local events. They assumed that news in this category would travel by word of mouth well before they could print it, and they did not have the financial means to hire reporters who could look for information by going to the scene.

The general passivity in gathering local news was one reason why the Californian and the California Star were slow in reporting the discovery of gold at John Sutter’s Mill on the American River in January 1848. Another reason was skepticism on the part of most Californians. Although Sutter’s workers and others who lived near his property could see with their own eyes that gold was present, and although most of Sutter’s employees soon abandoned him to search for treasure, Californians were used to hearing rumors about gold discoveries, and remembered how a gold find near Los Angeles in 1842 came to almost nothing because the deposit was much less extensive than at first assumed.

The Californian did not print any news about the discovery at Sutter’s Mill until March 15, 1848, when it offered the terse headline “Gold Mine Found,” followed by a short, matter of fact report by a local correspondent.


But then, as information traveled by word of mouth, on April 1, 1848, the California Star came out with an extra edition and sent 2,000 copies to Missouri hoping to sell papers and attract people to California to develop the economy. Brannan was curious enough to travel to Coloma and there saw the gold with his own eyes. He returned to San Francisco on May 12 and, displaying a bottle of gold dust, shouted to passersby “Gold! Gold! Gold from the American River!” On May 29 the Californian published a highly enthusiastic article about the discovery. Mania soon spread throughout California and all along the Pacific coast, attracting miners from as far away as Peru, Hawaii and Canada.

Early map of the gold regions

News of the gold discovery reached the east more slowly. Word of mouth played a role, as did personal letters that made their way east from California overland or in most cases by ship. A prominent Monterey businessman, Thomas Larkin, wrote long letters on June 1 and June 28 and July 20, 1848, to Secretary of State James Buchanan in Washington DC, alerting him to the national importance of the gold discoveries. Larkin’s first letter, of June 1, was carried across Mexico and reached Washington DC in mid-September 1848. Colonel Richard Mason, the military governor of California, visited the gold fields in June 1848 and, after becoming convinced that the discoveries were substantial, composed an enthusiastic eyewitness description. He sent his report, along with 230 ounces of gold, via special courier on a ship that left Monterey harbor on August 30 and arrived in Washington DC in late November 1848.

Newspapers in the east, in the United States, were slow to pick up the story of the gold discovery in California. Then, on August 8, a St. Louis newspaper published an excerpt of an article from the California Star, the April 1 issue of which had been brought overland from San Francisco, telling of extensive gold discoveries. On August 19 the New York Herald reprinted a letter from California containing an excited report of gold. Shortly thereafter the Baltimore Sun and the New Orleans Daily Picayune and the New York Journal of Commerce printed similar letters. On September 14 the Philadelphia North American published a dramatic letter from the mayor of Monterey.

Publicity about the gold discoveries in California took a large step forward on December 5, 1848, when President James K. Polk addressed the second session of the 30th Congress. By that time he had received Colonel Mason’s report and had been persuaded by it. Eager to find reasons to justify the recently concluded war with Mexico, and to encourage settlement of the lands that had come into U.S. possession as a result, Polk officially added his enthusiasm to Mason’s report, and its details were soon being circulated in newspapers throughout the U.S. as part of the reports of the President’s speech. Quickly thereafter, colorful stories about the gold in California appeared in literally every newspaper in the United States, and the rush of the 49ers began.

Even more powerful to eastern audiences than newspapers were the letters, published in small town newspapers, received from those California settlers who were the first to go to the gold fields. The letters had directness and personal credibility. After their first appearance they were republished again and again in other localities and in other states.

One effect exerted by newspapers came through advertising. Eastern readers now saw a flood of advertisements from men who wanted to sell their possessions to get the funds needed to pay for the journey to California, along with ads from societies wishing to form groups for travel west via Panama or Cape Horn. There were ads for boots, clothing, medicines, and gold testing equipment. Inventors took out ads to announce the necessity of purchasing their odd gold finding devices.

There were ads offering passage by ship to California; the 18,000-mile journey around Cape Horn took four to six months. There were also ads for the faster route via Panama, which took only several weeks. Travelers went by steamer from New York to the Isthmus of Panama, traversed thick jungle for three or four days, then connected with another line of steamers going north to California. This route was more expensive, more crowded on board ship because of the small number of steamers, and had the risk of disease often contracted in the jungle.

For many easterners, the idea of travel by ship seemed frightening, especially to those who had never seen the seacoast. They were more comfortable with the idea of overland travel. There was already a history of travel west from Missouri via the Oregon or Santa Fe trails. The overland journey to California could be made in three months if all went well.   Groups of easterners, usually about 50 each, organized themselves into business companies and raised capital for their ventures. Local newspapers assisted the process by printing announcements of the business opportunities, lists of members of the societies organized for travel, and the frequently detailed rules and regulations to be observed by members of an expedition.

Overland travelers to California needed information about the challenges they would encounter. They could draw upon fragmentary knowledge of the west gained through oral tradition and any literary accounts they might have read. There were published factual accounts by earlier travelers to the west, the most famous being John C. Fremont’s Report of the Exploring Expedition to the Rocky Mountains in the Year 1842 and to Oregon and North California in the Years 1843-’44. By the spring of 1849, they could purchase the emigrant guides that were beginning to be published in book and pamphlet form. They could also gain information from the many articles that were now being published in newspapers, with advice on questions like what food and clothing to buy, whether oxen or mules should be used, and where they might encounter dangers along the way such as hostile Indians or difficult river crossings. Many newspaper articles included tables of distances between key points along the route.

Gold Rush handbill

The United States Post Office Department was overwhelmed by the rapid growth in the population of California and the demands of overland travelers for delivery of their letters to friends and families in the east. The first special agent assigned to establish post offices in California arrived there in February 1849, with orders to set up offices in San Diego, San Pedro, Santa Barbara, Monterey and San Francisco. The steamships of the Pacific Mail had to cope with rapid increases in volume of letters. On October 31, 1849, more than 45,000 letters accumulated at the San Francisco post office, and the clerks had to construct barricades to protect themselves from the clamoring crowds. Long lines formed, with waiting times of up to six hours. Vendors turned profits by selling cakes, coffee and newspapers.

In November 1849 a post office opened in Sacramento City. This created the problem of how to deliver letters to miners in the Sierra foothills. Sensing a business opportunity, some miners left their claims to offer private delivery services to shuttle letters and newspapers from the Post Office to miners in the camps. In the gold fields, receipt of a new issue of a newspaper was a major event.

Those in the gold fields who read the descriptions of California provided in the eastern papers were troubled by the overall impression the publications gave, that everyone was becoming rich and a miner’s life was not harsh. In contrast, the emphasis in California papers when they covered the rush for gold was upon order. They crusaded for better law enforcement and justice, reported in detail on the growth of business, noted and praised the appearance of institutions of civilization like schools and theaters and libraries and hospitals, and hailed the arrival of increasing numbers of women who intended to marry and raise families.

San Francisco in 1849, still a small village.


San Francisco in 1851, growing rapidly

Then by the late 1850s, as many gold seekers returned to the east without riches, word spread that California also held out the possibility to future settlers of an alternative to the earlier west of trappers and soldiers and miners, a place where one could be successful in business and farming and enjoy an increasing number of urban amenities. Gold seekers continued to migrate to California, and highly capitalized corporations began to develop industrial processes to mine the gold that was hardest to reach. But the rush itself came to an end.

Panning for gold. The earliest stage of the gold rush. Hydraulic mining and deep shaft mining came later and required large cash investment.

(There are informative descriptions of the role of communication in the Gold Rush in the classic work by J.S. Holliday, The World Rushed In (1981), and David Dary, Red Blood and Black Ink ( 1998).