Truly, the first ones in California were the winners.
In our modern life of being able to communicate instantly, it is hard to imagine that historically, it could take as long as six months to get a letter. Government communications could be a bit faster, maybe a month, but if you had BIG news, the kind that might change the course of a war or the future of a nation, I can’t imagine being the courier and having to keep my mouth shut.
When it comes to how the world learned about the gold nugget found on January 24, 1848 at
Sutter’s Mill in Coloma, California, it helps me to consider a bullseye dart board. From Sutter’s Mill, the folks in the little community that was Yerba Buena (aka San Francisco) were the first to react – the center of the dartboard. They deserted whatever they were doing and headed to the area around what would become Sacramento and the American River including all of its tributaries. Those few who were in the countryside would have learned by word-of-mouth within days of the discovery.
Then consider the next rings of the target – ships leaving California for points beyond and freight wagons moving east and south inland. The ships would have been going to the Sandwich Islands (Hawaii), perhaps northbound to the coastal ports of Astoria and Puget Sound. But many were headed south toward other coastal communities in California like San Diego and northern Mexico. When word spread in Mexico, it didn’t take long for those souls to make their way northward overland, mining gold a familiar activity. All along the South American coast, especially Chile, the word of gold in California spawned a flow of emigrants eager to change their lives. All in all, the vast majority of emigrants from Central and South America were Mexican and Chilean men.
The freighters, carriage drivers and those on donkey-back would have been moving along the dirt roads of the El Camino Real as well as connecting to eastbound transports along the Santa Fe Trail to St. Louis. From there the word spread up and down the Mississippi River giving those souls in the “western territories” of Arkansas, Mississippi, Texas and Missouri an earlier heads-up than those on the East Coast. Emigration on the Oregon Trail was filling the territory north of Coloma with ambitious and adventurous souls who would have heard the news from any northbound freighter or news carrier.
One would ask, what about the news being spread by periodical, like a newspaper? There was one newspaper being printed at the time of the discovery of gold, The Californian, in Yerba Buena. Because word-of-mouth notice was far faster than the printed word, on May 24,1848, The Californian shut down without playing a role in spreading the news because all of its employees left for the gold fields.
All the Pacific Rim countries of Australia, China, New Zealand, as well as the Russian territories known as Russian America – modern day Alaska, all had the next ring of the target. While the information had to travel farther, and the distance to California was greater, many men still beat the American East Coast and Europe. Considering that there had already been a gold rush in North Carolina, many Americans were dubious of the claim. It was only after President Polk made his confirming announcement on December 5th of 1848, that the largely male population of the United States started their wholesale march to California. By that time, a full 315 days after the discovery at Sutter’s Mill, the deluge of fortune hunters were about to change American history.