Catching the fever: Collecting California’s Gold Rush Antiques & Memorabilia

“GOLD MINE FOUND. In the newly made raceway of the saw-mill recently erected by Captain Sutter, on the American fork, gold has been found in considerable quantities. One person brought thirty dollars worth to New Helvetia, gathered there in a short time. California, no doubt, is rich.” The Californian, March 15, 1848
Bonhams3425c.jpgNew Helvetia (New Switzerland), a 50,000-acre property in the Sacramento River valley, was owned by John Augustus Sutter, a Swiss immigrant who arrived in California (then part of Mexico) in 1839.  James Marshall and Peter Wimmer had discovered the gold almost two months earlier at Sutter’s new sawmill on the American River. On February 2, just nine days after finding the gold, Mexico ceded California to the United States as part of a treaty ending the Mexican-American War. No one present at the signing had any knowledge or premonition of what was to come.
By all historical accounts, San Franciscans were skeptical of The Californian’s report, but the discovery of gold at Sutter’s Mill would soon change the social, cultural, political and economic history of California. As the weeks went by, news of gold in river banks, streams and under boulders, free for the taking, spread through California by word of mouth, traveling from town to town.
One man eager to spread the news was Samuel Brannan, who had opened a store at Sutter’s Fort in 1847. In early May, Brannan, fueled by rumors of gold and thoughts of personal riches, headed to the mines to see for himself. While there, he learned that “there was more gold than all the people in California could take out in fifty years.” An entrepreneur at heart, Brannan promptly made plans for a second store, and, armed with a quinine bottle filled with gold, traveled the 100 miles back to San Francisco. As he stepped off the ferry, Brannan is reported to have swung his hat, waved the ‘magic’ bottle, and shouted, “Gold! Gold! Gold! Gold from the American River!”
His strategy worked. By June of 1848, the town had lost more than two-thirds of its men to gold rush fever. As for Brannan, although he never actually dug for gold, his store made hither to unheard of profits: sales to miners are said to have averaged $5,000 a day. Certainly, during the 1850s/60s, he became known as the richest man in California. [A gambler, brawler, womanizer and heavy drinker, Brannan would die virtually penniless in 1889.]
The momentum was advanced when the military governor of California, Colonel Richard B. Mason, personally visited Sutter’s Mill. In August 1848, Mason sent a report, along with samples of gold, a map showing Sutter’s Fort, and the area where gold had been discovered, to the president of the United States, James Polk.
Cowans 3c.jpgMason’s report was enough to convince the president. In his December 5, 1848 annual message to Congress, Polk announced “the officer commanding our forces in California visited the mineral district for the purpose of obtaining accurate information on the subject…When he visited the country there were about 4,000 persons engaged in collecting gold. There is every reason to believe that the number of persons has already been augmented. The explorations already made warrant the belief that the supply is very large…”
The President’s message was worthy of headline news. In the December 9, 1848 issue of the New York Daily Tribune, editor Horace Greeley wrote, “We are on the brink of the Age of Gold.” Two days later he reported, “The only machinery necessary in the new gold mines of California is a stout pair of arms, a shovel and a tin pan.”

Articles such as the one in the Tribune appeared in papers across the country and around the world, enticing anyone with the desire to ‘get rich quick.’ The trick for ’49ers’ was finding passage to California.

“There were only two ways of getting there, land or sea,” said Wes Cowan, owner of Cowan’s Auctions, Inc. “Most of men who lived along the Eastern Seaboard sailed around the coast of South America. These people were known as Argonauts, after the hero Jason in Greek mythology, who sailed his ship Argo in search of the Golden Fleece. Others simply packed up their wagons and started heading west. Most started off in St. Joseph and Independence, Missouri, ready for the Overland trail. Many of these men kept diaries or wrote letters. Fortunately, some have survived.”
Bonhams3401c.jpgOne such example is the journal of Alexander Van Valen, a New Yorker who, with the view to striking it rich, traveled 199 days by ship, around Cape Horn, to California. His journal, dating from 1849-1850, along with 38 letters, sold for $28,750 at Cowan’s Auctions in November 2006. [All prices include buyer’s premium.] Sadly, the journal also serves as a chronicle of Van Valen’s ultimate failure. He returned to New York after less than two years, without having made his fortune in gold.

Van Valen was not alone. Many of the men lured to California were well-educated, came from upper middle class backgrounds, and were ill-prepared for what they would face. Certainly, some men did strike it rich, but this was the exception, rather than the rule.

Many other Americans undertook the arduous journey to the strike it rich. Map publishers, eager to cash in on the gold rush bandwagon, issued maps with the magic words “Gold Region.” Folding travel maps, comparable to today’s automobile folding maps, could be found at map shops, general stores, inns, railway and steamboat stations. Published for the use of horse riders, wagon drivers, railroad passengers, and steamboat voyageurs, they are often called “Traveler’s Companions” or “Stranger’s Guides.”

Travel maps relating to the gold rush vary greatly in price, ranging form less than $1,000, up to several thousand dollars. A First Edition, 1852 Horn’s Overland Guide (considered the best hand-book for the central route available at the time) recently sold at Bonhams and Butterfields for $6,573.

Armed with maps and dreams of getting rich, Americans from all walks of life and social circles began to make their way to California early in 1849. They were soon joined by Europeans, Chileans, Chinese, Australians and Hawaiians, with each group trying to infiltrate the residents already there. By 1849, there were some 100,000 miners hoping to strike it rich.     

The influx of treasure seekers soon cleared away the surface gold. Miners were forced to dig deeper into the stream beds and hillsides of California; by 1858 — only a decade after gold was first discovered — the California gold rush was essentially over. Only those with enough money to purchase large mining machinery could hope to excavate gold from the diggings. The rest returned home, broken both financially, and in spirit.

As for today’s collector, regardless of your particular passion, whether it’s gold, silver, ceramics, ephemera or furniture – we can all learn a valuable lesson from the history of the California Gold Rush. Quite simply, if it seems too good to be true, it probably is.