CA Gold 1849: All that glitters is not gold

By Roy Cook

The worth of all the gold mined from California between 1849 and 1862, about $10 billion in 2002 dollars, pales in comparison to the current worth of California's annual agricultural output, in 1992 a heady 19.2 billion dollars. All this worth is a direct result and benefit of the Aboriginal land of Tribal California. If any ethic group has provided their fair share to the Federal government it is the Tribal American.

In America, the Indians are made to pay. Indian property - stolen ''fair and square,'' apparently - has been the fuel of American economy for more than 200 years.

Today more than ever, that bite is on everywhere. Political cowardice and opportunism combined with the power of the rich and powerful, are bankrupting the public treasure of America. As Washington lets the highest-income corporations and individual Americans off the taxation hook, states and counties of the Union are feeling the pinch directly. The many services American citizens have come to expect - education, public safety, emergency and others - are deeply in jeopardy, as budgets are sliced uniformly throughout the country. Meanwhile, the accumulation of real wealth at the top classes of society is at an all time high; the top 1 percent of rich Americans now holds as much wealth as the bottom 90 percent.

The solution in the minds of politicians and other special interest groups in the various states that contain Native nations is to go after whatever assets and revenues Indian tribal governments and member associations presently hold, and work to impose fees, taxes and any and all manner of tentacles upon such sovereign properties. The intent of and hostility from many state and local governments are palpable. The instinct as the conflicts deepen and widen is to go for the throat. State governors throughout Indian country are intent on making tribal America fill the gap left behind for the big tax cut cave-in to special interests at the federal level. Everywhere the bite of states - illegal and unwarranted - upon the economic treasure of Indian country grows more ferocious.

No doubt compromise is always the doorway to a win-win deal: but the states must respect the fundamental Indian tribal sovereignty and jurisdictional frameworks. The assertion that states have the right to tax the revenues of Indian governments must indeed be challenged at every turn.

According to the US Constitution Bill of Rights who legally ‘owned’ CA Tribal land in 1848? Not the Spanish. Not the Mexicans. Not the tiny amount of European Anglos. Title remains in the hands of the Tribal Americans. Legal reason/rationale: Aboriginal land title is not relinquished at this time. When John Marshall made his momentous discovery in 1848, the Guadalupe-Hidalgo Treaty ending the war with Mexico was still nine days away, and California did not yet have a stable government. The former system of law under the Mexican government was ineffectual and the effective reach of the American military governor did not extend into the mountains where the mines were located. In order to fill the legal vacuum, the miners established their own law and organized their own rough judicial system. It was effective enough to deal imperfectly with the situation, but reflected the ethnic prejudices of the dominant Anglo-American community. Indians, Latinos, and Chinese were dealt with more harshly than those with a European heritage. California became a state in 1850 and slowly civilian authority was extended over the mining camps, but even then local initiative (read vigilante thugs) was an important element in the mines and even in the villages, towns and cities.

Our US Constitution does not allow us to legally ‘take’ land without legal process and due compensation. In 1849 Washington sent two special emissaries to California to report on the nature of Mexico's recognition of Indian land titles in California. Neither spoke to a single Indian and eventually produced an ambiguous and inaccurate report to the great disadvantage of the Indians.

Upon this misinformation and in an attempt to stem the unprecedented chaos and mass murder of the California Indian by the gold miners Congress authorized three federal officials to make treaties with the California Indians. Their purpose was to extinguish Indian land titles and provide the Indians with territories that would be protected from encroachment by non-Indians. They were given just $25,000 to accomplish this monumental task. Soon after their arrival in San Francisco in January of 1851, the enormous size of territory prompted the commissioners to split up and negotiate treaties on their own. The reports and correspondence of the treaty commissioners clearly demonstrate that the suspicious and reluctant Indians who could be persuaded to attend the treaty meetings were only vaguely aware of its purpose. This can be attributed to the frequent problems of translators who often had to translate several Indian dialects into Spanish and again into English. Few if any of the Indians could understand English. The random manner in which the commissioners organized the meetings resulted in the majority of tribes not participating. Despite these crippling drawbacks, the treaty process proceeded until January 5th of 1852.

In all, eighteen treaties were negotiated. The treaties agreed to set aside certain tracts of land for the signatory tribes. They additionally promised the assistance of farmers, school teachers, blacksmiths, stock animals, seeds and agricultural equipment, cloth and much more. In return the signatory tribes promised to forever quitclaim to the United States their lands. Just what specific lands being surrendered were not defined? Anthropologists in the 20th century could only identify 67 tribes, 45 village names and 14 alternative spellings of tribal names. Eighteen groups were unidentifiable. Despite the obvious fact that not all California Indian tribes had been consulted or contacted them too would be bound by the negotiations. Nevertheless, the federal government promised to preserve 7,466,000 acres of land to the dispossessed Indians,

An immediate outcry from an enraged public followed the completion of the three commissioner tasks. It was revealed that the commissioners had overspent their budget by a half a million dollars in the incredibly inflated economy of gold rush California. Local newspapers orchestrated an abusive campaign and local politicians echoed the fears of their compassionate electorate that the treaty reserves might contain something valuable, like gold. Most Americans simply wanted the Indians removed to some other territory or state. California's newly elected state senators provided the final blow. On July 8, 1852 the Senate in executive session refused to ratify the treaties. They were filed with an injunction of secrecy that was finally removed in 1905.

Truthfully nothing was paid to the Tribes for use, exploitation and land sales for 100 years! With no war, no compensation the US constitution does not allow for this type of illegal land acquisition action, except against Native Americans.

From the Anglo discovery of Gold, early in 1848, $2,000,000,000 in gold was taken from the Aboriginal land title CA territory before mining became dormant.

Also in May of 1848 a Tribal group of Mi-Wuk working for Charles Weber discovered gold along the Stanislaus River. Then in July of 1848, Benjamin Wood, James Savage and company discovered gold in Wood's Creek near Jamestown. Within two years the population of Tuolumne County had grown to nearly 20,000 people; miners searching for gold and merchants looking for a way to profit from those seeking gold.

The Mi-Wuk Indians were first to call the lush, rolling oak covered foothills near the Stanislaus River their home. Miwuk translated means the “The People”. Their staple diets were acorn meal, seeds, venison, and gray squirrel. Homes of the Yosemite Indian tribe were made of cedar bark and called “Umacha”.

Also before 1849, either late in 1841 or early in 1842, Francisco Lopez, majordomo of the San Fernando Rancho, and a companion was in search of some stray cattle in the mountains near the ranch. Becoming tired they dismounted to rest in San Feliciano Canyon. Here Lopez whipped out his knife to dig some wild onions to eat, and in the earth clinging to them he found particles of what appeared to him to be gold. Using his knife he continued to mine in the vicinity and found additional alluvial gold deposits. Lopez wasn't just some lucky rancher. He'd been schooled in mining at the University of Mexico and had good reason to be scouring the hills above the Mission San Fernando. Cattle ranching merely paid the bills while he was on the prowl.

Unverified reports of gold activity in the region date to the 1790s with the mystery of the Lost Padres mine. No doubt Lopez had heard about the party that set out from San Fernando in 1820 under the leadership of Santiago Feliciano, the onetime superintendent of government mines in Mexico. Feliciano's party supposedly came upon a band of miners in the nearby Castaic region, not far from today's Magic Mountain amusement park, who had panned several reales' worth of gold. The historical literature references several similar discoveries in the vicinity after 1833.

"Wherefore we pray your Excellency to be pleased to give us the respective permission to undertake therewith our labors jointly with those who may wish to proceed to said work. Excuse the use of common paper in default of that of the corresponding stamp. Santa Barbara, April 4, 1842. (Signed) Francisco Lopez; Manuél Cota; at the request of Domingo Bermudez who does not know how to sign, Francisco Lopez."

Lopez's original petition resides in the National Archives in Washington, D.C. It is the document that makes Lopez's discovery the first "documented" discovery of gold in California.

Following this gold find followed the first rush in California history. Californians left the monotony of daily life and went to this canyon located 35 miles northeast of the Pueblo of Los Angeles. Although they used the crudest of methods and were without nearby water to pan their gold, some of the miners succeeded in making their operations profitable.

The first gold–seekers at the Los Angeles placer were the local Native American residents, but within the year men of greater mining experience were imported from the State of Sonora, Mexico. These Native American, Mexican and Spanish miners introduced into California the method that became known as dry washing to extract the gold. As a method of mining it was simple, crude and inefficient, but it had the advantage of being inexpensive. After the pay dirt was dug, it was sun dried on a large canvas and then pulverized into dust. The next operation was to throw the dirt by the panful into the air in order to allow the wind to blow away the lighter elements and to let the gold dust fall back into the pan. Thus the old agricultural procedure of winnowing was the first method used extensively in California mining; for not only was it used in the Los Angeles area, but also it was introduced by many of these same Sonora miners into the mines of the Sierra Nevada after 1848.

One wonders why this gold find was not more generally known, especially since the estimates of the productiveness of the placers were considerable. William Heath Davis, an early pioneer, estimated that $80,000 to $100,000 in gold was taken from the mines in the first two years. Don Abel Stearns, a resident of Los Angeles, guessed that $6,000 to $8,000 a year was extracted prior to 1847. Hubert Howe Bancroft, the historian of California, stated that by December 1843, 2000 ounces had been taken, valued at $38,000. These, however, are merely estimates of production.

As a matter of written record, the first California gold dust sent to a United States Mint belonged to the aforementioned Don Abel Stearns. On July 8, 1843, his package of 1,834 ounces of placer gold was deposited in the Philadelphia mint by Alfred Robinson. The gold had been transported around the Horn of South America and at the mint brought somewhat over $19 an ounce. It cannot be said that the United States Government was not officially informed of the existence of gold in California, for Thomas O. Larkin as vice consul at Monterey notified Secretary of State James Buchanan of the fact in an official communication of March 1846.

Despite historical and today mainline misdirection in most general education curriculum there are still some overlooked nuggets of historical facts to be gleaned. From the Anglo re-discovery of Gold, early in 1848, $2,000,000,000 in gold was taken from the Aboriginal land title CA territory before mining became dormant.

At the time, the discovery of Gold in California, coupled with gold finds in Australia, significantly increased levels of circulating specie worldwide. But gold in 1849 was winding down a 5000 year long career as a medium of economic exchange. In 1862, the U.S. government issued its first un-backed currency—"greenbacks." The gold-standard ruled supreme briefly in the 19th century, protecting US currency against inflation; much to the chagrin of agrarian activists who clamored for free silver. Yet the 20th century dealt gold heady blows, with Franklin Roosevelt taking the U.S. briefly off the gold standard, and banning domestic transactions with gold. In 1971, President Richard Nixon took the U.S. permanently off the gold standard, allowing the dollar to float un-backed on international currency markets.

The upheaval was enormous. Native American cultures that had lasted for thousands of years in California were lost and destroyed. But the Mormon economy in Utah flourished with the large gold riches funneled into their banks. The Mormons reportedly got wind of it through Henry Bigler's friends working on a new sawmill near Sutter's Fort. They later came to Coloma and prospected at a spot that became the rich diggings of Mormon Island. More than $80,000 eventually went through Brigham Young's gold accounts and into the Mormon mint in 1848-1851. Sutter and Marshall had no legal claim to the Coloma area, or to the land on which the mill was located. Sutter negotiated an agreement with the Indians in exchange for a promise of clothing and other items. However, the U. S. military governor in Monterey, Colonel Richard B. Mason, refused to accept it. Mason maintained that the Indians had no title to the land. According to him, it belonged to the United States by right of conquer. This was and is a lie. Colonel Richard B. Mason, as the military governor of California, came to Coloma, after first celebrating the Fourth of July with John Sutter at Sutter's Fort. Together, he and his adjutant, Lt. William Tecumseh Sherman of later Civil War fame, gathered information and estimated that about 4000 people were working the mines, about half of whom were Indians, and that some $30,000 to $50,000 worth of gold was being mined every day. Mason toured the area with James Marshall and actually saw quantities of gold, fourteen pounds of which had been taken from the North Fork the previous week by Indians working for John Sinclair, one of Sutter's neighbors.

By the fall of '49 gold fever had spread worldwide. Companies were being formed in Great Britain, Germany, and France. Miners were recruited from China. The Gold Rush assuaged some of the grievances of the economic world problems: the potato famine in Ireland; revolution in France, Germany, and Italy; Taiping Rebellion and opium wars in China. The California Gold Rush by the end of 1850 had affected markets worldwide. In many ways, gold, and the greed it inspired was a grossly destructive force. It ravaged the environment, leaving areas that to this day are scared by piles of mining debris. It decimated the native population from an estimated population of over 300,000 peaceful people to about 20,000 survivors.

The old Mexican province suddenly became a new state. The gold that enriched California may have even precipitated the Civil War. Why? It may have heightened the North South regional tensions, as California's sudden demand for statehood as a free state in 1850 caught Congress ill-prepared to deal with the troubling problem of slavery in the territories wrought from Mexico. But that’s another story. Mehan.