California Golden Treasure – An Overview of Early California History

January 12, 2019 1271 Views

This video was originally a multi media project produced by Joyce Van Schaack for her degree of Masters of Arts in Secondary Education from California State University Northridge in January 1977.

The original project included both photos and 8 mm movies shot by Jim Van Schaack, however college professors wanted to use the project to help teach the history of California, so it was made into a slideshow to make it as easy as possible for teachers to use in classrooms.

The slide show was narrated by actor Ted Bliss whose voice you will easily recognize. He is known for Alfred Hitchcock Presents (1955), Panic! (1957) and Dragnet (1951).


The name California was possibly chosen from a Spanish novel in 1510 about a mythical queen named Calafia. She reigned on an island — inhabited by only black women with weapons of gold, the only metal on the island.

At this time California was thought to be an island and the futile Spanish search for this mythical kingdom was to continue for many years.

In 1519, Spain sent Hernando Cortez and his army to Mexico searching for gold. After the conquest of Mexico, Cortez and other explorers looked for the mythical Kingdom of Cibola, or the seven great cities of gold, far in the north.

Discovery of Alta California is credited to Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo. who, for Spain, entered the San Diego Bay in 1542. This man was the first European to set foot on California soil, and California was supposed to belong to Spain thereafter.

The noted English explorer, Sir Francis Drake, claimed California for the English in 1579. Drake landed near San Francisco Bay. He was impressed by the beauty of the land and the friendly natives. Drake named California Nova Albion or New England and sailed for home.

For one hundred and fifty years California was forgotten. Then Spanish officials in Mexico became alarmed as foreign vessels of the English, French, Dutch and Russians threatened New Soain’s frontiers with activities in the Pacific.

The Spanish sent an overland party led by Don Gasoar de Portola. He laid out a presidio, or fort, in the north at Monterey. The presidio was to guard against foreign settlement. Three more presidios and three pueblos, or cities, were also built in California. Colonization had begun.

Father Junipero Serra was also sent to California to found a series of missions in 1769. During the next fifty four years the Franciscan Fathers established twenty-one missions along the El Camino Real. These adobe shrines were to become the cornerstone of a new world.

Each of the missions had two to three thousand Indians. The Indians were instructed in the Catholic religion. They were taught to farm the land and herd the cattle. They did the labor of the missions.

Also settling California were perhaps one hundred colonists’ families of Mexican descent who had been enticed by land offers in the pueblos by 1799. There were also less than thirty-five land grants ceded to private persons in the entire Spanish period.

For fifty years the pastoral civilization in California had remained isolated from trre Old and New Worlds except for occasional visits of foreign vessels.

In 1812, the Russians founded a colony sixteen miles north of San Francisco Bay called Fort Ross. The Russians built a sturdy stockade, planted orchards, grew grain, potatoes and other crops while hunting sea otters off the Californian coast. Only about one hundred persons lived at the Fort and traded with the people of California, although formal permission was never given the Russians to settle in the country.

In 1822, the Republic of Mexico had won her independence from her mother country, Spain. The Spanish colonists of California pledged their allegiance to the Republic of Mexico. The Mexican Constitution of 1824 set up a new federal form of government.

By 1833, the new government of Mexico turned the mission lands from the Church to private property. The Indians were to receive part of the new lands. Most traded away or lost their land. Many Indians worked on ranches and others returned to the mountains and valleys from where they had come, and by 1846 six hundred private land grants were sold by the Mexican governors or given to rancheros, the first people to be called Californians. Each ranchero had to become a Mexican citizen and a Catholic. Mexican citizens were preferred to foreign settlers. The vagueness of descriptions of the land grants would lead to land disputes. Land problems were ignored by the Republic of Mexico during her ownership of California from 1822 to 1848. The problems of the early forties in Mexico forced the Mexican government to abandon many of its California presidios. It was clear another nation would soon be in control.

Jedediah Strong Smith and his mountain men companions pushed across the western High Sierras in 1827. These white men were in search of beaver and other fur bearing animals.

They were followed by other Americans moving west, looking for better climates and farm lands. Many settled in California.

John A. Sutter landed in San Francisco in 1839. He visited Governor Juan Alvarado, Mexican Governor of California, to buy rich farm land in the Indian wilderness of the Sacramento Valley. Sutter was given fifty-five thousand acres where the American and Sacramento Rivers meet, in order to stop foreign settlers from moving in. Here, Sutter could ship products down the river to the fine harbor in San Francisco. The valley was on one of the main trails overland from the east to the west coast.

Sutter founded a fort, plowed and planted his fields, bought cattle and sheep. The Indians living nearby worked for Sutter as needed, in the fields and as soldiers, along with the white men.

Adobe bricks for walls and buildings were drying in the sun. Slowly walls began to rise, two feet thick and eighteen feet high. Sutter brought equipment from the Russian Fort Ross, as they withdrew when the sea otters were depleted in California waters. He purchased lumber, iron tools, a boat and cannons.

By 1841, the fort was completed with cannons in place. Sutter had a main building in the center of the fort which contained his living quarters. Along the inner walls were located a tannery, quarters for soldiers, a gunsmith shoo, a kitchen, equipment for farming, vaquero quarters and rooms for overland travelers.

The first emigrants to find their way to Sutter’s Fort were John C. Fremont, his guide Kit Carson, and his exploring party. Fremont would chart trails and publicize routes that attracted more overland travelers to the west. His role of explorer changed to soldier as Mexico lost her faltering grasp on California.

A revolution overthrew the Mexican government. Vying for power and control were the New Mexican government, the United States, the Californian and Mexican settlers. President Polk offered to buy the California Territory, but the new government refused.

A group of revolting Yankees, mostly hunters and trappers, settled in the Sacramento Valley, seized the northern most Mexican outpost at Sonoma on June 14, 1846, proclaiming it the Californian Republic. Fremont, leader for the United States, would not allow them to fly the stars and stripes. The Yankees raised this crudely made emblem on the flagpole in the plaza. The Yankees said, “The bear (strongest animal in California) stands his ground always, and as long as the stars shine, we stand for the cause.”

Many years later the famous Bear Flag was adopted the state emblem. The Americans at Sonoma had not heard that the United States was at war with Mexico. Sutter’s Fort, the northern capital of Monterey, Yerba Buena or San Francisco, San Jose and San Juan Bautista would all be in the American hands by August, as Northern Mexican Californians favorably transferred their allegiance to the United States, Not a Shot was fired.

The Southern Californians had closer ties with Mexico and remained loyal to their home government. Clashes occurred with the heaviest casualties in the Battle of San Pascual Valley (San Diego). Approximately fifty Americans were killed at a surprise attack. The Americans won the battle in California as the Cahuenga Capitulations were signed on January 13, 1847 at Rancho Cahuenga. It was signed by John C. Fremont and Andres Pica. It was a generous document.

The war continued in Mexico with battles fought at Buena Vista, Veracruz and Mexico City. The war ended in 1848. The United States thus acquired land from Mexico by war, treaty, and purchase, paying $25,000,000 to Mexico.
Just ten days before the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo was signed in 1848, a trusted employee of Captain Sutter, James Marshall, found gold in Coloma.

Sutter and Marshall had signed a contract for the building of a much needed saw mill on the American River at Coloma, where the lumber was in abundance and water power and transportation from the river were also available.

It was in the tailrace of the mill that Marshall found flecks of gold. He excitedly told his co-workers. Later, meeting with Sutter, the two men decided to keep the gold discovery secret until the mineral rights could be obtained from the Indians. However, the news quickly leaked out and Sutter wondered what would become of his “Kingdom in the Wilderness.”

Sam Brannan told the world of the discovery as he published the news in the San Francisco paper which he owned, the California Star.

By June, 1848, the news of the discovery of gold in California was heard around the world. This resulted in the greatest mass migrations in human history. Men from all over the world came to California seeking excitement, glory, adventure and wealth.

During the first two months ninety ships with forty thousand people came from New York, an eight thousand mile trip, either around the Cape Horn or by land across the Isthmus of Panama. It took many months either way. The harbor of San Francisco had five hundred ships anchored by July, 1849. All were empty as the crews went to find the “Pot of Gold” along with their passengers.

From Missouri it was two thousand long, hard miles to California. Fifty thousand immigrants came overland in 1849. Covered wagons crossed plains, mountains and deserts. When the prospectors arrived, some with families, they hardly settled in their new way of life before staking their claims at the mill site in Coloma.

The prospectors used crude sluice boxes and pans in their search for gold. Nearly ten million dollars was taken from the American River in 1849.

Within a year, Coloma was built up. Sutter had lost his fort as no one would work while gold could be picked from the streams. Sutter’s eldest son, John A. Sutter, Jr., arrived from Switzerland in 1848. The elder Sutter transferred his holdings to his son, who had the downtown Sacramento area surveyed, subdivided into lots and sold.

Sacramento was soon developed into a busy city as the miner’s supply center and again the river played an important part of California history. Sacramento became a capital of California in 1854. Currently, the embarcadero or waterfront is being reconstructed.

A party of men from a frontier post in the Sacramento River area started down the foothills for Sutter’s Mill on May 16, 1848. The first night out they canoed by a stream known as Auburn Ravine. Claude Chana, organizer of the party, tried the gravel for gold and his first pan found three sizeable nuggets. This was enough for the four Frenchmen and twenty-five Indians. They pitched their tents and started mining operations.

The Auburn strike was one of the richest in the world. One miner took sixteen thousand dollars from five carloads of dirt. Auburn’s relic of the past includes the Old Chinese House, dating back to 1855. It was in this area that the worst fire broke out and most of Auburn was destroyed in one hour and twenty-five minutes. Other sites include the Fire House, Wells Fargo and Hollenbeck Bank which were rebuilt. Here stands the first permanent post office in California in use since 1851.

By the summer of 1849, gold was discovered in the area of “Deer Creek Dry Diggins.” now known as Nevada City. Deer Creek was one of the richest mining regions in the state. Over three hundred and seventy-eight million dollars’ worth of gold was recovered from this area.

Gold was not Nevada City’s only claim to fame. James Ott, in 1859, in his Assay Office on Main Street (small building on the right), tested the ore samples that determined the fabulous Comstock Silver Lode and started the rush to Virginia City, Nevada.

George Hearst sold interests in the LeCompton Mines here and joined the stampede to Washoe Territory where he made his fortune.

Many fires plagued Nevada City, also. For that reason, fire stations became prominent (stations shown on the left).

This is a typical house of those built in the early eighteen fifties. This home, with its Victorian architecture and interior, shows the bedroom and the kitchen.

Columbia, Gem of the Southern Mines, had eighty-seven million dollars of gold taken from its mines. It was first called “Hildreth’s Diggins” for two prospectors who found gold in 1850. In 1852, there were over one hundred fifty places of business, mostly built of wood, including thirty saloons. Then the plague of the mining town, fires that destroyed everything. After that, buildings were built of locally produced red brick, as in this general store. Again and again fire struck. The iron doors and window shutters would become characteristic of old mining towns, designed to prevent spread of fires.

The Wells Fargo & Company Express office was built after a fire in 1857. The company was the center for shipping freight, passengers and supplies. The huge gold scales on exhibit weighed out more than fifty-five million dollars in miners’ gold dust and nuggets in their time.

Before railroads the horse-drawn stage coaches were loaded with the miners’ gold in iron bound strong boxes, then carried to San Francisco with armed guards. Holdups were not uncommon.

The doctor’s office and drug stores were all busy during the boom times.

“Hangtown” now known as Placerville, was, in 1849, among the largest mining camps. First called “Old Dry Diggins”, Placerville was situated along the immigrant trail that led from Carson Pass to Sacramento. “Floggins and hangins” were a common form of justice of the times. Several hangings were conducted at this site near the center of town, called Elstner Hay Yard, from a large oak tree growing where this building now stands. The town became known as “Hangtown”.

Telegraph lines tied Placerville with San Francisco in 1853. In 1860, came the famous Pony Express and its famous~ mail couriers. The Express riders braved hostile weather, terrain and Indians riding in relays from St. Joseph, Missouri, to Sacramento. The Pony Express lasted only one and a half years, but it captured the imagination of the country. Pony riders became enduring heroes of the Old West.

Local diggins played out in Placerville, but in 1859, with the Comstock Silver strike, life boomed again. This time the city became a major freight and stage stood for the thousands that migrated to and from Lake Tahoe and Virginia City, Nevada. Also, the Overland Stage, which climbed to 6225 feet to Lake Tahoe, dropped down to Virginia City.

When the Comstock Silver Lode was discovered in 1859, Virginia City, Nevada, was to become the most incredible boom town in the far west. This town was to become a major supplier of money needed for the construction of San Francisco and is closely tied to the growth of California. Virginia City boasted of its fine schools and churches. Its elaborate homes included that of silver tycoon, John MacKay. Mark Twain worked as a reporter for the newspaper, The Territorial Enterprise.

The town grew to a population approaching twenty five thousand, with store buildings lining the Main Street. Along a side street is the Miner’s Union Hall, the first in Nevada. A view of Virginia City from its vast cemetery tells of Virginia City’s fabulous past.

With the meeting of construction crews of the Union Pacific and Central Pacific Railways at Promontory Point in Utah, California’s isolation ended forever. The driving of the golden spike marked the beginning of modern times.

Another exciting era in California’s history was when she became the thirty-first state when the thirty-first Congress voted her in. Her state capital was completed in 1874.

California’s state seal and “coat of arms” were adopted in 1849, comprising of the Goddess of Wisdom, Minerva, the grizzly bear, the gold miner and ships of exploration and commerce.

The state flag was adopted in 1911. It was first raised at Sonoma on June 14, 1846, by a group of Americans in revolt against Mexican authority.

California’s state flower was adopted in 1903. The golden poppy once grew in great profusion throughout California and the flaming glow it lent to the hills could be seen from far out at sea. Some Indians believed that the gold the white men dug from the earth was really layer upon layer of golden poppy petals driven deep into the soil by the rains.


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