It wasn’t until December 1848 that President James Polk acknowledged that gold had been found in California. President Polk was a strong supporter of western expansion. He had worked to acquire Oregon south of the 49th parallel for the United States in 1846. The Mexican-American War which President Polk supported left the U.S. in possession of California. However, he was skeptical when he first heard about the gold find at Sutter’s Mill.
What finally convinced President Polk was a box of gold dust he received along with Colonel Mason’s report from California. After seeing the gold, he publicized the discovery in a speech to Congress on December 5, 1848. He stated:
It was known that mines of the precious metals existed to a considerable extent in California at the time of its acquisition. Recent discoveries render it probable that these mines are more extensive and valuable than was anticipated. The accounts of the abundance of gold in that territory are of such an extraordinary character as would scarcely command belief were they not corroborated by the authentic reports of officers in the public service who have visited the mineral district and derived the facts which they detail from personal observation. Reluctant to credit the reports in general circulation as to the quantity of gold, the officer commanding our forces in California visited the mineral district in July last for the purpose of obtaining accurate information on the subject. His report to the War Department of the result of his examination and the facts obtained on the spot is herewith laid before Congress. 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 so employed has since been augmented. The explorations already made warrant the belief that the supply is very large and that gold is found at various places in an extensive district of country.
. . . .
“The effects produced by the discovery of these rich mineral deposits and the success which has attended the labors of those who have resorted to them have produced a surprising change in the state of affairs in California. Labor commands a most exorbitant price, and all other pursuits but that of searching for the precious metals are abandoned. Nearly the whole of the male population of the country have gone to the gold districts. Ships arriving on the coast are deserted by their crews and their voyages suspended for want of sailors. . . .
“This abundance of gold and the all-engrossing pursuit of it have already caused in California an unprecedented rise in the price of all the necessaries of life.
“That we may the more speedily and fully avail ourselves of the undeveloped wealth of these mines, it is deemed of vast importance that a branch of the Mint of the United States be authorized to be established at your present session in California.
For the full text of his remarks, see here.
President Polk’s speech marked the official beginning of the California Gold Rush. The gold dust he had been given was put on display in Washington, D.C., and was valued at over $3,000—a lot of money for that era.
After the President put his imprimatur on the California gold, the Forty-Niners began to race west. But the Forty-Niners were late to the party.
As my posts this year have shown, the discovery of gold in the Sierra Nevada mountains was the worst kept secret in the U.S. in 1848. Throughout that year, men flocked to California as soon as they learned of the gold. When President Polk finally acknowledged the gold finds, most of the world had already heard of it. By the end of 1848, thousands were already seeking their fortunes.
Here were some other Gold Rush-related developments that occurred in December 1848:
- In Oregon, so many elected representatives to the Provisional Legislature had left for California that the legislature was not able to hold its scheduled session in December 1848.
- The smarter men were finding that more money could be made by supplying the gold diggers than from mining itself. In fact, by December 1848, Johann Sutter and John Marshall were selling their interest in the gold mines around Coloma.
- The first steamship left New York City for California that month. The U.S. Mail Steamship Company had been granted the U.S. Mail contract for California, and dispatched a paddle steamer to California. The S.S. Falcon reached New Orleans early in 1849 and found hundreds of men waiting for passage.
The point of my monthly posts this year about the discovery of gold in California in 1848 has been to show how slowly news traveled across the continent in the mid-nineteenth century. From the late January discovery of the gold, it took until early December—over ten months—for the U.S. President to receive sufficient proof to be convinced of its veracity.
But, as is always true, people in the mid-nineteenth century did not wait for official acceptance of major developments. There were “early adopters” of the gold phenomenon, just as there are early adopters of new discoveries today.
When has it taken you a while to be convinced something was true?