Tuesday, January 29, 2013

How About Them 'Niners

According to the New York Times, on this day in 1850 “Henry Clay introduced in the Senate a compromise bill on slavery that included the admission of California into the Union as a free state.” As would eventually become the hallmark of the state's politics, this did not happen quickly, easily, or without controversy.

This new 31st state was separated from the rest of the United States by large swathes of wilderness known as “territories,” one of which had the rather descriptive title of “Unorganized Territory.”* One of the chief reasons lawmakers were so interested in acquiring this stretch of land over 2500 miles away was the 12 million ounces of gold being pulled from its rivers and streams.

Welcome to California's first cycle of Boom-and-Bust: The Gold Rush

In 1848, gold was discovered at Sutter's Mill near Placerville, CA. The land's owner, John Sutter, planned to keep this information secret in order to preserve his dream of an agricultural empire known as “Little Switzerland.” Local merchant Samuel Brannan, who, as it happened, had just gotten into the mining supplies game, put the kibosh on that by running up and down the streets of San Francisco with a vial of nuggets shouting “Gold! Gold! Gold from the California River.”**

The California Gold Rush led to the largest mass migration in U.S. history, bringing over 300,000 people from all over the world. In 1849 alone, approximately 90,000 people arrived in California.

One in twelve 49ers perished, due to mining accidents, disease, or homicide. The native California tribes fared much worse, falling from an estimated population of 150,000 in 1845 to fewer than 30,000 by 1870. According to the state government, 4500 of those deaths were due to violence.

On average, half of gold seekers made a profit, occasionally spectacular, but mostly modest. Many, especially those who arrived in later years, were less fortunate. Merchants and other businessmen made far more money than the majority of miners. Companies like Levi's, Armour Meats, Studebaker, and Wells Fargo all grew out of California's Gold Rush. At the time, the wealthiest man in California was merchant, publisher, and local loudmouth Samuel Brannan, who is considered the first millionaire of the Gold Rush.

Gold was sent from California to points around the globe. A sidewheel steamer, the S.S. Central America, sank off the coast of the Carolinas while carrying 10 tons of California gold, valued at over $2 million. The gold was retrieved in 1987 using a remotely operated vehicle and now has an estimated value between $100 - $150 million.

California has long had a high cost of living. In 1849, an egg could cost the equivalent of $25 in today's terms, a pound of coffee $100, and a pair of boots $2500. According to my informal research, today a single egg costs roughly $0.28, a pound of Starbucks is $13.95, a pair of boots is $2500.***

Today's lesson: I've been hearing a lot about the 49ers this week.

Next: Maybe something about lip syncing... or wardrobe malfunctions... or beer commercials...


*Much of this area would later be known as “The Big 12.” Make of that what you will.

**Thus making prostitution California's fourth oldest profession, after farming, mining, and marketing.

***A girl can dream, right?

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