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SPREADING THE NEWS:
CALIFORNIA’S GOLD MESSENGERS OF 1848
Gold may be where you find it, but first you have to know about it. James Marshall
found gold at the Coloma sawmill on January 24, 1848, but San Francisco’s professional football
team is called the Forty-Niners. It took time to alert the people on the other side of the continent
about the discovery of gold, and initial reports were often disbelieved and even ridiculed. In the
fall of 1848 physical evidence of California’s gold was brought East, and President James K.
Polk’s validation and endorsement of the discovery helped create the epidemic of gold fever that
infected thousands of presumably rational people.
The first prospectors to profit from the gold discovery came from within the newly
acquired province. As word spread along the Pacific Rim, goldseekers arrived from northwestern
Mexico (especially Sonora), Peru, and Chile, as well as the Hawaiian Islands. The summer of
1848 marked an alleged “golden age” of sorts, with stories that quickly became exaggerations
(with a nugget of truth) about miners finding gold merely by turning over a shovel-full of earth.
Tales of huge nuggets abounded, of gold so plentiful that prospectors left it openly in their tents
because it was easier to dig for gold than to steal it.
Two men brought the news of the gold discovery in separate treks across the continent.
Edward Fitzgerald Beale seems to appear in history whenever an opportunity arose for adventure
or controversy. A midshipman in the U.S. Navy, Beale was detached for land service in
California during the U.S.-Mexico War. He participated in General Stephen W. Kearny’s
disastrous defeat at the Battle of San Pasqual in December 1846. Beale, along with Kit Carson
and an Indian named Andre, managed to get past Andres Pico’s Californio lancers and reach
Commodore Robert F. Stockton for reinforcements and aid. When fighting ended in California
with the Treaty of Cahuenga, Stockton sent Beale and Carson to Washington, D.C., with
dispatches. At the war’s end in February 1848 Beale, now an acting lieutenant, was back in
The other man was Lieutenant Lucien Loeser, a newly promoted Army artillery officer
who was preparing to go back east on leave. Loeser and Beale served different commanders in
California, Loeser under Colonel Richard B. Mason, the conquered province’s military governor,
and Beale under Commodore Thomas ap Catesby Jones of the Navy’s Pacific Squadron. Jones’s
abortive takeover of California in 1842 was long forgiven if not forgotten.
Neither Beale nor Loeser was the first person to head east with the news of the gold
discovery. As early as July 1848 a letter from Charles White, the alcalde of San Jose, written on
March 18, appeared in the St. Joseph Gazette. Mormons returning to the Salt Lake area told
westward-bound emigrants about it, and from Salt Lake the word went east. Kit Carson, on yet
another journey across the continent, arrived in Washington, D.C., on August 2, with letters from
Thomas O. Larkin, the Monterey merchant who had served as President Polk’s secret agent in
California before the war. The letters were reprinted in eastern newspapers, most prominently in
the New York Herald, but did not yet create any public excitement about gold. At best, gold was
one of several minerals mentioned. Eastern newspaper editors treated such correspondence with
suspicion and usually attached derogatory comments to them and the exaggerations they were
making about California. Still, the stories made an impression. As Hubert Howe Bancroft later
observed, “Such cumulative accounts, reechoed throughout the country, could not fail in their
In July 1848 Commodore Jones asked for a volunteer to carry military dispatches and
letters to Secretary of State James Buchanan and Secretary of the Navy John Mason. Jones was
sending his own dispatches as well as letters from Larkin and Walter Colton, alcalde at Monterey.
Colton had learned of the gold discovery on May 29. “Our town was startled out of its quiet
dreams to-day, by the announcement that gold had been discovered on the American Fork,” he
recorded in his diary, noting that some people thought omens were ushering in the event. “The
sybils were less skeptical; they said the moon had, for several nights, appeared not more than a
cable’s length from the earth; that a white raven had been seen playing with an infant; and that an
owl had rung the church bells.”
At first Larkin himself had not believed the stories coming out of the Sierra foothills, but
when he saw the new town of San Francisco rapidly becoming abandoned, and huge prices
demanded and obtained for shovels and foodstuffs, he knew something significant was in the
making. He visited the gold fields and witnessed at first hand prospectors digging out more than
$50 (in 1848 price values), a princely sum when compared to the dollar or two a day a laborer
earned back east. His letter to Secretary of State Buchanan of July 20 reported that some men
were making up to $600 a week. “There is an instance of 700$ being taken in four hours,” he told
Two or three vessels in San Francisco have not a seaman on board. By
September I expect we shall with a few exceptions have in this town only the
female population and the officers of Government. A few farmers yet remain
hurrying in their harvest. The full effect of this state of affairs is not yet felt.
How it will end I know not. The future consequence or prospect is not pleasant
Ned Beale volunteered to carry the dispatches and letters for Jones. He was also
entrusted with “a small amount of gold,” as noted by historian Donald Dale Jackson, the amount
not specified. Gerald Thompson called it “a small quantity of gold.” This would be Beale’s
second eastward crossing of the continent, but he decided to do it in a rather roundabout way.
Beale determined to travel across Mexico and by ship from Vera Cruz to Mobile, Alabama, as the
fastest way to get to Washington, D.C. Having traveled east across the North American continent
the previous year, he knew the perils and hardships, but he soon found his chosen route as
dangerous as the earlier one. He went down on the Ohio to La Paz, Baja California, and sailed
across the Gulf of California on July 29, to Mazatlan. From there he chartered a ship that brought
him to the town of San Blas in the state of Nayarit. There he hired a guide and bought a horse
and a Mexican sombrero, as well as clothing that would make him fit in more with the
population. He took four revolvers and a bowie knife along for protection.
Edward F. Beale
Thomas O. Larkin
Beale and his guide found their path infested with outlaws. He held off three bandits at
gun point in the Sierra Madre Occidental mountains; they had claimed to be local policemen, but
Beale took no chances. He escaped another pursuing outlaw gang, and noted the corpses of
almost a dozen people who had not been so fortunate. Their breakneck pace brought Beale and
his guide to Mexico City in only eight days. Beale reported to Nathan Clifford, the U.S. Minister
to Mexico, who gave him more messages for Buchanan. After a brief rest the two men crossed
the central plateau region and went up into the Sierra Madre Oriental, where they again had to
outrun bandits. On this leg of the journey they covered 275 miles in two days of hard travel, but
they made it to Vera Cruz. Beale then took passage on a U.S. Navy warship, the Germantown, to
From Mobile Beale traveled by stagecoach and steamboat, reaching Washington, D.C.,
on September 16. Four days earlier, the New Orleans Picayune had printed a story about his trip.
The newspaper described his stopover in Mexico City, quoting him as claiming San Francisco
and Monterey were virtually deserted and that miners were making as much as $70 a day with
little effort. It was customary for newspapers in those pre-wire service days to reprint interesting
stories from other papers, and the Picayune account found its way into the St. Louis Union.
Beale may have somehow leaked his story, but he made no effort to keep the gold he carried a
secret from his fellow stagecoach passengers once he was in the United States.
On arriving in Washington on September 14—just 47 days from La Paz–Beale delivered
the dispatches to Buchanan and Mason, but he had other messages from Larkin and Colton as
well. Soon the Philadelphia North American and the New York Journal of Commerce were
printing Colton’s lengthy letters, and the New York Herald did the same for Larkin. Many of the
letters to Buchanan also were published. Both men swore they were not exaggerating, but reports
of $100 a day from mining gold, the success of prospectors who had negligible mining skills, and
the abundance of gold challenged the credulity of eastern editors. Beale met with Polk on
September 18, but Polk had his doubts about the naval officer whom he believed supported
Thomas Hart Benton’s rival Democratic faction. Doubts about the claims did not stop the
reprinting of the Larkin and Colton letters in newspapers from Boston to New Orleans. William
Carey Jones, John C. Fremont’s brother-in-law, wrote an article about Beale’s adventures across
Mexico that made Beale a national celebrity, and this story, too, was widely reprinted. Beale did
not stay long in the East. He received orders early in October to return to California, and back
across the continent he went.
In July Colonel/Governor Mason made a tour of the gold fields, stopping by Sutter’s Fort
to enjoy John Sutter’s generous hospitality. Encountering prospectors panning for gold, Mason
warned them they were trespassing on the newly acquired U.S. public lands, but he prudently said
he would not interfere with them. Mason met James Marshall and was shown the spot where
Marshall had first found gold. The governor kept his eyes open and took copious notes, bought
some gold specimens, and observed the growing number of miners, some of whom were using
Indians to do the hard work of digging channels and moving mud. A young lieutenant, William
Tecumseh Sherman, who would gain fame during the Civil War, accompanied Mason. In his
memoirs, published in 1875, Sherman recalled the tour “as perfectly to-day as though it were
yesterday.” On the banks of the American River “men were digging, and filling buckets with the
finer earth and gravel, which was carried to a machine made like a baby’s cradle, open at the foot,
and at the head a plate of sheet-iron or zinc, punctured full of holes. On this metallic plate was
emptied the earth, and water was then poured on it from buckets, while one man shook the cradle
with violent rocking by a handle. On the bottom were nailed cleats of wood. With this rude
machine four men could earn from forty to one hundred dollars a day, averaging sixteen dollars,
or a gold ounce, per man per day.”
Mason could find no legal precedent dealing with miners squatting on land that was now
the property of the Federal government. He had 660 soldiers to patrol all of California and feared
that they might themselves desert for the gold fields. “It was a matter of serious reflection with
me how I could secure to the government certain rents or fees for the privilege of procuring this
gold,” he wrote in his report, “but upon considering the large extent of the country, the character
of the people engaged, and the small scattered force at my command, I am resolved not to
interfere, but permit all to work freely.” Finishing his report on August 17, he chose Lieutenant
Lucien Loeser to take the report and 230 ounces of gold (more than fourteen pounds), sealed in a
chest designed as a Chinese tea caddy, to Washington, D.C.
Loeser’s route was even more roundabout than Beale’s race across Mexico. Along with a
civilian companion, David Carter, Loeser sailed from Monterey on August 30 on the schooner
Lambayecana, heading for Payta, Peru. There the two men took a British steamer to Panama,
crossed the Isthmus, and took a ship to Jamaica. From there they took yet another ship and
arrived in New Orleans on November 23. In the meantime, Mason had decided to send a
duplicate copy of his report (minus gold specimens) with another messenger. This unnamed
traveler, presumably an Army officer, possibly followed Beale’s route across Mexico, arriving in
Washington, D.C., on November 22, the same day Loeser reached New Orleans.
While at Payta, either Loeser, Carter, or someone from the Lambayecana discarded the
August 14 issue of the Monterey Californian. An article in the paper told the story of Marshall’s
discovery of gold at Coloma. Soon newspapers in Payta, Lima, and Callao were printing Spanish
translations of the article. By November 30 the first shipload of Peruvian goldseekers was
embarking for California. Chile had heard the news on August 18; the Polynesian, a newspaper
published in Hawaii, spread the word on June 24. Mexicans began hearing about it in June; by
October an overland caravan left from Hermosillo. Smaller groups had already gone north from
Mexico. New Zealanders found out about the gold discovery in November, Australians a month
As a civilian, David Carter, Loeser’s traveling companion, was under no restrictions in
describing California, but his interview with a Picayune reporter little resembled the increasingly
wild descriptions of the easy riches awaiting potential goldseekers. Carter said it was a lot of
hard work, the amount of gold found was exaggerated, and many miners had died. However, the
Picayune also appended an account from the Californian that claimed digging for gold did not
involve hard work and plenty of it awaited the ambitious prospector.
While Loeser and Carter continued on from New Orleans to Washington, Mason’s
duplicate copy went to President Polk. The president was in poor health; his own party had
rejected him for renomination, choosing instead Senator Lewis Cass. A few weeks earlier Cass
had lost the presidential election to Whig war hero Zachary Taylor. Polk was a lame duck,
marking time until his term of office ended in March. He received the duplicate copy of Mason’s
report on November 22. The colonel’s description of the activity in the gold fields impressed
Polk. Here was a report that was enthusiastic but tempered with a careful evaluation of the
situation in California. Moreover, the very existence of the gold seemed to ratify Polk’s decision
to go to war with Mexico in the first place. “Under the circumstances,” notes historian John W.
Caughey, “Polk needed no such prompting to hail it as a patent justification of the war.”
Polk had been preparing his final Annual Message to Congress, and he lost no time in
including a statement regarding the discovery of gold in California. On December 5 the Annual
Message was presented to Congress. No slouch at clever political manipulation, Polk turned
history upside down and, using the passive voice, claimed he had known all along what no one
else knew about California. “It was known that mines of the precious metals existed to a
considerable extent in California at the time of its acquisition,” he said. “Recent discoveries
render it probable that these mines are more extensive and valuable than was anticipated.”
Had a Pulitzer Prize for fiction existed at the time, Polk could have won it hands down
for those two sentences. He then went on to give his lame-duck presidential endorsement of the
The accounts of the abundance of gold 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 [Mason] 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 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.
Information received from officers of the Navy [Beale] and other
sources, though not so full and minute, confirms the accounts of the commander
of our own military force in California. It appears also from these reports that
mines of quicksilver are found in the vicinity of the gold region. One of them is
now being worked, and is believed to be among the most productive in the world.
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
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-engaging pursuit of it have already
caused in California an unprecedented rise in the price of all the necessaries of
Polk proposed establishing a branch of the U.S. mint in California to convert gold into
coin as well as “the bullion and specie which our commerce may bring from the whole west coast
of Central and South America.” He predicted that with California as a source for these Latin
American markets, Great Britain would find the United States a new and powerful economic
rival. Trade with China would also benefit from U.S. coins minted in California.
The vast importance and commercial advantages of California have heretofore
remained undeveloped by the Government of the country of which it constituted a
part. Now that this fine province is a part of our country, all the States of the
Union, some more immediately and directly than others, are deeply interested in
the speedy development of its wealth and resources. No section of our country is
more interested or will be more benefited than the commercial, navigating, and
manufacturing interests of the Eastern States. Our planting and farming
interests in every part of the Union will be greatly benefited by it. As our
commerce and navigation are enlarged and extended, our exports of agricultural
products and of manufactures will be increased, and in the new markets thus
opened they can not fail to command remunerating and profitable prices.
The acquisition of California and New Mexico, the settlement of the
Oregon boundary, and the annexation of Texas, extending to the Rio Grande, are
results which, combined, are of greater consequence and will add more to the
strength and wealth of the nation than any which have preceded them since the
adoption of the Constitution….
Two days after Congress received Polk’s message, Loeser and Carter arrived in the
nation’s capital. Samples of gold from the Chinese tea caddy went on display at the War
Department library, where newspaper reporters could see the precious metal and forget once and
for all their cynicism about the earlier stories. Most of the gold went to the U.S. Mint in
Philadelphia where it was assayed and pronounced genuine. The 230 ounces were rated as worth
$3,910.10 – about $17 an ounce in 1848 values. Some politicians spoke of making special coins
and medals from it.
Polk’s Annual Message was published in the newspapers on December 6, and on
December 8 Mason’s report was published. Polk’s validation and endorsement of the discovery,
and Mason’s clear description of the gold fields, had an immediate effect on the stock market.
Any lingering doubts were erased by the display of gold at the War Department. Ironically, the
stories that earlier had been ridiculed came back to life, reprinted again and again. Though the
stories may have exaggerated and distorted the truth, they were now acclaimed as gospel by many
of the same newspapers that had pronounced them all a humbug. “However sceptical any man
may have been, we defy him to doubt that if the quantity of such specimens as these be as great as
has been represented, the value of the gold in Cal. must be greater than has been hitherto
discovered in the old or new continent,” remarked the Washington Union, “and great as may be
the emigration to this new El Dorado, the frugal and industrious will be amply repaid for their
enterprise and toil.”
Gold fever did not spread overnight in the eastern United States. Between August and
December 1848 newspaper stories were disbelieved, doubted, considered, accepted, embraced.
Polk’s endorsement, notes Caughey, “was dramatically substantiated by the arrival of Lieutenant
Loeser bearing a tea caddy crammed with 230 ounces, 15 pennyweights, 9 grains of virgin
gold….For the nation, Leoser’s tea caddy touched off the gold mania….It appeared that visible
gold was better than words, yea, than many fine words.” The fever swept the East, went north to
Canada, east across the Atlantic to England and Europe. Parents said goodbye to sons, wives bid
farewell to husbands. Those with money bought tickets on clipper ships to go around Cape Horn.
Those who lacked funds schemed, borrowed, and begged for the stake that would enable them to
go west across the continent. Thousands waited impatiently for the winter season to end and
spring to come. With the spring of 1849, gold fever had spawned the Gold Rush.
The men who had written or carried the message lived out their allotted time in various
degrees of fame and fortune. Polk died on June 15, 1849, less than four months after exiting the
White House. Colton wrote Three Years in California and died in 1851. Larkin, already a
prosperous merchant, served as a delegate to California’s Constitutional Convention in October
1849 and died in 1858, age 56. Mason saw his report printed in newspapers all over the world
and in thousands of booklets, a document that convinced innumerable people to risk all for the
sake of gold. Breveted a brigadier general, Mason left California for Jefferson Barracks,
Missouri, where he died of cholera on July 25, 1851, just three years after he toured the gold
fields. Lucien Loeser’s subsequent career is unknown, as is that of his companion, David Carter;
they played the roles of the Rosenkrantz and Guildenstern of 1848, hopefully with a better fate
than befell Shakespeare’s messengers.
And Edward Fitgerald Beale? After being promoted to lieutenant, he resigned from the
Navy in 1851. Between 1847 and 1849 he crossed the continent from west to east and back again
no less than six times. In addition to his trek in 1848, he took California’s new Constitution to
present to Congress the following year. Hired as general superintendent for Indian Affairs for
California and Nevada in 1851, he surveyed a possible railroad route while heading west to
assume his duties. After resigning this position he became a brigadier general in the California
State Militia (thereby confusing later generations of history students who wonder how a naval
officer could become a general). In the late 1850s Beale helped create the camel corps and used
camels as pack animals in a survey for a wagon road. He bought Fort Tejon and the area near his
property became the location of the first Indian reservation in California, with Beale its
superintendent. In 1876 Beale served a year as minister to the Austro-Hungarian Empire. He
maintained life-long friendships with Kit Carson and John C. Fremont. He died at his home in
Washington, D.C., in 1893, age 71, having lived a life that was, as Dan Thrapp put it, “generally
© 2005, The Way West: True Stories of the American Frontier, ed. James A. Crutchfield, pp. 131140.
Fort Tejon as it appeared in 1860.
President James K. Polk
John C. Fremont
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