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December 20, 2011 > History: Gold

History: Gold

The early Californians did not come here in search of gold. They came more as adventurers or men in search of new lands and new lives. Mission Indians had made minor finds of gold, but it did not mean much to them. The mission padres told them not to advertise their find as that might encourage a rush of "money-mad foreigners." Minor discoveries were made in Southern California, but the deposits proved to be quite small and caused only temporary rushes to the area.

All this changed when James Marshal and his workers found gold in the waters of Sutter's mill on the American River in January 1848. It was not long before the secret was out and the rush was on. When Sam Brannon shouted "Gold" on the streets of San Francisco the rush became a stampede. Men deserted their homes, their ships and their jobs and headed for the Sierras in a mad dash to get rich.

The gold strike soon became known to the people living at Mission San Jose. John and Elizabeth Horner responded to the call of gold, left their struggling farming operation and went to the gold fields. They picked up dysentery and fever and returned to their mission home exhausted. Horner resumed farming and became California's most famous farmer.

Historian William Halley wrote that "at first nearly all rushed off to the diggings, but most of the farmers soon returned." Henry Smith returned from a short trip to the mines and opened a store at the Mission in 1848. "He made so much money in a short time that it took a wagon to remove it." This probably was an exaggerated statement, but he did make money. Elias Beard toured the mining region for a month and saw nothing promising so he came back to Mission San Jose and opened a store in competition to Henry Smith. Men rushing through Mission San Jose on their way to the gold fields provided a stream of customers for both Henry Smith and Elias Beard.

Jacob and George Harlan were included among the Americans temporarily living at Mission San Jose. They joined the rush to the gold fields and tried the mines near Sutter's Fort. They failed to find much gold and returned to farmland rented from J. J. Vallejo. William and Martin Mendenhall hunted in the Placerville mines but returned after failing to find riches.

William Tyson and William Morrison mined successfully in Hangtown for a few months before they joined Perry Morrison to farm here. Howard Overacker tried mining before he also moved here to farm. James Hawley made a "sizable stake" in the Trinity River mines before he came to Mission San Jose to follow his trade as a carpenter. His first contract was with J. J. Vallejo to rebuild the Vallejo grist mill.

William Mack was not successful mining so he worked on the steamers plying between Sacramento and San Francisco. Later he kept a general store at Mowry's Landing. Timothy Rix mined in the placers for awhile and then settled at Washington Corners (Now Irvington) and became its first postmaster. Henry Curtner tried mining but left and arrived at Mission San Jose "shabby and barefooted." He began farming and was very successful.

Several sea captains tried hunting for gold before they settled here and established more permanent occupations. Captain Calvin Valpey had no success prospecting. Captain Richard Benson found the work was too hard for his body. Captain Ebenezer Haley had moderate success and Captain Frederick used up all his cash. They all helped develop the Washington Township Area.

John T. Stevenson tried mining in the southern placer mines then came to Centerville where his family became an important part of our history. August Church failed to make a fortune in the mines and came here to serve as our first elected county clerk. John Riser tried his luck in the mines and then farmed and practiced law here. Edward Niehaus had his claim washed out but returned later and found a pocket of gold worth $2,000. He later went into partnership in the S. Salz & Co. General Store in Centerville, a firm that prospered for many years.

Henry Gregory lost most of his capital in a mining venture and returned to Centerville to operate a store and his hotel called the Gregory House. George Patterson and his companions mined for awhile and then returned to the Bay Area "broken in pocketbook, spirit and health." George worked on the Horner-Beard ranch, saved his money, bought land and established the Patterson Ranch. Henry Dusterberry came late for the gold rush, but he met Edward Niehaus in the placers and followed him to Centerville. He became a farmer and served as the local supervisor for eight years.

Earl Marshal and his wife, Letita, came to the Bay Area on the Ship Brooklyn. Writers of the History of Washington Township preserved a story of the Marshalls" experience with the gold rush: They were operating a small dairy when Earl decided to go to the mines. Letita moved the cows to Mission San Jose and conducted the first dairy in the area. She sold butter "at marvelous prices and milk at 25 cents a quart and cleared in the year her husband was absent, over $2,500." This is one of the few stories we have about local women in the gold rush.

Other gold miners included Edward Mack, Robert Blacow and Philip Hellwig. There were certainly others who have not been named here.

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