Good morning, it’s Tuesday, December 5, 2017, a date marked in the institutional memories of native Californians because on this day 169 years ago, a U.S. president gave his official imprimatur to the great Gold Rush that would forever change the face of the American West.
James K. Polk was the American political leader most closely identified with the concept of Manifest Destiny -- the notion that this nation should exist from the Atlantic to the Pacific -- and Polk used his December 5, 1848, State of the Union message to Congress as a way of encouraging settlement of the West Coast.
“The accounts of 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,” Polk said.
I’ll return to this declaration in a moment. First, I’ll point you to RealClearPolitics’ front page, which presents our poll averages, videos, breaking news stories, and aggregated opinion pieces spanning the political spectrum. We also offer original material from our own reporters and contributors, including the following:
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California wasn’t yet a state in 1848. Although statehood certainly would have happened eventually, it unfolded quickly thanks to a confluence of events that began earlier that year. Another of those occurrences took place in the White House on this date.
Gold had been found in late January by James Marshall, a New Jersey-born sawmill operator who had served under John C. Frémont in the Mexican American War. The momentous discovery came while Marshall was overseeing construction of a sawmill 60 miles upstream from Sacramento on the American River.
In March of 1848, this news nugget, if you will, was published in the state’s first newspaper. That pioneering media outlet was The Californian, launched in 1846 in Monterey and published half in Spanish, half in English, and which had since moved to San Francisco. A week later, the report was followed by Sam Brannan’s rival paper, the California Star, which noted in a separate story that the population of San Francisco consisted of 575 men, 177 women, and 60 children.
Those totals, if not the ratios, were about to change dramatically. Not everyone, even in San Francisco, believed the reports from Sutter's Mill. But even before James Polk helped fuel an international stampede of “49ers,” gold fever had hit California.
“The whole country from San Francisco to Los Angeles, and from the sea shore to the base of the Sierra Nevadas, resounds with the sordid cry of gold, GOLD, GOLD! while the field is left half-planted, the house half built, and everything neglected but the manufacture of shovels and pickaxes.”
So complained the editorialists of The Californian. But the newspaper staff and its owner were as caught up in the fever as everyone else. Sam Brannan had helped start the rush when he held up bottles of gold dust he’d received in payment at his store, and announced that it was gold from the American River. By May, his newspaper announced it was suspending publication -- on the grounds that the newspaper staff itself was decamping to the diggings.
The writers and editors of the California Star followed suit a few weeks later. Are you thinking, as I am, that American newspaper people were once more intrepid than today? Fair enough, but they were also more poorly paid. And “Eureka!” is still an electrifying state motto.
Carl M. Cannon
Washington Bureau chief, RealClearPolitics