Unlike many of the military figures that would later lead the armies of the Union and Confederacy in the United States Civil War, W. T. Sherman was not in the thick of battle during the Mexican-American War (1846-1848). Instead, he busily trekked through California, recruiting soldiers, making arrests and keeping an eye on the Californians. One of the more interesting observations from the Mexican-American War time period that Sherman noted in his memoirs was the beginning of the gold rush that would cause a mass rush of American fortune seekers to the west.
Near the end of the Mexican-American War in 1848, U. S. soldiers, and laborers who were mining for mercury, found more than they were looking for in their dig sites—they began to discover large veins of gold.
In his memoirs, Sherman described three gold-mining sites in detail. One location was in Coloma, California, at a spot of land owned by a certain Captain Sutter. The location came to be known as Sutter’s Fort. Another gold site was Mormon Island, where around three hundred Mormons searched for gold. The last, broad, category of gold camps were described by Sherman as “dry diggings,” where fortune-seekers set up shop downstream of gold-rich locations, hoping to find flakes of gold in the stream runoff.
Sherman wrote that the gold rush probably started because of the operations occurring on Captain Sutter’s land. A water-powered sawmill was being constructed there on a river flowing down from the Sierra Nevada Mountains, but the channel that the water followed needed to be enlarged. As the pre-existing path was deepened, gold began to appear. Though Captain Sutter and the architect of the mill (a man named James Marshall) tried to keep the discovery of gold a secret, the other people constructing the mill soon heard of the discovery. Sutter and Marshall managed to keep the mill workers out of the gold-littered channel, but life at the mill would not return to normal. The laborers refused to continue their work without a pay-raise, and when their demands were not satisfactorily met, they left to find more gold elsewhere, leading to camps springing up down-stream of the mill and on Mormon Island.
When the Mexican-American war ended, Sherman and a few of his war buddies decided to pool together some of the wages they had made during the war to fund a small store that catered to the gold prospectors. Sherman claimed that each of his comrades contributed $500 to the store and each man involved in the business made around $1500 in profit by the time they closed the shop. If the Official Data Foundation’s CPI Inflation Calculator is accurate, then, in today’s dollar value, Sherman’s initial investment would have been equivalent to a little over 19,000 modern US dollars, and the profits would have been somewhere between $57,000-$59,0000 in today’s currency.
Picture Attribution: (Portrait of General William Tecumseh Sherman (1820-1891), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons and the Smithsonian).
- Memoirs of General W. T. Sherman by W. T. Sherman. Renaissance Classics, 2012.