The Difference A Year Makes
Back in January 1848, gold was discovered at John Sutter’s wood mill on the American River in northern California and the next month, California was ceded to the United States by Mexico marking the end of the Mexican War. And so began the quest for the shiny, yellow metal throughout the United States. It didn’t take long for the word to spread and when James K. Polk shared the news in his State of the Union address, the rush was on, as folklore tells us. There are hundreds of fabulous stories about those who traveled west the following year, a handful of whom became wealthy from their support of the industry that grew, rather than from prospecting itself.
The Gold Rush changed the fate of the nation in that one year, giving it a source of independent wealth, eventually leading it to become the wealthy nation of the 20th century. The real winners of the boom were the giant companies who industrial mined the hell out of the American west, as evidenced by the giant open-pit scar at the end of Mill Street in Lead, South Dakota. The Black Hills have their own dastardly tale of promises broken in the pursuit of the region’s wealth, but not a unique one. For all the opportunity gold brought to American history and eventually the American future, there’s a giant open pit in the center of town that was once covered in trees, and which still produces a sliver of the gold it promised those willing to make a go of it.
Sutter & Street
The lore of the Gold Rush didn’t begin in California. In the late 18th century, gold was mined in the southern United States, just not in the quantities of the California territory. But once word spread, those who wanted it, went looking for it. Everything from the Trail of Tears to the Chilkoot Trail in Alaska shows how much the gold persuaded people to get off their butts and travel either by choice or by force. I completely understand both notions to gain control of the wealth, even if I am less motivated by the financial glory, but more by the bucolic value of America. Even during the Dust Bowl of the early 20th century, people hit the road for the possibility of a better life.
So here’s my 21st century version of the American experience: I’ve see the paths where Native Americans were forced towards land in Oklahoma to make way for those wanting to push to the edges of the fledging country and the southern gold prospects. I’ve stood on the banks of the South Fork of the American River where Mr. Sutter and his employees kicked off the western craze. Both the preparatory grounds in Seattle and the final destinations up and over the White Pass into the gold fields of the Klondike (see What Would You Do For The Klondike? from February 2013) have been part of my explorations. And on the Fourth of July, I watch the fireworks over the open pit mine in town of Lead, South Dakota, as if there is nothing unusual or surprising about the giant hole at the end of Mill Street.