March 9 - A Mini-Gold Rush Starts in California

Posted on March 9, 2018

I grew up in California, and one huge part of our state's history is talking about the Gold Rush.

As in THE Gold Rush. Gold Rush in capital letters. As if there were only one.

(It's kind of like hearing Americans talk about "the Civil War," as if our one Civil War was the only civil war anywhere in the world, all through history - when there have been so many...and almost everywhere!)

The football team the San Francisco
49ers took their name from all those
people who came to California in
and around 1849...

Notice that one of the team colors is gold!
Anyway, the Gold Rush that dominates California's history books was one started by James Marshall's 1848 discovery of gold near Sacramento. So many people came to California - about three hundred THOUSAND! that's 300,000! - starting in 1849, that the gold seekers have a catchy name: the Forty-niners. 

But before that capital-letter Gold Rush, there was another, smaller California gold rush. It was brought on when gold was discovered on this date in 1842, more than six years before THE Gold Rush. 

This earlier discovery was located closer to where I live, in Southern California. But it doesn't sound like it would be down here; the location of the find is "Rancho San Francisco," and San Francisco is a very famous city in Northern California.

Turns out, the rancho (which means "ranch," of course) has nothing to do with San Francisco. It was a land grant in the Mexican state of Alta California - a chunk of land located in what is now L.A. County and Ventura County. Notice that, at the time of this discovery, California was NOT part of the United States, but rather of Mexico. 

According to the marker,
this is the actual tree where
López discovered gold.
The man who found the gold, Francisco López (despite his first name, also nothing to do with the city San Francisco!), had studied mineralogy and spent some of his time looking for gold. One day he took a rest under an oak tree, and he dreamed that he was floating on a pool of gold (gold was definitely on his mind!). When he woke up, he pulled some wild onions from the ground and discovered flakes of gold in the roots. 

If he hadn't been looking and thinking and dreaming about gold, I wonder if he would have even noticed those flakes?

At any rate, he did notice the gold, and he found more where that came from. And then word got out, as it always does, and there was a gold rush...but, like I said, a sort of mini "rush" compared to the later one. 

About 2,000 people came to look for gold. Most were from a nearby Mexican state, Sonora. Word of the gold didn't seem to get out to the U.S. or the rest of the world.

Just a few years later, the Mexican-American War broke out. The man who owned the rancho destroyed the gold mine so that the U.S. would not gain control of it.

But...the U.S. actually gained control of the entirety of Alta California (including the destroyed gold mine), plus the current states of Nevada and Utah, plus bits of the current states of Wyoming, Colorado, New Mexico, and Arizona.


This map shows the parts of Mexico that were ceded to the
United States at the end of the Mexican-American War.

It may not be surprising that I have never, ever heard about this small-scale gold rush before - even if you consider that it is a part of my own state's history, and I helped to write a California state history textbook!! Because there have been a lot of gold discoveries and gold rushes. And I wanted to write about this one to remind everyone that there have been many gold rushes, many civil wars, many revolutionary wars, and so forth and so on...We should all remember that, when we talk or write about a particular one discovery or event or war, we need to clearly identify which one we are talking about!

The site of the Rancho San Francisco gold discovery
has murals and a sign by the tree where
the gold was found.

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