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The Atlantic to the Pacific: What to See and How to See it (1873), by John Erastus Lester


The origin of the name California and its signification have been the subject of much discussion.1 To the curious it presents a field of investigation full of interest and profit. The history of the Spanish Settlements in North America, and the accounts given by the early English navigators of the Pacific, will be brought into requisition.2 For myself, while thus engaged, I chanced upon an ancient record of the finding of gold in California, earlier indeed by many years than any which I had before read. The name of John A. Sutter will always be mentioned in connexion with finding gold on American River, as the first discoverer. He was an early pioneer to the Pacific country, took up a large tract of land, and built a fort as protection against Indians. He erected a mill, and in the race which conducted the water upon the wheel, the gold was found, and hence, from his ownership of the property, his name is commonly given as the discoverer. There was in his employ a man by name James W. Marshall, who attended to the working of this mill. One day he was at work clearing out the race, and came upon a deposit of what appeared to be gold. He was several days in satisfying himself of its purity, and having done so he showed it to Sutter, whose property was thus made of fabulous value. They agreed to keep the matter secret, but such fortune was too good to be kept quiet, and soon a great army of men were on their way across the plains to California. As the news spread over the Atlantic, from every city and town in Europe sturdy men set out for this new El Dorado of the West. The old miller who so soon became a miner long ago died, but his discovery was followed by the astonishingly rapid growth of the State which has been described in these pages.

1See ‘Annals of San Francisco,’ &c., p. 23. Soule, 1855. N.Y.

2See ‘History of California.’ Robert Greenhow, Translator and Librarian to the Department of State, Washington; also ‘Memoirs, Historical,’ &c., by same. 1840.

By examining the old record we shall observe how quaintly is told a much earlier discovery of the metal, although it was not so thoroughly tested as to make the facts certain. I will copy first the title to the old book. It is a very rare volume, and was found in Colorado, where it was taken by a French gentleman who many years ago emigrated to that territory.

“A Voyage Round the World by the way of the Great South Sea. Performed in the year 1719-20-21-22 in the Speedwell of London, of 24 guns and 100 men (under His Majesty’s Commission to cruise on the Spaniards in the late war with the Spanish Crown), till she was cast away on the Island of Juan Fernandez in May 1720; and afterwards continued in the Recovery, the Jesus Maria, and Sacra Familia, &c. By Capt. George Shelvocke, Commander of the Speedwell, Recovery, &c., in this expedition. MDCCXXVI.”

The author then makes the following record:

“As to the bounds and extent of California our geographers have never yet been able to determine either by their own observations or information from others, whether it is an island, or a part of the continent of North America.”

He gives his reasons for not trying to determine the above facts thus, and speaks of what he thought was gold.

“It would be perhaps more a satisfaction to the curious than any real advantage to us; since it would be much the same to us whether it be an island, or a part of the continent if we had any advantageous views of making any settlements there.

“The eastern coast of that part of California, which I had a sight of, appears to be mountainous, barren, and sandy and very like some parts of Peru; but nevertheless the soil about Puerto Seguro, and (very likely in most of the valleys) is a rich black mould, which as you turn it fresh up to the sun appears as if intermingled with gold-dust, some of which we endeavoured to wash and purify from the dirt; but though we were a little prejudiced against the thoughts that it would be possible that this metal should be so promiscuously and universally mingled with common earth, yet we endeavoured to cleanse and wash the earth from some of it, and the more we did the more it appeared like gold; but in order to be further satisfied, I brought away some of it, which we lost in our confusions in China. But be that as it will, it is very probable that this country abounds in metals of all sorts, though the inhabitants had no utensils or ornaments of any metal whatsoever, which is no wonder, since they are so perfectly ignorant in all arts.”

We might speculate upon the changes which would have come over this country, had the fact become settled. The ‘confusions’ may have lost to England the State of California; for if her people had learnt that treasure was to be found there they would have soon made their way across the seas, driven out the Spaniards, and unfurled their flag in token of government.

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