Eugene E. Campbell
The Lure of California Gold
[p.41]While Brigham Young and other church officials were in Winter Quarters preparing to lead a large group of emigrants to the Salt Lake Valley, other Mormons were involved in events in California that would profoundly impact the church and nation. On 24 January 1848, John Marshall, employed by John Sutter, discovered gold on the American River. News of the find leaked out slowly, but when a Mormon, Samuel Brannan, announced the discovery publicly in San Francisco, the famous California gold rush began in earnest.
Members of both the Mormon Battalion and Brannan’s California colony of Mormon immigrants were among the first participants in the gold rush, and several acquired a lion’s share of the metal, including the discovery of the fabulously rich Mormon Island. In fact, Brannan, a businessman and entrepreneur who sold supplies to the miners, became California’s first millionaire. He was anxious for church members to colonize California rather than the Salt Lake Valley and could have organized a cooperative effort that would have enabled the church to “skim the cream” off the gold areas. With his New Hope colony along the San Joaquin River as an agricultural base and the 4,000 Mormons in Salt Lake Valley or en route to the valley organized as cooperative work crews, the church, Brannan believed, could control sizable areas in the region before the mass migration of gold seekers reached California.
But such was not the case. Mormon leaders, convinced that their destiny lay in the Great Basin and fearing the divisive effects of [p.42] gold-lust on their members, opposed such projects and persuaded most Mormons that their future was in colonizing the Great Basin. A few organized groups were permitted to go to the gold fields, and the church profited from gold seekers who passed through their Rocky Mountain settlements, but other than aiding missionary work and financing some colonization, California gold was used primarily for coinage in the Salt Lake Valley and to help finance the migration of Mormon emigrants through the Perpetual Emigrating Fund.
When the Mormons began their emigration from Nauvoo, Illinois, in 1846, their destination was California. The Great Basin, which was part of the Mexican province of Upper California, was to be the site of the first colony, but as Apostle Parley P. Pratt wrote in September 1846, “I expect we shall stop near the Rocky Mountains about 800 miles nearer than the coast … and there make a stand until we are able to enlarge and extend to the coast.”
Sam Brannan’s “Brooklyn Saints” had arrived in San Francisco in July 1846, and the Mormon Battalion was in San Diego by the end of January 1847. Later that same year, the discharged Battalion men had been informed by letter that it might be advisable for those who were unmarried, or who did not know that their families were coming to the Great Basin in 1847, to remain in California and earn money for seeds and other items needed for colonizing the Salt Lake Valley.
Brannan had reason to feel that his group might stay in the San Francisco bay area, for Brigham Young had written to him on 15 September 1845, before Brannan’s group had set sail from New York, that he “wished that [Brannan] and his press, paper [later The California Star] and ten thousand of the brethren were now in California and the Bay of San Francisco.” Young had also notified Brannan as late as 6 June 1847 that “the main [camp] will not go to the west coast, or to your place at present, as they do not have the means.” This implied that Young’s contingent would have followed Brannan’s example, if they had had the means. Young continued in the same letter, “Any among you who may choose to come over into the basin, or meet the camp, are at liberty to do so, and if they are doing well where they are, and choose to stay, it is quite all right.” However, after church authorities established the Great Salt Lake Valley as the headquarters of the church, the policy emerged of requiring that all loyal church members gather to that region, help to build it up, and secure it for the church. The strictness with which this policy was practiced can be seen from the following incident, which occurred in late December 1847, a few months after the first group of pioneers entered the Salt Lake Valley.
[p.43] A special meeting of the High Council met at 2 p.m. at Pres. John Smith’s house. Parley P. Pratt spoke at some length on the disaffected spirits in the valley. After remarks and testimonies by several of the valley, it was decided that the marshal should stop those who were about starting for California [with Miles Goodyear]. Parley P. Pratt and Henry Sherwood were appointed a committee to inform Miles Goodyear why Samuel Brown, Elijah Shockey and son and Samuel Shepherd and son were stopped.
Dec. 28,—The marshal reported that he took Thomas Williams, Charles Shumway, and Ephraim K. Hanks and went as far south as the last large creek in the valley, and turned back the five persons sent for; they made no opposition. The report was accepted. The persons turned back, reported themselves to Pres. Smith, and were permitted to go on to California with Miles Goodyear.1
When word of the gold discovery reached the Salt Lake Valley, the cricket scourge had just begun. This provided an added incentive to abandon the valley. But Brigham Young arrived from Winter Quarters in late September and began vigorously preaching against gold fever.
As early as 17 July 1848, Young warned the pioneers, “The Lord will bless you and prosper you if you will get cured of your California fevers as quick as you can.” He explained, in a general letter to all Mormons, dated 12 October 1848, that the Sacramento Valley was unhealthy, that gold was not as valuable as food and drink, and that to become wealthy in precious metals was to court degradation and ruin. He reminded the Saints that the Spaniards had looked for gold and had not only lost their greatness but had almost lost their God, while the English colonists, who had paid attention to agriculture and industry, had become strong and a powerful influence for good. According to James Brown, Young predicted,
I promise you in the name of the Lord that many of you that go thinking you will get rich and come back will wish you had never gone away from here, and will long to come back, but will not be able to do so. Some of you will come back, but your friends who remain here will have to help you; and the rest of you who are spared to return will not make as much money as your brethren do who stay here and help build up the [p.44] Church and Kingdom of God; they will prosper and be able to buy you twice over. Here is the place God has appointed for his people.
That fall, Young’s scribes recorded in the president’s manuscript history that fourteen or fifteen of the brethren from Brannan’s colony arrived from the gold country. Some of these were very comfortably supplied with the precious metal, but others had been sick and returned as destitute as they had been when they embarked on the ship Brooklyn in 1846. Certainly there was plenty of gold in Western California, the history conceded, but the Sacramento Valley was unhealthy, and the Saints were better off to raise grain and build houses in the Salt Lake Valley than dig gold—unless counseled to do so. “The true use of gold,” Young dictated, “is for paving streets, covering houses, making culinary dishes; and when the Saints shall have preached the gospel, raised grain, and built up cities enough, the Lord will open up the way for a supply of gold to the perfect satisfaction of his people; until then,” he concluded, “let them not be over anxious for the treasures of the earth are in the Lord’s storehouse, and he will open the door thereof when and where he pleases.”
Although Young was primarily concerned that Mormons build up the Kingdom of God in the Great Basin, he also seemed convinced that gold mining was not a fit occupation for Mormons and that it would actually be to their economic advantage to remain in the Great Basin and till the soil. “Before I had been one year in this place, the wealthiest man who came from the mines [was] Father Rhodes, with $17,000, [but] could he buy the possessions I had made in one year?” he asked rhetorically in early September 1850. “It will not begin to do it: and I will take twenty-five men … who had staid at home and paid attention to their own business, and they will weigh down fifty others from the same place, who went to the gold regions; and again, look at the widows that have been made, and see the bones that lie bleaching and scattered over the prairies.”2 The previous year, on 8 July 1849, Young had exclaimed, “If you Elders of Israel want to go to the gold mines, go and be damned.… I advise the corrupt, and all who want to go to California to go and not come back, for I will not fellowship them.”
[p.45] The impact of Brigham Young’s anti-gold rush rhetoric on members of the Mormon Battalion who had participated in the early discoveries must have produced one of the most unusual scenes of the entire gold rush. That these men, who had been engaged in a very successful operation in and around Mormon Island for over two months, would be willing to leave great wealth for a desert waste-land because they felt it was their duty to build up the Kingdom of God must have been incomprehensible to the hundreds of miners who had left their families, jobs, and comfortable homes in search of the shiny metal. Yet it should also be remembered that many of these men had been separated from their families for two years, that gold mining, as they did it, was hard work, that their living expenses were high and that they did not know how long the gold would run.
Not surprisingly, one Mormon who did not “gather to the valley” in 1848 was Sam Brannan. Brannan had arrived in the Salt Lake Valley with the pioneers in July 1847 but had left to return to California in August. Stopping at Sutter’s Fort, he had secured permission from Sutter to set up a store at his establishment and left a partner to take charge of it. Thus, when gold was discovered in the region four months later, Brannan was in a position to reap large profits by selling supplies to the miners.
After announcing to the world that gold was being gathered along the American River, Brannan called a meeting of a branch of the church in San Francisco and told them of the rich find at Mormon Island. In a short time, most of the Mormon men in California were at this important site. And Brannan was there to collect one-tenth of all their income as church tithing. According to Mormon miner, Azariah Smith,
on Tuesday, May 11th , we went up [to the mines] and stayed until May 23rd, when we came down. While at the mines I had very good luck. I gathered nearly $300.00, which makes me in all worth about $400.00. The most I made in a day was $65 after the toll was taken out, which was 30 out of 100, this percentage going to Hudson and Willis, who discovered the mine, and Brannan, who is securing it for them.… While there Mr. Brannan called a meeting to see who was willing to pay toll, and who was not, most of the men agreed to pay, while others refused.
Addison Pratt, who was serving as president of the San Francisco branch of the church, added his own version of the experience.
On our arrival [at Mormon Island] we learned that Brannan had entered into a league with the brethren there, to the effect that all who dug gold there should pay a tax of 30% of all they found. The claim was [p.46] that this % should go to the Church and from that means obtained, that young cattle should be purchased in California and sent to the valley. I had seen enough of Brannan’s tricks to convince me that the church would never see any cattle bought in this manner and considerable dissatisfaction existed among the brethren who had come up from San Francisco over this matter. Many asked me if I intended to pay the % asked. I told them that I considered the demand unjust, and yet if the church could get any benefit from the money, I had no objection to paying it. I saw at once that if I refused to pay the tax, most of the brethren would follow my example. And as Brannan had already collected some means in this manner, I foresaw clearly that his low cunning would naturally lead him to send what means he had already collected to the Church, and then report that if I had not come out against him, he would have been able to send more.3
Eventually, such California notables as California governor Richard B. Mason and William Tecumseh Sherman became involved in the dispute. Sherman accompanied Mason on a tour of the gold fields. In his published memoirs, Sherman remembered that a Mr. Clark asked the two men, “Governor, what business has Sam Brannan to collect the tithes here?” Mason responded, “Brannan has a perfect right to collect the tax, if you Mormons are fools enough to pay it.” “Then,” Clark announced, “I for one won’t pay it any longer.” Evidently, Brannan used a number of arguments to get the men to pay him some gold, such as Azariah Smith’s understanding that Brannan was simply securing Willis and Hudson’s claim and Pratt’s impression that it was for tithing and to pay cattle for the church. John Sutter’s account indicates a third reason. He reported that the “Mormons were being assessed to build a temple to the Lord. Now that God has given gold to the Church, the Church must build a temple.” What is apparent is that Brannan used every argument he could think of to get money from the men to increase his own personal fortune.
Meanwhile Brannan continued to send letters to Brigham Young, pledging his loyalty and devotion to the cause and requesting that the president not listen to the complaints of disgruntled members. However, on 5 April 1849, Young sent Brannan a letter that brought [p.47] matters to a head and drove Brannan from hypocrisy to apostasy. Young informed Brannan that Amasa M. Lyman of the Council of the Twelve Apostles was coming to California with a general epistle to all the Saints and that either the epistle or Lyman would answer the questions Brannan had asked in his letters. After noting that no legal complaints had been filed against Brannan, Young asserted,
The man who is always doing right has no occasion to fear any complaints that can be made against him, and I hope that you have no cause to fear.
I am glad to hear you say that I may rely on your “pushing every nerve to assist me and sustain me to the last,” for I do not doubt that you have been blessed abundantly and now shall have it in your power to render most essential service. I shall expect ten thousand dollars, at least, your tithing, on the return of Elder Lyman, and if you have accumulated a million to tithe, so as to send $100,000.00, so much the better, and may you get two million next year. If you want to continue to prosper, do not forget the Lord’s treasury, lest he forget you, and with the liberal, the Lord is liberal, and when you have settled with the treasury, I want you to remember that Bro. Brigham has long been destitute of a home, and suffered heavy losses and incurred great expenses in searching out a location and in planting the Church in this place, and he wants you to send him $20,000 (a present) in gold dust to help him with his labors. This is but a trifle where gold is so plentiful but it will do me much good at this time.
I hope that Bro. Brannan will remember that when he has complied with my request, my council will not be equal with me unless you send $20,000 more, to be divided between Brothers Kimball and Richards, who, like myself, are straightened; a hint to the wise is sufficient, so when this is accomplished you will have our united blessing, and our hearts will exclaim, “God bless Brother Brannan, and give him four-fold for all that he has given us.”
Now Brother Brannan, if you will deal justly with your fellows, and deal out with a liberal heart and open hands, making a righteous use of your money, the Lord is willing that you should accumulate the treasures of the earth and good things in time of abundance, but should you withhold when the Lord says give, your hope and pleasing prospects will be blasted in an hour you think not of, and no arm to save [you]. But I am persuaded [of] better things of Brother Brannan. I expect all that I have asked when Brother Lyman returns and may God bless you to this end is the prayer of your brother in the new covenant.
If Young’s purpose was to test Brannan’s loyalty or call his bluff, it succeeded, for by the time Lyman arrived Brannan had disclaimed [p.48] all connection with the church.4 More than two years after Young’s letter, Brannan was finally disfellowshipped in San Francisco on 25 August 1851. Among the reasons given at his trial for the action were “a general course of unchristianlike conduct, neglect of duty, and … other crimes.”
One of the most unusual developments involving Mormons and California gold took place in the fall and winter of 1849-50. Brigham Young, going against his better judgment, permitted a few older leaders to “call” young men of their choice on a “mission” to California to mine for gold. Prominent among these men was Henry Bigler, whose diary set the accepted date of the original discovery of gold at Coloma, and George Q. Cannon, who later became an influential counselor in the church’s First Presidency.
Neither man was especially excited at the prospect of leaving the valley. Bigler, in his journal for 11 October 1849, lamented, “It fills me with sorrow to think of leaving, for I am attached to this place and this people, for they are my brothers and sisters and my friends, and it was with considerable struggle with my feelings that I consented to go.” Cannon expressed his own apprehensions twenty years later in a series of reminiscent articles published in the church’s Juvenile Instructor: “There was no place I would rather not have been at the time than in California. I heartily despised the work of digging gold.… There is no occupation I would not rather follow than hunting and digging for gold.”5
The most detailed and dramatic account of the gold missionaries’ call to California is found in Bigler’s diary for October 1849. He recorded:
[p.49] Monday 8th Makeing preparations today to go on a mission to California to get Gold for Father John Smith,6 as … he is Counciled to fit out some person and send them to the Gold mines and he has called on me to go and is now fiting me out to go with Brother C. C. Rich and others who are sent.… Tuesday Oct. 9th This day I settled up all my accounts, paid all my debts, Sold my wheat and a few boards of lumber to Bro. Stanes.
Thursday 11th last evening Father Smith sent for me he wanted to bless me, he then laid his hands on my head and blest me and also Brother James Keeler in the name of the Lord. Brother Keeler is going for Thomas Callister7 we will go in the same waggon together; about 2 p.m. we was ready. I told Brother Keeler to call by my house with the waggon and I would be ready. I wrote a note and stuck it on the side of my door for my brother-in-law John Hess to [take] charge of some clothing I had left in a sack; at this moment I experienced what I shall not here attempt to describe. I walked back and forth across my floor and my feelings was spent in a complete shower of tears, every thing I looked upon seamed to simpethise with me and say go in peace only be faithful and all will be right. I herd a rattling and looked up and saw the waggon a coming. I hastened to the Curtings of the window and wiped away every tear, and went out to the waggon. I was requested to get in. I refused. I told Brother Keeler I would walk as I wanted to call at the tin shop to buy a canteen, I paid 6 bits 75 cents for one & 2 bits for a quart cup; I then got in the waggon and we drove to Brother Flakes on Cottonwood, about 10 miles. Got thare in the night, all was gone to bed, we mired in the big field. we had to get in the mud and water with our shoulders to the wheels; after a long time we got out all wet and mudy. We called at Brother Chipmans and got some Butter and 2 large fresh loaves of light good wheat bread for which we paid $2 together with a little tin pail to carry our butter in.
Friday 12th This morning we ware detained a little in getting something made. We found that one of our horses was sick, supposed to have a [touch] of the Belly ache, and to carry out father Smith’s Blessings we bought a mare of Brother Flakes, paid $20 down and give our note for 100$ with intrest at our Return. At 10 AM we was on the way, went 13 miles and encampt near the Banks of the Jordan.
Bigler and Keeler joined a company of about twenty gold missionaries,8 with James M. Flake as captain. They left Salt Lake Valley [p.50] on 11 October 1849 and arrived at Colonel Williams’s Ranch (near present-day Chino) on 11 December, after a difficult journey during which they temporarily became part of the “Death Valley” group that attempted to take a short cut to the California mines.9 While at Williams’s Ranch, Bigler recorded a communication from apostles George A. Smith and Ezra T. Benson, which reveals something of the church’s attitudes concerning the availability of gold. Bigler wrote on 6 January 1850 that the two leaders wanted the group to raise $5,000 for them so that “their hands may be liberated and be able to return to the fields of labor [missions] and they will pray the Lord to lead the Brethren in some nook or corner where it lays, as for my part,” Bigler added, “I shall be glad to help raise it for them and have their prayers and blessings on my head.”
The group left Williams’s Ranch on 12 January and finally made their way to “Slap Jack Bar” on the middle fork of the American River where they began searching for gold. Bigler’s group worked all summer to build a dam across the river. They were so busy that the young diarist was unable to keep a daily account of his activities. Finally, on 23 September, he took the time to vent his frustrations:
I have exposed myself to both Indians and we[a]ther more than I ever want to do again, living out in the snow and storms and rain without shelter, some of my brethren have died … all of my brethren have been sick having been much exposed working in water up to their arms and necks building dams to get a little gold … I am tired of mining and of the country and long to be home among the saints.
Two days later, he penned a more detailed report of the summer’s experience.
I have been at work ever since my arrival at the mines which was last February exposing myself living out in the rains and snow, traveling and prospecting, building and repairing dams, working up to my neck in water and for weeks in water up to my waist and arms, having made but little; the expenses overrun the gain. In August I sent $100 to Father Smith by Brother A. Lyman and we expect to finish our claim in a [few] days and then will leave for our fields of labor.… The tithing I paid to Brother Rich and Amasa for myself and Brother Smith was $83.60. That shows [p.51] how much I have taken from the earth $836, this would appear that I ought to have lots of money, by me, but I have none. I may say at present and it makes the hair fairly stand upright on my head when I think of it.
On 3 October 1850, after finally completing their dam, the missionaries began to reap the rewards of their labors. Bigler described the events as follows:
Sunday, October 6th. Last Thursday morning we commenced taking out the gold after laboring so long in building and repairing our dam so often, and today we divided the pile, there being twelve shares, $200.00 apiece.
Sunday, October 13th. Washing gold all week and today divided 444 dollars each.
Tuesday, 15th the gold has failed, o what a pity.
Wednesday, 16th divided 92 dollars apiece. We shall make preparations to leave for the Sandwich Islands forthwith.
The decision to go to the Sandwich Islands (Hawaii) resulted from an apparently spontaneous decision reached in mid-October 1850 at “Slap Jack Bar.” One morning, according to Bigler,
the brethren was called together at our tent by Bro. Rich, he stated that he wanted some of us to go on a mission to the Sandwich Islands to preach the gospel, that his opinion was that it would cost no more to spend the winter there than it would here, that we could make nothing in the wintertime in consequence of so much water in the streams, and another thing provisions would be much higher in the mines and it would cost us more money to stay here and make nothing than if we went to the islands and preach, in his opinion it would be the best thing we could do and the best council he could give.… Then he called upon ten of us 1 of which was set apart to go to Oragon with Boyd Stewart, and the remaining 9 was set apart as follows, Thomas Whittle, Thomas Morras, John Dixon, myself, Geo. Cannon, Wm. Farrer, John Berry if he wished, James Keeler, James Hawkins. He then laid his hands on us and set us apart for the mission and blessed us in the name of the Lord, and told us to act as the spirit dictated when we got there.
Each of the nine men dutifully accepted his call, landing in Hawaii in December 1850 to begin what would become one of the more successful proselyting projects in Mormon history.
Many missionaries subsequently called to the Pacific islands were apparently advised to go first to the California gold mines to earn enough to clothe themselves and to pay for their passage. Further evidence for this can be inferred from George Q. Cannon’s advice in [p.52] the mid-1850s to discontinue this practice. According to Bigler’s journal for 18 July 1857, Cannon urged that they “preach their fitout and not go into the mines or hire out to labor in order to raise the necessary means which has been too often the case with the elders in this country while on their missions.” Cannon, with his great dislike for gold mining, decided that the wealthy Saints in California could help the missionaries reach their various fields of labor.
Indeed, the church’s colonizing effort in San Bernardino had been financed primarily by California gold. When confronted with the necessity of raising $25,000 for a down payment on Rancho del San Bernardino, Apostle Amasa Lyman, who had spent much of the previous year touring the gold fields and collecting $4,000 in tithing and contributions, returned to the gold regions to encourage Mormon miners to invest in the southern California colony. Later, in 1855, about one hundred men were called by leaders in San Bernardino to go to the gold fields to help liquidate the remaining debt.
The gold rush effectively ended the Mormon hope for isolation in the Great Basin. Mormon historian Leonard J. Arrington, in his Great Basin Kingdom, estimated that 10,000 people came through the Salt Lake Valley in 1849 and 15,000 in 1850 and that probably 5,000 passed through in 1851. Although most of the non-Mormon gold seekers remained in the valley on the average six and one-half days, many arrived so late in the year that they spent the winter there. For example, approximately 1,000 wintered in the valley in 1850-51. Some were cured of “treasure fever” and chose to remain and make their homes among the Saints. A few even converted to Mormonism and stayed with the body of the church. Others recognized the opportunities that Salt Lake City offered in the fields of business and merchandising.
Whatever the reason, the gold seekers’ presence in the region posed some problems. Should church leaders deal with the “Gentiles” and sell them land, produce, and other valuable commodities? Should they permit their sons and daughters to mix with them socially? The general policy was to treat the outsiders kindly, to deal with them if they did not compete with Mormon merchants, but to discourage social contact. The latter policy was almost impossible to administer, however, and soon Mormon girls were marrying outside the faith. Some were able to convert their husbands, or, in some cases, wives, to Mormonism. Some left with new husbands and wives for California. Others, less fortunate, married unscrupulous persons, called “winter saints,” who married for a winter of hospitality with in-laws and [p.53] then deserted their spouses when spring made it possible to continue to the gold fields. On 18 January 1851, eleven men and women were excommunicated for conduct “unbecoming the character of Saints.” The first jury trial held in the State of Deseret was called to decide the fate of these so-called “winter saints.”
Hoping to encourage the gold seekers to go to California by way of Fort Hall, the First Presidency issued the following epistle on 7 April 1851:
Hitherto, California emigrants have been accustomed to leave their sick in our hands, at a very heavy expense and depart without notice; to turn their teams loose in our streets, and near our city, which has caused so much destruction of crops and grass, so that if we want a load of hay, we have to go from ten to twenty miles to procure it, and drive our cattle a still greater distance to herd the winter; but since the organization of a municipality, quarantine has been introduced, and no animals are permitted to roam within the corporation …; and when the surrounding lands are fenced, the accommodations in our vicinity, for those who travel by multitudes will be small, indeed; and we believe that it will be more convenient for the great mass of travellers to the mines to go by Fort Hall, or some other route north of this, saving to themselves the expense and hindrance of quarantine, and other inconveniences arising from a temporary location near a populous city, where cattle are not permitted to run at large.
On the other hand, the miners also brought material advantages to the valley. The only community of any size on the main route to California, Salt Lake Valley seemed an oasis to the weary gold seekers. Anxious to replenish their supplies before crossing the desert and through the Sierra to California, they willingly paid good prices for all the surplus food and other supplies the Saints could produce. By the time they reached Salt Lake, they were often more than willing to exchange their heavy, costly wagons, and much of their valuable furniture, extra clothing, and luxury items for food, fresh horses, and a lighter wagon.
Such exchanges fulfilled a prophecy by Heber C. Kimball, who had just returned to the valley in the fall of 1848. Brigham Young’s first counselor no doubt startled his congregation by declaring that “within a short time, states goods would be sold cheaper in the streets of Salt Lake City than in New York, and the people would be abundantly supplied with food and clothing.” According to Kimball’s biography, Charles C. Rich, who was present for Kimball’s speech, commented that he did not believe a word of it, and even Kimball himself turned to the others on the rostrum when he returned to his seat [p.54] and confided, “I’m afraid that I missed it that time.” Yet Kimball’s prophecy was fulfilled within a few months, for not only did the gold seekers sacrifice their personal possessions, many merchants abandoned their heavily laden wagons in order to proceed more rapidly to the gold regions. When word was received that the merchant ships were flooding the San Francisco market with cheap goods, many of the overland merchants were happy to dispose of their goods for whatever they could get out of them. As a result, one contemporary observer wrote in the Latter-day Saints’ Millennial Star that almost every article, with the exception of tea and coffee, “was selling on the average of about fifty percent below the wholesale prices in eastern cities.”
John D. Lee was even more specific about the bargains gained in trade with the California-bound Gentiles when he recorded in his journal that with the first wave of emigrants
Waggons that was rating from 50 to 125 dols. before the Emigration commenced roling in, were sold & traded during the summer & fall of 1849 from 15 to 25 dollars; Harness from 2 to 15 dollars (Per)set. Oxen, Cows, Horse, Mules, &c were sold & exchanged upon the most reasonable terms. Fresh Horses & mules were soon raised to $200 each, so great was the demand for them. Most of the Emigrants abandoned their waggons when they reached the Valley such as had not befor & proceeded with Pack animals. Coffee & Sugar which had been selling at [$]1.00 Per Pint was frequently sold at from 10 to 15 cts.; Bacon the Same; first rate Sacked Hams at 12 1/2 cts. Lb. & Dry goodes & clothing below the State Prices.
According to Arrington, fresh horses and mules, which normally went for $25 or $30, were sold to the miners for as much as $200. Vegetables, too, “brought a first rate price.” Mormons were able to buy wagons at one-fifth the normal price and harnesses for about one-third the usual cost.
Another windfall became known as “picking-up expeditions.” Mormons profited by traveling east as far as Fort Laramie and salvaging wagons and goods that had been abandoned by the argonauts. John D. Lee remembered frequently finding
Harness, Tools of Every discription, Provisions, clothings, stoves, cooking vessels, Pouder, Lead, & all most everything, etc. that could be mentioned.… Very frequent[ly] some 20 or 30 persons would suround the waggon and plead for a memonts instructions, some of them with consternation depicted on their countenances, their teams worn out, wumen & children on foot & som packing their provision[s], trying to reach Some point of Refuse [refuge]. The general cry was, are you from the Mormon [p.55] city or vally? Yes. What is the distance? Is there any feed by the way? What will be the change to get fresh animals, Provisions, vegitables, Butter, cheese, &c. could we winter in the vally? Do pray tell us all you can that will benefit us, for we are in great distress. Stop & write us a way bill. We will pay you all you ask. Apples, Peaches (Dried), coffee, sugar, Tea, Rice, Flour, Bacon, &c., was often brought & presented.… Truly one of the ancient said that the love of money was the Root of all Evil. It was the love of it that has caused thousands to leave their pleasant homes & comfortable Firesides & thus plunge themselves into unnessary suffering & distress.
In the spring of 1850 some Chicago emigrants abandoned “thirty wagon loads of grain which,” Arrington explained, “presumably, the Mormons picked up.”
In an effort to supply a circulating medium of exchange in the valley, church officials began minting gold coins at a church mint on 12 September 1849 and continued to do so until 1851. (The Saints also used for a time paper notes they had printed in Kirtland, Ohio.) Unfortunately, the minted coins were overvalued by about 10 to 15 percent because they were based on weight only. This led to their being widely regarded as “debased,” especially in California, and they eventually were allowed to disappear. Still the coins provided a temporary medium of exchange in the overland trade.
California gold had a more important effect on Mormon church planning. The unexpected security of trading with California-bound emigrants and the infusion of gold and minted currency encouraged church leaders to bring 10,000 new church members from the Missouri Valley and 30,000 new Saints from the British Islands to colonize the Great Basin. The Perpetual Emigrating Fund was organized and ambitious missionary and colonizing programs were launched.
Arrington has conjectured that the Mormon economy may have been enhanced by as much as a quarter of a million dollars between 1849 and 1852 as a result of the gold rush. One Mormon writer, Joseph Holbrook, faithfully interpreted the influx of wealth by writing, “And thus in a few years in this desolated part of the mountains we were beginning to enjoy to some degree that which might have taken years had not the Lord provided for the poor saints by His providence in opening up the gold mines in California and inspiring the Gentiles with a lust for gold.” [p.57]
1. The policy of trying to discourage desertion appears counterproductive, since the disaffected settlers were no doubt creating problems among the other settlers. One man, a Brother Babcock, reportedly boasted to the high council on 26 December 1847 that “if it were in his power he would destroy every Mormon on earth.” Church leaders may have been concerned that many of the disaffected men would leave their families unprovided for. In any case, the policy of trying to keep the settlers from going to California was already established before the gold rush.
2. Less than two years later, on 24 January 1852, the chruch-owned Deseret News editorialized, “Saints, you cannot go to California, as you have done in years gone by and still retain your fellowship in the Church.” And on 16 November 1856, according to the Journal History, Heber C. Kimball recommended that “those who [recently] went to California be cut off from the Church—for their wickedness, their slandering, and their meanness.”
3. Brannan had previously complained to Brigham Young of Pratt’s services as branch president, and Pratt’s account here provides some evidence of instability. This incident highlights one of the weaknesses of an authoritarian, centralized bureaucracy, for many of the men felt obliged to respect Brannan’s appointment as “first Elder” in California, even though they distrusted him and believed he was pursuing unwise and dishonest policies.
4. There is evidence that Young knew Brannan was gaining wealth rapidly. On 7 December 1848, Young reported that “Brannan had received $36,000 in gold dust for goods” during a seventy-day period. And he knew that the returning battalion men, as well as others in California, had given tithing money to Brannan. In light of reports concerning Brannan’s attitudes and activities, it is unlikely that Young expected Brannan’s contribution.
5. A third gold missionary to leave a written record, Albert K. Thurber, felt that the call was given as a test, and although he was not anxious to go, he did not seem as reluctant as Bigler and Cannon. Thurber had come to the Salt Lake Valley with a company of gold seekers in 1849, became converted to Mormonism, and decided to stay in Salt Lake. He obtained work with B. J. Johnson, a local church leader who subsequently called him to the California mines. Thurber and a companion, who was also employed by Johnson and had been called to the gold mission, “worked for one week without mentioning the subject and then decided to go in a short time. Johnson was to fit us out and get one third of what each made and we to receive one third of what he made at home.”
6. Besides being president of the Salt Lake Stake (1847-48), “Father” John Smith was an uncle to Joseph Smith and the presiding patriarch of the church (1849-54). He was sixty-eight years old in October 1849 and died five years later.
8. A reading of Bigler’s journal and Cannon’s recollections yields the following tentative roster: George Bankhead, John W. Berry, Henry Bigler, John Bills, Joseph Cain, George Q. Cannon, Darwin Chase, Joseph Dixon, William Farrer, Peter Fife, James M. Flake, Henry Gibson, James Hawkins, Peter Hoagland, James Keeler, Thomas Morris, Joseph Peck, J. Henry Rollins, Boyd Stewart, Judson Sheldon Stoddard, and Thomas Whittle.