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Gold Dust Scoop

National Museum of American History
Wire-rimmed, three-sided, shallow, tapered rectangular or triangular tray or pan; narrows to open end. Made of one piece, cut and folded at corners. No marks.

Gold Nugget

National Museum of American History
This small piece of yellow metal is believed to be the first piece of gold discovered in 1848 at Sutter's Mill in California, launching the gold rush.

James Marshall was superintending the construction of a sawmill for Col. John Sutter on the morning of January 24, 1848, on the South Fork of the American River at Coloma, California, when he saw something glittering in the water of the mill's tailrace. According to Sutter's diary, Marshall stooped down to pick it up and "found that it was a thin scale of what appeared to be pure gold." Marshall bit the metal as a test for gold.

In June of 1848, Colonel Sutter presented Marshall's first-find scale of gold to Capt. Joseph L. Folsom, U.S. Army Assistant Quartermaster at Monterey. Folsom had journeyed to Northern California to verify the gold claim for the U.S. Government.

The gold samples then traveled with U.S. Army Lt. Lucien Loeser by ship to Panama, across the isthmus by horseback, by ship to New Orleans, and overland to Washington. A letter of transmittal from Folsom that accompanied the packet lists Specimen #1 as "the first piece of gold ever discovered in this Northern part of Upper California found by J. W. Marshall at the Saw Mill of John A. Sutter."

By August of 1848, as evidence of the find, this piece and other samples of California gold had arrived in Washington, D.C., for delivery to President James K. Polk and for preservation at the National Institute. Within weeks, President Polk formally declared to Congress that gold had been discovered in California.

In 1861, the National Institute and its geological specimens, including this gold and the letter, entered the collections of the Smithsonian Institution. The Marshall Nugget remains in the collections as evidence of the discovery of gold in California.

Charlie Chaplin's Gold Rush

Smithsonian Magazine

The Gold Rush was the most lavish comedy produced in the silent film era. And it was arguably the most ambitious. Restaging iconic stereoscope pictures of prospectors ascending Yukon’s steep Chilkoot Pass, its director, writer, and star Charlie Chaplin had 600 men sent by train to the Sierra Nevada to climb a snowy mountain peak. A miniature mountain range was constructed in Hollywood. 

But the film’s verisimilitude only went so far: The real gold seekers who embarked on the Klondike odyssey between 1897 and 1898 suffered hardships, from brutal cold and famine to grueling footslogs. Nonetheless, when rumors of riches in Nome surfaced, many undertook the 774-mile journey.

Chaplin plays The Lone Prospector. Wandering through the wilderness of Alaska, he shacks up with a greedy criminal and a lucky prospector to escape an Arctic blizzard. Bears, avalanches, and starvation are never far away. But true to Hollywood happy endings, Chaplin’s tramp gets the gold and the golden girl. The film premiered in 1925 at the Egyptian Theatre, owned by Sidney Grauman, who had himself trekked north in search of gold, only to come up empty.

Torah Mantle

National Museum of American History
Made in Wenkheim, Germany, this silk Torah mantle was brought to San Francisco by Jewish immigrants during the California gold rush and presented to Congregation Emanu-El. Founded in 1850, Emanu-El (Hebrew for "God is with us") was one of the first synagogues in San Francisco. It provided a spiritual and social community for German and central European Jews who came to California in search of economic opportunities and political freedom.

"Gold Washers" Snuff Box

National Museum of American History
This snuff box was made in London and used around 1860. The box’s lid is painted with an image four men—two white, and two African-Americans—working a stream for gold with the text “Gold-washers in California” below. Both slave and free African Americans participated in the gold rush as laborers and gold washers. A snuff box carried a powdered tobacco called snuff that was pinched and inhaled nasally.

The Gold Rush Was California's Shortcut to Statehood

Smithsonian Channel
In 1848, pioneer John Sutter and a carpenter named James Marshall discovered gold in a local stream, prompting a major gold rush. Just a year later, California would become America's 31st state. From: AERIAL AMERICA: Northern California

How to Make Money in a Gold Rush

Smithsonian Channel
Thousands rushed to California to find gold and get rich quick, but the people who actually made their fortunes were the merchants who built their businesses to serve the forty-niners. From the Series: Pioneers Turned Millionaires: Levi Strauss

33c California Gold Rush single

National Postal Museum

Issued June 18, 1999


Heading--Chapter XIII "Sutter's Gold"

Smithsonian American Art Museum

The story of the Klondike [sound recording] : stampede for gold, the golden trail / written and narrated by Pierre Berton

Ralph Rinzler Folklife Archives and Collections
Program notes ([4] p. : ill.) inserted in container.

Recorded by Sam Gesser.

Pierre Berton, narrator.

Recorded in Canada.

Heading--Chapter III "Sutter's Gold"

Smithsonian American Art Museum

Heading--Chapter IX "Sutter's Gold"

Smithsonian American Art Museum

Heading--Chapter VII "Sutter's Gold"

Smithsonian American Art Museum

32c Centennial of Klondike Gold Rush single

National Postal Museum

32-cent mint single

Issued August 21, 1998

Menu, 1976 Gold Rush Zinfandel at Chez Panisse

National Museum of American History
The simplicity of this paper menu—a single, printed page with the word “ZINFANDEL” decorating its edges—belies the layers of history behind the particular pairings of food and wine listed. The menu is for the week of November 16-20, 1976, at Chez Panisse restaurant in Berkeley, California. Founded in 1971 by Alice Waters, Chez Panisse was the cornerstone of the Berkeley “gourmet ghetto” and the center of a movement that expanded across the country, inspiring a renewed commitment to sourcing and presenting food that was fresh, local, organic, seasonal, and delicious. Reflecting Waters’ interest in French culinary traditions, the menu lists meals for each day in both French and English. It features dishes such as Moussaka with watercress, Snail cassolette, Sorrel consommé, and Salmis of squab—offerings that would have seemed unusual and perhaps exotic to many Americans, who were just beginning to explore new culinary experiences at the time.

The week’s menu is also a celebration of a new, local wine produced by winemaker Walter Schug for Joseph Phelps Vineyards, which had been established in Napa in 1973. The featured wine was the 1976 Gold Rush Zinfandel, produced from grapes grown in Amador County, an area east of Sacramento in the Sierra foothills. Although Zinfandel had been grown in that area since the Gold Rush, the wine was made primarily for local consumption. Winemakers rediscovered the old Zinfandel vineyards in the Shenandoah Valley of Amador County in the 1960s, and, in 1968, Sutter Home vintners produced wine from the old vines for Sacramento wine and food expert Darrell Corti. Corti’s embrace of the varietal helped propel Zinfandel wine into wider acceptance. The Zinfandel Dinner became an annual event at Chez Panisse, an acknowledgement of the new excellence of American wine that emerged in the 1970s. Darrell Corti donated this menu to the National Museum of American History in 2011.

Gold rush : a multi-page serigraph / by Jill Timm

Smithsonian Libraries
Limited edition of 35.

"Gold Rush is pushing the flag book structure-- times 2, making it a double or reversible book, both sides attached to a single spine. It has two covers and two parts of a screen printed image. The stylized image of a bush with golden leaves that lives deep in the forest is a 16 color serigraphy by printmaker Jill Timm."--Publisher's website.

"This book started out as a 15" x 18" serigraph print. The image is printed with oil base inks, and was printed in 16 separate colors on Pyramid Cover. The serigraph was created in 1980. But then turned into a book in 2013. The structure is a double or reversible flag structure flag structure. ... The spine is a Fiber Mark paper, the font is Myriad Pro, the text and cover images are digitally printed with archival ink."--Colophon.

Rigged Model, Extreme Gold Rush Clipper Challenge

National Museum of American History
The extreme clipper ship Challenge was built at New York by the famous shipbuilder William H. Webb. At its launch in May 1851, the $150,000 Challenge was the largest merchant ship ever built, measuring 227 feet in length by 42 feet in beam and 2006 tons. The high length:beam ratio of 5.4:1 was what made the three-decker an extreme clipper, and it set a few speed records over the course of its working life. The Challenge was expected to set a record on its maiden voyage, and Capt. Robert H. Waterman was offered a $10,000 bonus if he could drive the ship to San Francisco in under 90 days. He pushed his 60-man crew hard, but poor weather and a mutiny by 50 crewmen off Rio slowed the Challenge to a 108-day trip. The mutiny and the unrelated death of seven crew on that maiden voyage gave the ship a bad reputation. Capt. Waterman was relieved of his command after reaching San Francisco, but the next master had to pay a signing bonus of $200 to lure new crewmen aboard for a China trip. Another mutiny on this second leg of the maiden voyage occurred as well—testament to how driven these men were to sail hard and fast. Over the next decade as a China clipper, an additional mutiny, widespread crew illnesses, frequent dismastings and leaks, and other events cemented the bad reputation of the vessel. It was sold to its captain for $9,350 in 1861. The Challenge changed hands a few more times before sinking off the Brittany coast in February 1877.

The Gold Rush Left Behind Mercury That’s Still Contaminating California

Smithsonian Magazine

Damming and dredging a California river for gold. Photo: Harper’s Weekly magazine

More than a century ago, around 300,000 hopeful people rushed to California with the aim of striking it rich. From 1848 to 1855, at the height of the Gold Rush, miners tore up the countryside in pursuit of that precious mineral. But even forty-niners who didn’t strike it rich left a legacy of rare metal behind—namely, mercury, which still contaminates California’s soil and waterways.

Miners didn’t employ only the quaint panning methods normally associated with the Gold Rush; they used powerful hoses to spray away entire hillsides.

Blasting away the hillside with water jets. Photo: Denver Public Library

Discovery News reports:

The sediment was then run through “sluice boxes,” where mercury was added to bind to gold. But large quantities of the heavy metal made their way into sediment downstream. This destructive mining filled valleys with sediments that caused flooding in California’s Central Valley, and in 1884, the federal government shut down much of this gold-mining activity.

Sluice running down from the hillsides. Photo: Denver Public Library

According to new research, that leftover mercury will continue to flush through the environment, eventually making its way into the San Francisco Bay, for the next 10,000 years or so. And because it’s in the water and soil, it also inevitably makes its way into living organisms.

When the mercury reaches the lowlands of the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta, where the Yuba River and other streams that flow out of the Sierra Nevada end up, it can be converted to methylmercury by microbes. Methylmercury is the organic form of the heavy metal, which can accumulate in animals and make its way up the food chain.

As the mercury concentrates in larger and larger organisms, Discovery points out, it eventually makes its way onto human dinner plates in the form fish like salmon and bass.

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Turning Water to Gold 
What Is Rarer than Gold?

Gold Rush California Was Much More Expensive Than Today’s Tech-Boom California

Smithsonian Magazine

If you have ever wondered how California’s modern-day rush for riches in Silicon Valley compares with the Gold Rush of 1849, look no further than the cost of buying a home.

Glenn Kelman, CEO of real estate startup Redfin, recently warned of an exodus of tech-specialists from Silicon Valley as the average price of property there topped $1 million – more than double the averages in Seattle, Boston or Portland.

It would be fair to say that property prices rose during the Gold Rush too, but that is where the comparison would have to end. Because back in 1849, they climbed to levels that would make modern Californians weep.


Gold Fever: One Man's Adventures on the Trail of the Gold Rush

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The writer Bayard Taylor arrived in San Francisco by ship in the summer of 1849 and feared that nobody would believe him when he wrote about the Gold Rush economy in his dispatches for the New York Tribune.

When the average wage for a laborer in New York might be one or two dollars a day, he was astounded to discover that individual hotel rooms were rented to professional gamblers for upwards of $10,000 a month – the equivalent today of about $300,000. (All inflation estimates are courtesy of

Taylor wrote:

“[One] citizen of San Francisco died insolvent to the amount of forty-one thousand dollars the previous autumn. His administrators were delayed in settling his affairs and his real estate advanced so rapidly in value meantime that after his debts were paid, his heirs had a yearly income of $40,000 [$1.2 million today].

“These facts were indubitably attested; everyone believed them, yet hearing them talked of daily, as matters of course, one at first could not help feeling as if he had been eating ‘of the insane root’.”

According to the consumer data website Numbeo, San Franciscans today face grocery bills and rents about 21 percent higher than the national average. That is an unfortunate figure, but again, it seems negligible when compared with the prices facing shocked gold-seekers as they arrived in the early days of the rush, when almost everything – tools, equipment food, clothing – was in short supply.

Edward Gould Buffum, author of Six Months in the Gold Mines (1850), described having a breakfast of bread, cheese, butter, sardines and two bottles of beer with a friend and receiving a bill for $43 – the equivalent today of about $1,200.

There were reports of canteens charging a dollar for a slice of bread or two if it was buttered, the equivalent of $56. A dozen eggs might cost you $90 at today’s prices; a pick axe would be the equivalent of $1,500; a pound of coffee $1,200 and a pair of boots as much as $3,000 when today you could get a decent pair for around $120.

“Every newcomer in San Francisco is overtaken with a sense of complete bewilderment,” wrote Taylor. “The mind, however it may be prepared for an astonishing condition of affairs, cannot immediately push aside its old instincts of value and ideas of business, letting all past experiences go for naught and casting all its faculties… Never have I had so much difficulty in establishing, satisfactorily to my own senses, the reality of what I saw and heard.”

While some miners did strike it rich in the early days, those that made most money were the ones who “mined the miners.” Imagine the joy of the woman who made $18,000 by baking and selling pies in the gold fields. Or of the foresighted man who arrived in San Francisco in July 1849 with 1,500 old newspapers which he sold to miners, hungry for news from back east, for a dollar each.

Some of America’s best known businesspeople also began this way: Philip Armour was just 19 when he began selling meat to forty-niners in Placerville California (then called Hangtown); Levi Strauss, a Jewish emigrant from Germany, identified the need for tough clothing in the gold fields; Henry Wells and William Fargo made millions by setting up banking services in San Francisco; and John Studebaker’s automobile empire began with him making wheelbarrows for California miners.

Their equivalents today – Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg, Microsoft’s Bill Gates, Larry Page and Sergey Brin of Google, and so on – have made billions rather than millions. And, unlike most of the hapless gold miners, their employees have reaped considerable rewards. By comparison, their costs of living are much more bearable.

How the Gold Rush Led to Real Riches in Bird Poop

Smithsonian Magazine

The California gold rush began when San Francisco businessman Samuel Brannan found out about a secret discovery, set up a store selling prospecting supplies, and famously marched through the streets in 1848 shouting, “Gold! Gold! Gold from the American River!”

People from all over the young United States rushed to the west coast. Some traveled over land but many made the trip on clipper ships that sailed around the tip of South America. The long way around, back in the days before either the Suez or Panama canals existed.

Few people today are aware of what those ships did on their way back.

Ship owners didn't want their vessels returning with empty holds so they looked for something to transport back east that they could sell. What they found was guano, or the accumulated droppings of nesting sea birds (and sometimes bats) that had built up over thousands of years on islands along the route home.

Nobody ran through the streets yelling “Poop! Poop! Poop from the Pacific Ocean!” It wasn't a glamorous product, but it was free for the taking and had a ready market as fertilizer for America's growing agricultural business.

“It was an unbelievable fertilizer because of all the nitrates in it,” says Paul Johnston, curator of the exhibition, “The Norie Atlas and The Guano Trade,” which recently opened at the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History. “The Chincha islands, birds have been [pooping] on these islands for millennia. It was two hundred feet deep in some places.”

A bona fide guano rush began. But with many of the tiny guano-covered islands located in places where no governments had claimed authority over them, there were concerns about the legal framework for mining the guano.

Image by National Museum of American History. The Smithsonian's Norie Atlas is a 7th edition and is the only surviving copy known to exist. (original image)

Image by National Museum of American History. "Some of [the charts] are the most beautiful I've ever seen," says Paul Johnston. (original image)

Image by National Museum of American History. "Good maps weren't in the best interest of the Spanish, the Portuguese,” says Cushman. (original image)

Image by National Museum of American History. Norie's charts of the coast of South America were important in part because past charts had been deliberately poor. (original image)

Image by National Museum of American History. Norie constantly updated his charts to reflect new discoveries and measurements. (original image)

Image by National Museum of American History. The Marine Atlas, or a Seaman’s Complete Pilot for all the Principal Places in the Known World, was published in London in 1826 by John William Norie. (original image)

Image by National Museum of American History. A captain sailing a clipper ship through a network of coral reefs without the latest charts was risking his ship, his crew and his life. (original image)

Image by National Museum of American History. Norie's charts were among the best of his time and his customers included the East India Company and the British Admiralty. (original image)

This prompted the Guano Islands Act of 1856, which allowed United States citizens to claim any unoccupied island or rock that was not under the jurisdiction of any other government. Those islands would then become U.S. territory and American federal laws would apply there. 

“We claimed almost a hundred islands or island groups in an effort to extend the richness of the fertilizer,” says Johnston, “and that is basically the start of American imperialism.” Some of those guano islands (long since depleted of their guano) still remain U.S, territories. Midway Atoll, a strategic key to America's defeat of Japan in the Second World War, is among them.

A guano trade existed prior to the California gold rush, but war between Spain and her former colonies followed by political instability had prevented it from flourishing. The gold rush turned a fledgling (pun intended) business into a boom and entwined the trade with the future of the United States. 

The historical importance of the guano business, which changed the world economically, environmentally and politically, dawned on Johnston as he supervised the restoration of an old atlas that arrived in his mailbox unexpectedly and without a return address.

“In 2011 I got a call from the library at the Coast Guard Academy in New London,” Johnston recalls, “about an old book of charts that they didn't have any use for any more. I said yeah I'd like to know more about it. And then I forgot about it. About a year later this giant package appeared in my mail with no return address.”

The atlas, entitled The Marine Atlas, or a Seaman’s Complete Pilot for all the Principal Places in the Known World, turned out to have been produced by John Norie, an important English mapmaker in the mid-19th century. At the time, the entire world hadn't quite been charted.

New shoals were still being discovered and archipelagos of islands that had been far-flung and economically unimportant weren't mapped. As the economy changed, obscure fly-speck islands covered in poop suddenly became very important to chart. Norie constantly updated his charts to reflect new discoveries and measurements. A captain sailing a clipper ship through a network of coral reefs without the latest charts was risking his ship, his crew and his life. Norie's charts were among the best of his time and his customers included the East India Company and the British Admiralty.

John Norie, an important English mapmaker in the mid-19th century, produced the rare atlas now on view at the American History Museum. (Illustration by Kait Taylor, NMAH)

Norie's charts of the coast of South America were important in part because past charts had been deliberately poor. “As long as the information isn't exact, where the latitude and longitude of a particular river or border is, you could fudge things about where the boundaries were and who owned what,” says Gregory Cushman, a history professor at the University of Kansas and the author of the book, Guano and the Opening of the Pacific World.

“Being inexact was to the political advantage of the people fighting over boundaries. There was a lot of pressure to be vague or even to intentionally deceive. Good maps weren't in the best interest of the Spanish, the Portuguese,” says Cushman. “And the British, because they didn't own territory in these places and they were just traders, secrecy got in the way of their interests. So they had an interest in clear mapping because they were late coming to the Pacific.”

The atlas, held by Smithsonian's Dibner Library for the History of Science and Technology, is of the 7th edition and is the only surviving copy known to exist.

Janice Ellis, one of the conservators involved in restoring the atlas, noticed some subtle clues about its age.

 “As I recall, the first clue to the binding’s date was the watermark on the endleaves,” says Ellis, “which would have been added to the printed pages when they were bound. The watermark reads 'Fellows 1856...' Interestingly enough this is the same oversized Whatman Turkey Hill paper used by other artists and engravers, like JMW Turner and James Audubon.”

Loading guano onto ships in the Chincha Islands in Peru, c. 1857 (Corbis)

As restoration of the book began, volunteers and staff were struck by its beauty. “People started coming up to my office and saying that there's this really beautiful old book and you ought to do something with that,” Johnston says. “At the time, to me it was just a bound volume of old charts, but to other people who are intrigued by the actual beauty of the chart maker's craft, they saw that it was special. Some of them are the most beautiful I've ever seen. That's when I discovered the notations off the coast of Chile where the guano trade was going on.”

An unknown mariner was making his own notes by hand on the pages of the atlas that include important guano producing regions. Johnston began researching what a ship would likely have been doing off the coast of Chile in the 1860's. As he dug deeper, he found that the atlas and the guano trade has a coincidental tie to the early history of the Smithsonian Institution.

The federal government became involved in the guano trade very quickly. One of the provisions of the Guano Islands Act empowered the President to direct the Navy to protect claims to guano islands. Now interested in the stuff, the Navy looked for someone to analyze the guano to see what its qualities really were. The man they found for the job was Joseph Henry; chemist, inventor of the electric relay, and the first Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution. Henry analyzed 17 samples of Pacific guano for the Navy and developed a report describing their various qualities as fertilizer.

“The reason it turned into a big industry was science,” says Cushman.“The identification of ammonia and phosphates as something that can be used for fertilizer was an important thing in the 19th century... science allowed people to realize how valuable guano was for agriculture.”

The prospect of massive wealth on an unseen rock in another hemisphere made the guano business ripe for fraud. “There was sort of a shell game going on," says Johnston. “A lot of the islands were jagged, just shooting up in the air. They didn't have natural harbors so they had to anchor offshore.” Physically getting at the guano and loading it on to ships could be expensive, awkward, and in some cases entirely impractical. “Because of the difficulties of extraction and keeping your claim, these companies would come back to the east coast, they'd sell shares and sell the company to some sucker,” he says.

But once it was brought to market and applied to crops, the stuff really worked. “Among cotton planters in the South, guano was a prestige commodity,” says Cushman. “By using guano you were, as a plantation owner, showing your neighbors that you were a modern farmer, a scientific farmer, and had the economic means to pay for this expensive bird crap from the other side of the world.”

Like California's gold nuggets, the guano wasn't going to last forever. Constant digging scared away the seabirds that had been nesting or resting on the rocks. No more guano was being produced. Populations of sea birds crashed. Recovery was hampered by the fact that fishermen had come in along the same routes being used by the guano traders and were netting the sardines that the birds had previously been eating and converting to guano.

By the early 20th century most of the guano islands had been exhausted. Now hooked on fertilizer, industry turned first to using fish for its manufacture and later to making synthetic fertilizer. Many of the steeper rock spires are once again unoccupied and in many cases ended up being claimed by other nations. But a few of the islands remained settled. America had used poop as its motive to expand into an empire stretching across the Pacific. Today, those Pacific islands are more important than ever before due to the exclusive economic zones that extend for two hundred miles off of any country's coastline under international law.

Any oil and natural gas that lie under the sea floor in those areas are the exclusive property of the United States. Extracting those resources was unimaginable when the islands were first claimed.

Perhaps the guano and oil are more valuable than the gold rush that started the whole thing. Guano and oil aren't pretty but they are a lot more useful to people than a shiny bar of metal. All that is gold does not glitter—especially when it's ancient bird poop.

"The Norie Atlas and the Guano Trade" is on view through January 4, 2017 in the Albert Small Documents Gallery at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C.

The days of '49 [sound recording] : songs of the gold rush / sung by Logan English ... Billy Faier

Ralph Rinzler Folklife Archives and Collections
Program notes by Kenneth S. Goldstein, including song lyrics and bibliography, (16 p. : ill.) inserted in container.

Logan English, vocals and guitar; Billy Faier, banjo.
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