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Cover Story September 16, 2004


by lyle e davis

by lyle e davis


Most of us have traveled today’s California.  We’re used to freeway travel, zipping in and out of small to medium size towns and then back to the big cities.


Come with us now as we visit what California was like back in the pioneer days.  During the days of the gold rush.  Back to a time when San Francisco was known as Yerba Buena . . . back to a time when gold fever was contagious, back to a time when . . .  well, let’s let someone who was there at the time tell the story:


The Inside Story of The Gold Rush

by Jacques Antoine Moerenhout 


Jacques Antoine Moerenhout (1796-1879) was the French consul at Monterey in 1848. The inside story of the gold rush (1935) contains excerpts from Moerenhout's official dispatches concerning the discovery of gold in California. He reports his trip to the goldfields above Sacramento in July 1848 as well as later developments in the Gold Rush, 1848-1850.


Here, Moerenhout advises the French Minister of Foreign Affairs of the discovery of gold at Coloma and of his journey of investigation.


Pueblo de San José de Guadaloupe

(Present Day San Jose, Ca.)


Monsieur le Ministre: May 15, 1848.


I cannot yet tell Your Excellency of [all] the many discoveries of mines of precious metals which have been made in all parts of Upper California, but especially in this district, where all other riches seem to be combined with those of agriculture; but the most important new discovery, and [the one] which just now is causing the most excitement, is that of a gold placer, which is found in the plain of the Sacramento near New Helvetia. (New Helvetia is in present day downtown Sacramento). This deposit or placer, it is said, is more than twenty leagues (A league was approximately three miles) in length and of a considerable width.


The gold is found in flakes          (paillettes) in a sort of loose alluvial soil. This deposit is as rich as the richest placers of Sonora, in Mexico.

Being unable to go there myself to examine it, I have written to M. Sutter, the owner of New Helvetia, to ask him for some details of this discovery. 




Monsieur le Ministre: June 10, 1848.


The discovery of a placer or deposit of gold which had just been found in the Sacramento valley near the river of the same name, seems to be surpassing all that was said of it. Since several people have subsequently come from the place with quantities of gold, very large in proportion to the few days that they had worked there, the proofs are too positive now to leave any doubt as to the extreme richness of this deposit. Some of those who worked there have made three to five hundred francs per day, but it seems that the usual product of a day's work is from thirty to fifty francs.


At the time of my departure from Pueblo de San José, the 20th of May last, more than two-thirds of the Americans and other foreigners living in the port of Yerba Buena (Yerba Buena is today known as San Francisco) had left it to go to the Sacramento (River); of fifty volunteers of the garrison, thirty-four had just deserted, [taking] with [them their] arms and equipment; all the ships in the port had lost their crews; and there was not a workman left to perform the slightest task.


This movement which began first at Sonoma and Yerba Buena, situated nearer to the Sacramento, now seems to be spreading gradually, like a contagion, over the whole country. At the Pueblo de San José all the foreigners are preparing to leave. When I passed through Santa Cruz, I found not an American left. The Frenchmen established there were also about to go, and the saw-mills where they were working had stopped for lack of labor. At Monterey the emigration has been smaller and less general. However, all the Americans who were not detained by quite important business affairs have gone, and others are preparing to follow them, and this place, like all the others, will soon find itself without a workman and almost without a foreigner.


One remarkable thing is that this movement has up to now been confined to the Americans and the other foreigners, because except for a few Sonorans (From Sonora, Mexico) here, who are experienced and know the method of washing the sands and auriferous soil, hardly a Mexican or Californian (Californians, at this time, were resident Mexicans. and/or Spanish descendants.  “Americans” were those who had come from “outside.,” or, “the States.”) has yet left, either from ordinary curiosity, as in the case of some foreigners, or to profit from the riches which are scattered in such profusion at such a little distance. And for that matter, this discovery has indeed furnished an excellent occasion for judging well the great difference that there is between the characters of the two races, the Anglo-American and the Spanish descendants of this continent. The former, quick to decide, with almost nomadic habits, and dominated by a single passion, that of enriching himself, as in the present case, abandons home and interests or disposes of them as he can and, taking only the bare necessities, leaves with wives  [sic] and children for an unknown place where he and his family will be exposed to a thousand privations and sufferings, but where he hopes to find wherewithal to satisfy his ambition, change his social position and assist in the execution of his projects for the future. The Californians on the other hand, seem to retain their calmness, but it is probable that when they see the gold in circulation they will likewise bestir themselves. It is even feared that the very Indians will catch the excitement and that soon farmers will be without help and families without servants and that the lack of hands will make it impossible to gather the harvest which is so promising this year.

In my last [dispatch] I said to Your Excellency that according to the reports in circulation this deposit was about twenty leagues long over a considerable width. This report seems also to be confirmed. Its location is between the Sacramento and one of its tributaries, the American River, and it extends eastward to near the Sierra Nivada (Nevada). The gold, mixed with particles or grains of platinum, is found sprinkled throughout a sort of sand underneath a shallow layer of vegetable soil. The layer of sand or loose soil in which these metals are found is several metres thick and has a layer of clay as its base, and it is near this that the largest quantity of gold and platinum is found. (A metre is equal to 1.936 yards, or, a bit more than 3 feet).These metals are found in flakes and in grains. Some of the grains weigh as much as two and three ounces. I do not know what its fineness is, but it is received in trade at Yerba Buena, (San Francisco) at the rate of fourteen dollars an ounce. The price of platinum has not yet been fixed.


The commerce of this country is altogether paralyzed. Cash being absolutely lacking, nothing is bought or sold, but it is hoped that some ships of the American fleet will soon return from Mazatlan, and that the money which they will put into circulation, as well as the placer gold which is already beginning to appear, may revive business a bit. Just now the construction of houses and other buildings is suspended for lack of resources and workmen.




Monsieur le Ministre:

August 17,1848.


I left Monterey the fifth of July, accompanied by three Frenchmen, Joseph La Bourdire, Pierre Leguere and - Pipi, and by a California Indian servant of mine. In two days we reached the Pueblo de San José, twenty-nine or thirty leagues distant from Monterey. During (a) short stay at the Pueblo, I was struck by the changes that had been wrought in the spirit of the inhabitants since my last visit on the fifteenth of May. At that time several Americans had left for the gold regions, abandoning homes and crops, and almost all the other foreigners living there and in the vicinity were preparing to follow them. But the Californians, so difficult to excite and doubtful of the importance of this discovery or believing the reports then in circulation highly exaggerated, still showed much indifference and seemed not to care to go. Whereas today, out of the five hundred men comprised in the Pueblo and in the farms for several leagues around, hardly thirty or forty remain. All have left for the placer (mining deposits/area) and the few who are still there speak of going, too. Never, I think, has there been such excitement in any country of the world. Everywhere the women have been left alone, even in the most isolated farms, for the Indians too are either taken by their masters or go by themselves to search for gold, and this ferment, far from diminishing, continues to increase and to spread. The roads are crowded with people, with horses and with carriages. At the Pueblo of San José, which due to its situation has become as it were the center of all this excitement, there reigns such a stir and activity as to make one believe that he is no longer in the same country nor among the same people, and that in two months both have changed their nature and condition.


As we were leaving the Mission for the gold fields we met Colonel Mason, Governor of California, who had just visited a part of the gold regions. He was returning amazed, and assured me that the reality far surpassed all reports which had been made to him and [indeed] all reports in circulation.


The linking of waterways with highways, that is to say, the roads from Monterey and the Pueblo [de San José] with the Bay of San Francisco [and] the San Joaquin and Sacramento rivers, provides an open, well defined route from the capital to the northern extremity of the country.


July 12th - We started again at daybreak. A little way from the place where we had passed the night the road forks. One branch goes in a northwesterly direction to the Strait and the Sacramento, the other leads in an east-northeasterly direction to the crossing of the San Joaquin River. The two are now perfectly well defined, for they both lead to the gold country. We took the one to the east-northeast, for despite the difficulties of crossing the San Joaquin River in this season, our Californians positively refused to go by way of the Strait, and perhaps with reason, as since ferries have been established there several accidents have occurred.


July 13th - This morning, leaving our camp and the pretty valley which we had just crossed, we entered almost immediately into a dismal and dry country, the sterility of which increases as we advance through the hills toward the mountains. To enter from this valley into the Tulares or San Joaquin plain there is an easy route called the San Gonsalo or Gonsado pass, which I wished to reconnoiter; but my Californian companions, impatient to reach the placer, took a different route and after an hour and a half of toil, reaching the top of the mountains, we had the satisfaction of getting a magnificent view of the plain through which the San Joaquin River runs and which extends with it as far as the eye can see to the north and to the south. It is also of considerable width and is bounded on the east by the Sierra Nevada Mountains.


Coming down the mountain  into a sort of dale, we were diverted in turn by the sight of several antelope, of coyotes, a variety of large fox, and an enormous bear, which was coming down a mountain and heading toward us. When he saw us he stopped, as though uncertain, but turning quickly he ran away in another direction.


The San Joaquin overflows every year while the snow is melting in the high mountains. By the month of May it floods the country for a half league or a league on each bank, and when it returns to its bed toward the middle of July it leaves lagoons and swamps on all sides.


The San Joaquin River, joining the Sacramento River at its very mouth, falls with it into Sushem [Suisun] or San Francisco Bay. It has its source in the Sierra Nevada mountains fifty miles to the south. This river is navigable by rowboats and small sloops in any season as far as four or five leagues from its mouth, and from April to the end of August ships of a hundred tons could go up it for thirty leagues into the interior. It can be useful for inland navigation during at least five months of the year.


Formerly the crossing of the San Joaquin was rarely undertaken between the first of May and the end of June, although [it is] comparatively easy, for all the lowlands being then submerged, men could cross on the tule balsas which the Indians know how to handle, and horses were swum across, choosing the narrowest places, and it even happened in very urgent cases that lone men might cross this way. We found there seven or eight wagons (voitures), a considerable quantity of merchandise, horses, cattle and more than fifty men waiting their turn to cross the river; for under a regulation established by the travelers themselves, each is to cross, together with his effects and his animals, in the order of the time of his arrival.


After we crossed the river there were mosquitoes by the million, we did not know where to take refuge, and even the horses were so tormented that they were kicking and we were running the risk of losing them [so] I proposed that we continue our journey (at one o’clock in the morning ). The torment (from the mosquitos) was unendurable, so everyone agreed and in less than a quarter of an hour we were on our way.


We then found some thirty travelers, several of whom had arisen at the noise we had made in crossing the lagoon. They all expressed their astonishment on seeing us arrive at this hour of the night and by such roads. The place where we then were being quite high and dry, the horses were tethered near the lagoon where there was some grass, and each of us, worn out by fatigue, made himself as comfortable as he could on the sand to wait for daylight and to continue on our way.


At five o'clock our horses were saddled and everything was ready for a new start. Each of us brought his mochila, a sort of leather caparison which covers the saddle and the horse's flanks, and a blanket, to make his bed and his covering. I was the only one who also had a cloak. Our provisions consisted of dried meats, of bread which had been cut up and prepared in the shape of biscuits, of pinol [pinole] or flour made of roasted corn, of cheese, tea and sugar. The Americans and most of the other foreigners, however, traveling with wagons, had everything [that they needed] with them and had their three meals a day regularly. Those with whom we were this morning were preparing a copious meal, of fresh meat, ham, tea and coffee. My companions had a bit of bread and cheese.


After having gone about a league through this charming country, covered with fine oaks and like a park, we stopped at a place called El Campo de los Franceses,* the French Camp, where there is a pretty stream of water and abundant pasturage. This place was given the name which it bears because in 1830 fifty or sixty Canadians--always considered French in this country--camped there for several days. We stopped there to let the worst heat of the day pass, to rest, and finally to cook some meat, of which we all felt the need.  (French Camp, was located between Lathrop and Stockton.)


After a fair meal and a good rest in the shade of the handsome trees which border the stream, we started again at about half past two. It is about five leagues from there to the Arroyo de las Calaveras,* and about seven or eight to the Rio de los Moquelemes.*

(Calaveras River.) (Mokelumne River.)  The stream takes its strange name (River of the Skulls) from a war of extermination which the San José Mission had waged in 1818 against the Moquelome Indians, who had stopped near this stream to defend themselves. The Spaniards, about sixty in number, mounted and well armed, left between two and three hundred Indians dead on the field and carried away many prisoners. Although these poor Indians had only bows and arrows, they defended themselves well. Four Spanish soldiers lost their lives there and several were wounded. The crime of which these poor people were accused was of trying to entice away the Mission Indians, that is to say, they were trying to persuade their seduced or abducted children, brothers and relatives to come home.


After watering our horses, we went to the farm of Doctor Isabell,* for the Americans have already settled in this beautiful region, and possess the best lands. This doctor, like all his compatriots, had left for the Placer.

(Farm of James C. Isbell near the present Lodi.)


However, I obtained some watermelons and cantaloupes there and some Indians who have a rancheria or village nearby sold us a quarter of venison. With these provisions we went to make our camp on the bank of the Arroyo de las Calaveras, under a group of oaks, one of which I measured and found to be twenty-one feet in circumference with a perfectly healthy trunk and an even spread of at least forty-five feet.


July 15th - During the whole night we had seen a fire in the plain to the east of us, in the direction toward which we were going. There was a line of it three or four leagues long, rapidly approaching. Hardly had we started this morning when we were suffocated by a thick smoke which made it impossible to see anything at the least distance. For more than an hour we suffered from this discomfort, which at times was very great, until we reached the very place where all was aflame. While this fire was very lively, it was only consuming the grass and wild oats which, being very thick and dry, threw up a bright flame and were burning so fast that it would have been impossible to stop or to extinguish the fire.


In less than half an hour we had passed the fire. That is to say, that as we approached the Moquelames [Mokelumne] River the fire was burned out, but everything was black and dismal.


Again we found a great number of travelers and effects at the crossing of the river, but all the men being at breakfast, they kindly let us have the boat to put over our little baggage. This boat is nothing but a large hollow log, a sort of dugout [pirogue], but round on the bottom, with no outriggers and consequently very cranky. But the river, already low, was only 60 feet wide and its greatest depth at this place was but 10 to 12 feet. We forced the horses into the water and they all swam across.


As we wished to reach the Cosmanes (Cosumnes) River today at a place where an American has established a mill,* we still had from 10 to 12 leagues to go, so we simply crossed, re-saddled our horses and went on our way. At 11 o'clock we stopped at a place called Arroyo Seco,** which the fire had not reached and where there was some water.

*( Probably William Daylor's mill on the north side of the Cosumnes River. Daylor, an English sailor, is said to have left his ship in California in 1835, to have entered Sutter's service in 1840-41, and settled on the Cosumnes with Sheldon, his brother-in-law, about 1844.

**(Dry Creek.)


Before we saddled our horses the idea occurred to me of having a test made, in order to determine whether this stream, which is quite a long one in the rainy season, bore any gold. We had our bateas, a sort of large, shallow wooden dish of from 12 to 14 inches in diameter, which serve to wash gold-bearing soil. I had one filled with earth taken from the streambed, near the middle, in a place where it was dry. The operation of washing the earth I delegated to Arnaud Maubé, who had engaged for some time in the washing of auriferous soil in Mexico. In less than half an hour, to our great astonishment, he showed us some gold which had remained in the bottom with a little black sand, which here as everywhere else seemed to me to be oxydized iron and grains of ruby. The gold was so fine that we had to use the magnifying glass to see that it was in flakes, of which there were eight or ten. This discovery made me regret not to have applied the same test at each of the streams which we had crossed since the San Joaquin, all of which probably bear gold.

We started on as usual toward half past two. Not far from the stream at which we had stopped we entered a barren plain which extended farther than the eye could see. We were all astonished by the extreme heat which we suddenly felt on crossing the last of the little hills which surround the stream heat which increased as we went on and soon became absolutely unbearable. There was a breeze, it is true; but this northwest wind, so feared and so cold on the coast, had crossed sixty leagues of plain and of burning lands, and instead of refreshing, it was scorching, suffocating, as though it were coming from an oven. After three hours of this torture we approached a more or less wooded country, which gradually improved as we went on toward the east. At six or half past six o'clock we came to the river, and although the heat had much diminished, we were suffering so from thirst that as soon as we sighted it we all dashed at once for the place where one can climb down the bank to the water.


The mill is a league from the place where we had reached the river, and as we wished to arrive before nightfall, we went on immediately after we had refreshed ourselves and watered our horses. To reach the mill, it was necessary to cross the river, but as it was fordable in several places at this season, we got over without difficulty. I knew the owner of the mill. He received me affably, and offered me the hospitality of his house and his table, but tired out as I was and somewhat indisposed, I accepted only a cup of tea and then I rejoined my companions who had encamped again on the very bank of the river.


We were now in the gold-bearing district, for some had been taken out a league from the mill, and in such quantity that one person, with ordinary labor, might make a dollar an hour. There was even some at the mill itself, but in less quantity. Nor is this river the most southerly spot where it is found, for I had extracted some myself from the sands of the Arroyo Seco, and according to what I learned at the mill, the Indians called Moquelemes, and who live on the river of that name come here to sell gold taken from the sands of that river and the nearby streams.


But we were still twelve or fourteen leagues from the place where we intended to go, called by the Americans Dry Diggings.

(The miners had not yet developed the humor and imagination that produced the characteristic place names of the gold country. Dry Diggings was a descriptive title borne by a number of places, but most prominently at this time by the region about what soon became Hangtown and later the more genteel Placerville. It is undoubtedly to this place that Moerenhout refers.)


At every stopping place where there was water I had tests made, and everywhere that we took earth from the ravines we found gold. In one little valley two leagues from the present diggings we found so much of it that my companions were tempted to stay there.


After descending a small mountain we found ourselves in a pretty little valley where we saw tents, wagons, horses, oxen, and soon a multitude of men at work, some digging in the ravines between the many hills, others carting or washing the dirt. The hustle and bustle was like that of a great city.


By the time we arrived it was night. This was what one might call the French Camp, where several of my compatriots were gathered. The place was well chosen, a little stream of excellent clear water, but with their usual negligence there was not a tent, nor an enramada,* and though they gave me a hearty welcome and, considering where we were, a good supper, I had again, as during all my journey from San José, to sleep on the earth and to have the stars for bed canopy.

*(A temporary shelter made of branches or brush over a wooden frame. The American miners, adopting the term, contracted it to “ramada.”)


I have the honor of being, with the deepest respect, M. le Ministre,

Your very humble and very obedient servant,


The Consul of France,




Editors Note:  This is the first of a two part series.  In next week’s edition of The Paper, you will follow Monsieur Moerenhout, as he goes into the gold fields.  You’ll learn how the gold was mined, how much was taken in a day, how much they could sell the gold for, what tools were used, which fortunes were made, and by whom.  You’ll learn major places of gold prospecting where, even today, one can still mine for gold - though not, perhaps, with quite the amount of success as that which drove ‘gold fever’ to such a frenzy.  Join us next week for the continuing exploration of the gold fields, as reported by Monsieur Moerenhout, the Consul of France.