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Names on the Signs in Santa Cruz: Gold!

The Gold Rush was arguably the most important event of 19th century California history.

 

The three most important events of 19th century California history occurred within a four-year span from 1846 to 1850. First was the Mexican-American War of 1846-48. The third, California statehood, came in 1850 and was a direct result of the war. In between those two came the most important of the three - the unexpected discovery of gold in the Sierra Nevada foothills. At the beginning of 1848, the non-Indian population of California was estimated to be about 12,000. The first U.S. census, in 1850, counted over 92,000. Most of that increase can be attributed to the California Gold Rush.

As always, bucolic Santa Cruz was out of the main currents of these events. The most immediate local effect was the sudden departure of many residents for the gold fields. The local economy must have ground to a halt as so many (mostly) young males left their jobs, farms and families for the chance to “strike it rich”. Most of those would-be gold miners soon returned, disillusioned and broke, but at least one never returned at all. Michael Lodge, co-owner of Rancho Soquel, disappeared on his return journey and was presumed murdered by bandits.

Some locals reasoned that, if there was gold in the rivers flowing out of the Sierra Nevada, there might be also be gold in local creeks. Prospecting commenced and, in fact, a few minor discoveries were made on some of the San Lorenzo River tributaries. Despite rumors of the discovery of a gold-rich boulder, it appears that no one got rich. The most popular of the local mining areas, near Felton, still bears the name Gold Gulch. The gold is gone, but the quarry at the head of Gold Gulch continues to supply granite and other stone products.

Other locals found a different kind of gold. There was money to be made by supplying the needs of the hordes of prospectors. William Blackburn, newcomer Robert Cathcart and others planted fields full of potatoes to feed the hungry miners. The flats around today’s Blackburn Street and Cathcart Street were once potato fields. Elihu Anthony manufactured mining picks and built the town’s first wharf to facilitate the shipping of goods to San Francisco and up the Sacramento River. Frederick Hihn, who would later build the city’s most impressive residence, arrived from Germany in 1851 and established a mercantile business.

Unfortunately, the Gold Rush proved to be just that. Within a few years the gold got harder and harder to find, and the booming economic activity declined rapidly. Many of the miners went (or came) back home. Local farms couldn’t give potatoes away. The fortunate few survived and, despite the downturn, Cathcart, Hihn and some other 49ers stayed.

Another new resident arrived in 1849, but for entirely different reasons. Eliza Farnham was the widow of the New England writer Thomas J. Farnham, who made Isaac Graham famous as the hero of The Graham Affair. Farnham later came to visit Graham at Zayante, and bought a farmstead in the area. Upon Farnham’s 1848 death in San Francisco, Eliza and their children came to live on the farm. She went on to become a leading abolitionist, novelist and early feminist.  

Further Reading

  • Farnham, Eliza. California, In-doors and Out (1856) - a chronicle of her experiences in California.

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