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The Littlest 49ers

Author John Cech
Air Date 1/24/2000

The Littlest 49ers Transcript

Gold was discovered this morning on the American River in California in 1848, on a construction site for a saw mill that was being built for John Sutter, a Swiss immigrant who had become, in the ten years since his arrival in California, a baronial figure, presiding over vast, prosperous land holdings that included a fort, farms and vineyards, herds of cattle, and, in 1848, the first flecks of gold that would cause one of the largest and most concentrated migrations of people in our nation’s history. Sutter had an inkling of what the news of the discovery might mean to his plans for expanding his personal empire, and so he swore his workers to secrecy. But within a few months, the news had leaked out in San Francisco, a sleepy port of less than a thousand souls, which emptied that spring as its citizens went north to the diggins. By the end of the year, President Polk had officially announced the discovery to the nation, and, as one commentator put it, “the world rushed in.” San Francisco swelled in size to thirty thousand by 1850, with many thousands more mining north of the city and on route to the west where, it was said, you could pick gold up from the banks of a river–enough in a few months to last you a lifetime.

Among the prospectors were many children and young people. Most came overland with their parents, but groups of students from Harvard and other colleges, most of them still teenagers, organized themselves into companies and took boats from Boston on the six-month journey around the Horn to the gold fields. One of the most celebrated appearances of a child in the roaring San Francisco of the 1850s was that of Miss Anna Maria Quinn, who at the age of seven dazzled the crowd of the Metropolitan Theater by reciting the whole first act of Hamlet from memory. The next week she did performances from long-forgotten shows, playing little Eva and Little Pickle to admiring throngs. Within a few months, she and her parents set sail for Australia, where gold had been discovered in 1851, and simply vanished from recorded history. But younger children were so scarce in the “instant” city of San Francisco and in the gold fields, that when they materialized in the midst of the grizzled miners, they were treated as miracles, like the foundling child in Brett Harte’s famous story, “The Luck of Roaring Camp,” whose very presence reforms a lawless town and opens a seam of hope for its inhabitants whose dreams of gold had been dashed by the bitter realities of life in the diggins.

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