On Jan. 24, 1848, James Marshall changed American history — particularly that of California — when he discovered gold in the American River near John Sutter’s sawmill, unwittingly setting the stage for what would become the California Gold Rush. Even today, locals like Robert Guardiola — whose wife Mary is CEO of the Oakdale Chamber of Commerce — devote time to the pursuit of striking “the Mother Lode.”
People from all walks of life caught what was termed “gold fever” when it was advertised that untold riches could be found in the hills, just waiting to be plucked from the streams as easily as one does a water-worn pebble.
The lure of easy wealth drew doctors, lawyers, farmers and immigrant workers, all hoping to “strike it rich” in the goldfields of California.
By 1850, the population in the wilds of California had increased ten-fold. San Francisco went from a quiet portside town of 1,000 people to a metropolis filled with 35,000. The state saw its non-Indian population grow from 14,000 to nearly 250,000 in spite of the fact that an average of 30,000 gold miners returned home each year. There seemed no shortage of men and women looking to try their luck and gamble their future on the hopes that they might find that elusive mineral.
Guardiola, of Riverbank, is a modern gold miner and weekend panner who discovered the hobby later in life, yet had always been fascinated by the idea.
“It all started when my step dad ordered a gold panning kit but we never ended up going out,” Guardiola said.
A childhood curiosity became an adult hobby in 2002 and now Guardiola owns a claim and is involved in four gold panning groups, including one that he heads himself.
According to encylopedia.com, although 80 percent of the “49ers” were from the United States, gold rush fever drew people from around the globe, with immigrants from East Asia, Chile, Mexico and western Europe represented among the gold seekers.
It was the largest documented mass migration as people overran the formerly lightly traveled trails to the West Coast, all clamoring for fame and fortune, though they soon discovered life in a miners camp was hard, remote, dangerous and most often unrewarding as few truly found their fortunes as they’d hoped when they embarked on their ill-fated journey.
Even the two who started it all, Marshall and Sutter, were ultimately led to poverty and ruin in their gold pursuit when they both died penniless.
Ironically, the gold rush fortunes were not made with the nearly $300 million in gold that was discovered but rather in the marketing of supplies needed to prospect. Case in point, German immigrant Levi Strauss made an enduring name for himself, launching a clothing empire, by selling work pants to gold diggers.
While life for the 1800s gold prospector was rough, unpredictable and hardscrabble, nonetheless it took six years for the rush to die down to a dull roar and finally a persistent murmur.
And today, 163 years since the original “rush,” that murmur is still alive and well in the heart of modern prospectors.
As to the allure for the modern miner, Guardiola said, “You know, it’s a group of people who enjoy and protect the environment and we go out there and have fun. There’s not too many places you can go out and sit in the stream and actually find something that’s worth something doing a hobby.”
Gold prices have always fluctuated but Guardiola said he’s found enough gold over the years to pay for his claim.
“If you wanted to make a full time living doing this, you could do it,” he said, adding, “It’s back-breaking work but you could do it. You could earn a day’s living out there if you pulled a gram or two of gold a day. There’s still plenty of opportunity out there.”
In spite of being overrun by the 49ers back in the day, Guardiola assures that there is still gold to be found.
“Oh yes, there’s plenty of ‘gold in them thar hills.’ Most gold prospectors, today, keep their gold and make jewelry out of it, because they’re proud of what they find,” he said.
To illustrate his point, when asked what he did with his own gold, he said, “Ever seen Mary’s ears?”
Some of his gold has been fashioned into earrings for his wife, a testament to the success of his venture.
And gold fever? Very much alive, he said with a chuckle.
“There’s most definitely gold fever out there but most people do it as a hobby. You get pretty darn excited when you see a chunk of gold the size of your fingernail sitting in your pan,” Guardiola said.
He vividly remembers the first time he saw gold in his pan and he likes introducing “newbies” to the thrill, which is why he started his group.
“It’s a good stress reliever and there’s lots of camaraderie,” Guardiola said of his gold panning hobby. “You meet a lot of good people.”
For those with gold fever, here are some resources:
Guardiola’s group meets online at: www.meetup.com/goldprospectors