Excelsior! and Eureka! 165 Years of California Gold: from Sutter’s Mill to Jennifer Lawrence (January 24, 1848-January 24, 2013)


On January 24, 1848, gold (AU 79 on the Periodic Chart of the Elements) was discovered on the South Branch of the American River at John Augustus Sutter’s Mill in “New Helvetia” (New Switzerland), California.  Sutter’s history kind of set the tone in California for a culture of real estate piracy by “claim jumping” and disregard for any rights except those established by possession of money……

At one time the absolute ruler of what amounted to a private kingdom along the Sacramento River, John Sutter saw his immense wealth and power overrun in the world’s rush to pick California clean of gold.

Sutter was born John Augustus Sutter in Baden, Germany, though his parents had originally come from Switzerland, a lineage of which he was especially proud. In 1834, faced with impossible debt, he decided to try his fortunes in America and, leaving his family in a brother’s care, set sail for New York. There he decided that the West offered him the best opportunity for success, and he moved to Missouri, where for three years he operated as a trader on the Santa Fe Trail.

By 1838, Sutter had determined that Mexican California held the promise of fulfilling his ambitious dreams, and he set off along the Oregon Trail, arriving at Fort Vancouver, near present-day Portland, Oregon, in hopes of finding a ship that would take him to San Francisco Bay. His journey involved detours to the Hawaiian Islands and to a Russian colony at Sitka, Alaska, but Sutter made the most of his wanderings by trading advantageously along the way. When he finally arrived in California in 1839, Sutter met first with the provincial governor in Monterey and secured permission to establish a settlement east of San Francisco (then called Yerba Buena) along the Sacramento River, in an area then occupied only by Indians.

Sutter was granted nearly fifty thousand acres and authorized “to represent in the Establishment of New Helvetia [Sutter’s Swiss-inspired name for his colony] all the laws of the country, to function as political authority and dispenser of justice, in order to prevent the robberies commited by adventurers from the United States, to stop the invasion of savage Indians and the hunting and trapping by companies from the Columbia.” In other words, Sutter was to serve the California authorities as a bulwark against the assorted threats pressing in on them from American-controlled territories to the north and east.

Ironically, as headquarters for his domain, Sutter chose a site on what he named the American River, at its junction with the Sacramento River and near the site of present-day Sacramento. Here, with the help of laborers he had brought with him from Hawaii, he built Sutter’s Fort, a massive adobe structure with walls eighteen feet high and three feet thick. Two years later, in 1841, Sutter expanded his settlement when the Russians abandoned Fort Ross, their outpost north of San Francisco, and offered to sell it to him for thirty thousand dollars. Paying with a note he never honored, Sutter practically dismantled the fort and moved its equipment, livestock and buildings to the Sacramento Valley.

Within just a few years, Sutter had achieved the grand-scale success he long dreamed of: acres of grain, a ten-acre orchard, a herd of thirteen thousand cattle, even two acres of Castile roses. His son came to share in his prosperity in 1844, and the rest of his family soon followed. At the same time, during these years Sutter’s Fort became a regular stop for the increasing number of Americans venturing into California, several of whom Sutter employed. Besides providing him with a profitable source of trade, this steady flow of immigrants provided Sutter with a network of relationships that offered some political protection when the United States seized control of California in 1846, at the outbreak of the Mexican War.

Barely a week before the war’s end, however, there occurred a chance event that would destroy all John Sutter’s achievements and yet at the same time link his name forever to one of the highpoints of American history. On the morning of January 24, 1848, a carpenter named James Marshall, who was building a sawmill for Sutter upstream on the American River near Coloma, looked into the mill’s tailrace to check that it was clear of silt and debris and saw at the water’s bottom nuggets of gold. Marshall took his discovery to Sutter, who consulted an encyclopedia to confirm it and then tried to pledge all his employees to secrecy. But within a few months, word had reached San Francisco and the gold rush was on.

Suddenly all of Sutter’s workmen abandoned him to seek their fortune in the gold fields. Squatters swarmed over his land, destroying crops and butchering his herds. “There is a saying that men will steal everything but a milestone and a millstone,” Sutter later recalled; “They stole my millstones.” By 1852, New Helvetia had been devastated and Sutter was bankrupt. He spent the rest of his life seeking compensation for his losses from the state and federal governments, and died disappointed on a trip to Washington, D.C. in 1880.

On January 24, 2013 at 8:00 p.m.: I took time off from my somewhat manic-depressive studies of Louisiana Civil Law to  go to the Prytania Movie Theatre for a free showing a a movie “Haiti Redux” where I happened to sit next to an Iranian-American student of Real Estate at New York University named Alexander who identified himself as being from Beverly Hills, California.  It seems that one of the Professors from the Real Estate Department at NYU was one of the co-producers of this movie about the efforts of various small academic and artistic groups to help in the reconstruction of Haiti after the January 12, 2013.  They came to New Orleans as a kind of “study of comparative disaster sites” I guess (seven and a half years after Katrina).  

I have previously commented on how Iranians, especially Iranians of the Jewish Faith and sub-ethnicity, have taken over Beverly Hills, so it was a weird triangulation on the world.  The movie itself was slightly interesting but kind of pointless.  Why a bunch of “do gooder” White people from New York need to go down to Haiti to tell them what their “standards” ought to be for everything in life begged (in my opinion) the question of why Haiti is such a basket case of a country in the first place.  

It makes no sense to say that Haiti is the way it is because of White Oppression of Blacks, because Haiti was the SECOND INDEPENDENT NATION IN THE NEW WORLD, after the U.S., to fight for and win its own Independence.  Basically, after the French Revolution had started in the 1790s, the Black Slaves rose up and either slaughtered or exiled the French landowners, and their country has been a living hell ever since.  Coincidence?  Karma?  Genetics?  Some combination of all three?  The movie “Haiti Redux” did not explain.

January 24, 2013, at 10:00 p.m.: Since I was already at the Prytania, and kind of bored and frustrated by the Haiti Redux movie, I decided to stick around for “Silver Linings Playbook”, not having heard or read anything about it in advance except that it had 8 nominations for Academy Awards.  This is only the third movie of Jennifer’s I have seen, but I’m already quite madly in love with her and I am very happy that she has been nominated for “Best Actress” in this piece.  To begin with, the young Katniss Everdeen, I mean Miss Lawrence, outshines the rather more sensationally ballyhooed Kristen Stewart by a factor of roughly 10,000 to 1, both as a genuine actress and a beauty with sex appeal….well, beyond any effect I can describe without using metaphors of NASA technology and intergalactic astronomical explorations.

But the movie Silver Linings Playbook scores a more important victory.  It turns the past year’s penchant for portraying ordinary Middle-Class White people as insane subjects for clinical analysis and institutional confinement into a marvelous romantic comedy.  So of Jennifer’s three movie’s I’ve seen so far: in the HUNGER GAMES, she is a heroine par excellence, a beauty with skills and brains reminiscent of her own real Kentucky frontier heritage and background.  Katniss Everdeen’s mental strength and character in that movie equate with her physical skill and practical experience.  But then in HOUSE AT THE END OF THE STREET, Jennifer’s character, though still exquisite in every way, was drawn into a tragedy of mental illness and depravity of ordinary middle class White People.  This media theme is part of the Western Power-Elite’s current campaign to destroy all vestiges of the America that was pre-1965, pre-Johnson, pre-Vietnam, pre-Johnson-Nixon, pre-Watergate, pre-Nixon-Ford, pre-degenerate malaise, pre-Carter, pre-fake Neo-Con Restoration, pre-Reagan.

But a stroke of genius—you bring Katniss Everdeen together with “Deer-Hunter” and American Icon Robert DeNiro, and you have a recipe for REGENERATING the American Middle Class Dream.  It all started out, depressingly enough, in a mental institution, no Jennifer’s character wasn’t there but she COULD have been—showing yet another real aspect of modern America that men are treated much more harshly for their transgressions than women.  I thought initially it was going to be yet another—everyone who LOOKS American as Apple Pie is Demented movie.  But the movie totally transcended all that and convincingly showed that “Temporary Insanity” is actually pretty normal and that even people who have taken a sampler of the entire menu of the nastiest psychiatric drug menu imposed by Non-American Non-Whites who have their consciousness completely together.

I have this terribly depressing fear that Obama era politics will lead to an Academy Award going either to “Beasts of the Southern Wild” (which at least is incredibly original) or to “Lincoln” which is anything but original and in fact deserves to be panned on every single historical point contained within it, but I’m casting my vote for Silver Linings Playbook and Jennifer Lawrence as the incomparable Tiffany….  OK, I’ve also confessed in the past that I tend to fall in love with any and every girl I meet named Tiffany, but this is a personal hazard of mine which has no bearing on my evaluation of the movie.  Robert DeNiro is the best I’ve seen him in many years, and this movie has truly redemptive potential at a time when America Desperately needs it.  

Strange to think of the similarities between the California Gold Rush and Hollywood Movies as the parallel and independent but key defining features of California culture…. but there they are, separated only by the difference between Northern and Southern California….

One response to “Excelsior! and Eureka! 165 Years of California Gold: from Sutter’s Mill to Jennifer Lawrence (January 24, 1848-January 24, 2013)

  1. Hi Charles, I don’t disagree with some of your comments regarding Haiti redux or the situation in Haiti. I tried however difficult to give the Haitian community a voice regarding the reconstruction process so the film isn’t a white man’s imperialistic view of the situation. The Haitian population seems to be in a paradoxical situation where they are a fiercely independent people, but they have their hand out. I’d like the take away from the movie to be that anyone with the motivation and ideas to move the needle for positive social change has an opportunity to achieve them in Haiti, rwanda, the Philippines or any other developing country. Thanks for taking the time to come screen and screen and review my film, Haiti Redux.
    Best,
    Fredric King

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