Smithsonian

Bowie knife

Job Churchill, the “maker” of this Bowie knife, left us no other record of himself, but the knife tells us a great deal. The handle is a piece of scrimshaw, a carving from whale ivory. Job, then, was probably a sailor on a whaling ship. The inscription GOLD HUNTER fixes the object in time. When Job etched these words, he was hoping to find his fortune by joining the California Gold Rush. Perhaps he was planning to jump ship at the port of San Francisco.

Gold was discovered at Sutter’s Mill in January 1848, just days before the United States officially took control of California. In December 1848, President Polk confirmed rumors of the discovery in his State of the Union message. The report set off a stampede. Some 90,000 people, most of them males between the ages of twenty and forty, came to California in the next year.

Few of the “forty-niners” became wealthy. By the hard work of digging and sifting, a miner might find ten dollars in gold a day. This was ten times more than Pennsylvania coal miners made at the time, but ten dollars did not go far in a place where gold was the most plentiful commodity. In the mining camps, apples sold for as much as five dollars apiece. One egg could cost as much as three dollars.

Having taken the great gamble of coming to California, many of the miners turned naturally to gambling on cards and dice. San Francisco, suddenly a big, rollicking city—a city of gaming halls, saloons, and other dens of vice—averaged two murders a day.

The Gold Rush was “a new and hard lesson for a nation that had always equated the level of success with the amount of effort put into achieving it,” reporter Steve Wiegand recently wrote in the Sacramento Bee. "Finding gold, America learned, depended far more on luck than good intentions.”

Credit:
Autry Museum of Western Heritage
Los Angeles