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Famous California Gold Rush Entrepreneurs

John reads about the Old West, lost treasure, lost gold mines, and amateur gold prospecting. He prospects in Arizona and photographs mines.

The Lead Up to Others' Fortunes

It was January 24, 1848 and James Marshall had finished constructions of a saw mill for John Sutter. Sutter was a very wealthy man who had built a fort near Sacramento, Ca and had developed a herd of 12,000 cattle. He recognized the fertile soil of northern California as the key to his fortune. Sutter planned to develop the area by farming vast swaths of land.

Stories have it that Marshall, on inspecting the prospective site of a sawmill, put his hand down in the American River and pulled out a pea sized gold nugget. Then he saw flashes of golden yellow and pulled out some more. Other versions say he discovered gold in a log flume when the mill was finished.

The ironic aspect of all of this is that John Sutter was concerned that if gold prospectors flooded the area in search of gold, his plans for bringing farmer families to his lands for settlement would be ruined. He and James Marshall agreed to suppress any news of the gold to preserve the dream of an agricultural utopia. Marshall was a wood worker and felt his future lay in Sutter's dream.

When news got out about the gold discovery, the mill failed and all able bodied men headed for the gold. John Sutter's crops were trampled or eaten by hungry miners and the wood of his buildings was ripped off for the manufacture of mining tools.

Ironically and sadly, neither of these men benefited from the gold rush.

Who Got Rich?

So where did the news come from? Sam Brennan had opened a store at Sutter's Fort in 1847 and also built a number of buildings in the bay area. His store was the only source of mining supplies between the gold fields and San Francisco. When hundreds of men are pouring into the gold fields to strike it rich, they will require picks, shovels, pans, and cooking supplies, all basic to prospecting survival. Lore has it that he ran up and down streets in San Francisco shouting, “Gold, gold, on the American River!” He sold gold pans for 75 times their cost. In a little over 2 months he had made $36,000 – equal to $1,090,909.09 in 2015 U.S. dollars.

Gold Can Lure Writers

Samuel Clemens is credited in literary circles as one of the greatest American authors. His books, short stories, essays, news articles, and letters are a treasure trove of insight into the soul of America. Where he gained that insight, and how he evolved into an influential and wealthy author, can shed some light on the impact of California's gold.

In 1861, at the age of 26, Clemens dabbled at silver prospecting in Nevada. He was unsuccessful, as most were, and found work at the Territorial Enterprise in Virginia City. Here he began to write under the pseudonym Mark Twain.

Where then would an aspiring writer move next? Twain would move to San Francisco in 1864. San Francisco was a city of about 100,000 at the time. It was growing into a western cultural center and attracted talent from across the nation and overseas. Thanks to the 49er gold rush and the Comstock Lode silver strike, opportunity blossomed for all manner of service people and professionals. The Sierra foothills continued through the 1850s to produce big time gold. Estimates are that the Gold Rush delivered about $465,000,000 to the U.S. economy (1850 U.S. dollars).

In December of 1864 Twain went to Angels Camp, Ca. Whether to listen to dialogue in the bar of the Angels Hotel, an important part of any author's tool chest for writing believable conversation, or to gather material for his satirical impulses (he disdained aristocracy), Twain saturated himself in California Gold Rush way of life. I think it was easy for him to identify with prospectors who for the most part came from nothing and wanted to work hard to simply become something. It is here in the Angeles Camp area that he heard tales of a jumping frog. On September 14, 1865, The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County was published. He became famous and consequently found his fortune because of the precious metals discoveries in California.

He wrote for the Sacremento Union and San Francisco Alta California newspapers. He also wrote for the Golden Era and Californian literary magazine. Mark Twain was bankrupt by the age of 59, after losing the equivalent of $4,000,000 on an investment in a new printing machine. But most of his fortune came from the development of his skills in California, and the writing that followed.

And Yet Another Industrialist's CA Origins

Phillip Danforth Armour started the meat packing company that his sir name is famous for. Few may know that the seed money for this great company came from the California Gold Rush.

With a party of 30 which headed for California, he made his way to the gold fields in 1852. He was only 19 years old. After working as a ditch digger in Placerville, California, Armour saved enough money to start a business. He decided to build sluices. These were not the sluices of the panner, but rather sluices that controlled the flow of water through areas that were being mined.

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Armour employed jobless miners for the construction. Within 4 years his successful business had turned him an $8000 profit. He left California for Milwaukee, Wisconsin and started his first meat packing operation at the age of 26. His fortune thanks to the rush of others for gold was worth $203,520 in 2018 dollars.

Levi Strauss

Born in Bavaria, he moved with his mother to New York; he was 18. His family opened a wholesale dry goods store. In 1853, Levi Strauss traveled to California by steamship. At 24 years of age he intended to sell cloth, sewing materials, and off-the-rack clothes.

The Strategic Businesses

Strauss' first store was built in San Francisco on the waterfront. This was a critical place to import goods. San Francisco was a bustling sea port. He would sell clothing, bedding, combs, purses, handkerchiefs and all manner of everyday items required by the Frisco townspeople and gold miners near Sacramento.

Levi was also interested in making some items himself. He developed a line of pants made of canvas that were popular. He also made tents, popular in the gold camps. Later (1871), he fabricated a line of pants made of denim with rivets at stress points. These blue pants wound up being sold all over the country and were called blue jeans. Today Levi's are famous all over the world.

Later in life, Levi Strauss contributed mightily to relief agencies and Hebrew benevolent societies. Twenty-eight scholarships to the University of California, Berkeley were endowed and to this day continue to be funded.

Levi Strauss was not only well-healed, but also was a well-connected San Francisco business man. He was treasurer of the San Francisco Board of trade and a director of the Nevada Bank. He was a board member of a large insurance company and the San Francisco Gas and Electric Company. He also co-owned a couple of wool mills.

His estate was worth about $6 million (equivalent to $169,707,692 in 2017).


It is strange how many men vision riches during a gold rush. Those mostly young, bright and strong, come from all over, Some can think about nothing but that golden yellow and unearthing a fortune. Others, have visions of starting a business and building an empire. Unfortunately for many, miners and businessmen alike, the hype about gold left many penniless.

More Successful "Gold" Entrepreneurs:

Thomas O. Larkin (1802-1858) - One of Larkin’s first lucrative moves was financing voyages that brought clothes and food to San Francisco.

Faxon Dean Atherton (1815-1877) -amassed a great fortune with his shipping business and the import and export of goods. He owned 640 acres on the San Francisco peninsula.
John Studebaker (1833-1917) - manufactured wheelbarrows for miners. He loaned his brother $8000 to expand the Studebaker Wagon Corporation, which at the turn of the 20th century, after a number of company name changes, developed into the Studebaker Company producing automobiles.
Henry Wells (1805- 1878), William G. Fargo (1818-1881) - were lured to California during the gold rush. In 1850 they formed the American Express Company. On March 18, 1852, they organized Wells, Fargo & Company, a joint stock company with an initial capitalization of $300,000, to provide express (six-horse stagecoaches) and banking services to California.
John Butterfield (1801-1861) - founder of Butterfield, Wasson & Company, an express company, in 1849, the same year as the gold rush.


Levi Strauss & Company, Staff, Advameg, Inc. Retrieved March 1, 2018 from

What It Took To Live Like The Forty-Niners, Copywrite 2018, Field Works Supply Company. Retrieved February 30, 2018 from

Entrepeneurs of the Gold Rush pdf, Chino Valley Unified School District. Retrieved March 2, 2018 from

Samuel Brannan: Gold Rush Entrepeneur, Staff, November 6, 2006. Retrieved March 3, 2018 from American Experience,,

Sierra Nevada, National Geographic. Geotourism (n.d). Retrieved February 29, 2018 from

Mark Twain in California, John Rose Putnam, pubished May 25, 2011 blog, copyright 2018. Retrieved March 1, 2018 from

California Gold Rush, Wikipedia, edited 26 February 2018. Retrieved March 4, 2018 from

The Man Who Got Rich Off The Gold Rush… , James Watkins, published August 18, 2017. Retrieved August 2, 2018 from the Gold898/

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2018 John R Wilsdon


Readmikenow on March 07, 2018:

I really enjoyed this article! So much of history is fascinating. Great pictures as well.

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