All That Glitters Is Not Fool’s Gold!
A Presentation by Anne Amerson with an introduction by Manny Carvalho
It was Dahlonega Mint assayer, Dr. Matthew Stephenson, who asked miners in his famous Courthouse speech to stay in Georgia rather then go to California. Pointing to Crown Mountain, he told them: “Boys, there's millions in it!"1 A phrase later immortalized by Mark Twain. The miners left anyway to participate in the first global gold rush. However, there's another interesting connection between Lumpkin County and the 1849 California Gold Rush, as Anne Amerson told us in her presentation at the August 2011 Historical Society meeting.
On January 24, 1848, James Wilson Marshall was building a saw mill on the American River in California for John Sutter. That day, Marshall's eyes were drawn to a pebble shining in the tailrace of the mill [the ditch that drained water away from the waterwheel] and thought that it might be gold. Since nobody present had ever seen gold in its natural state, most thought it was probably just pyrites, commonly called "fool's gold." As someone said, "all that glitters is not gold." There was somebody in camp who would know for sure - Jennie Wimmer.
Jennie, a former Lumpkin County resident, was knowledgeable about gold having participated in Dahlonega’s first major gold rush in the United States. She along with her husband Peter and seven children had set out on the arduous trip to California in the early spring of 1845. They arrived in November 15, 1846, just ahead of the tragic Donner party, at Sutter’s Fort. Jennie not only identified the first gold discovered in California by boiling the nugget in a vat of lye soap but she also contributed to the onset of the California gold rush by writing to friends back in Lumpkin County to tell them of the discovery. Thanks to her advance notice, a large party of Lumpkin County miners led by Green Russell was able to reach the western gold fields well in advance of most other “Forty-Niners.” Many miners returned to Lumpkin County and the gold they carried back was coined at the Dahlonega Branch Mint. By 1850 California gold started showing up at the Dahlonega mint and by 1851 these deposits exceeded the deposits of Georgia gold. In 1853, the California gold amounted to almost 80% of that year’s total receipts. When the San Francisco mint opened the next year, the California gold deposits went down significantly. During its 24 years of operation the Dahlonega mint produced over 6 million dollars in coins.The discovery of gold at Sutter's Mill, today an historical park, on January 24, 1848 started with a discovery of a small nugget worth about five dollars back then but eventually hundreds of millions were recovered. That simple discovery unleashed the largest migration in United States history and drew people from a dozen countries. By 1849 the non-native California population had reached around 100,000 from about 7,000 in 1846. The war with Mexico formally ended on February 2, 1848 and the lack of any formal authority made the place lawless. Sutter’s Mill failed when all the able bodied men left in search of gold and hordes of new prospectors forced him off his land.
Against this backdrop, the story of Jennie Wimmer is often forgotten. Anne reminds us of this fascinating aspect of history and the connection between these two major gold rushes and the importance of woman in the California gold rush. Please press the play button below to listen to Anne's interesting presentation.
Anne Amerson: All that Glitters is not Fool's Gold
Elizabeth Jane "Jennie" Cloud Wimmer was born in a tobacco plantation in Patrick County, Virgina in 1822 and died in 1883, at the age of 63, in Valley Center, California. She is buried at Valley Center Cemetery, San Diego County, California. The nugget Jennie tested in her boiling pot of lye soap weighed a little over a quarter of an ounce. The Wimmer’s never struck it rich in the gold rush but she carried the nugget around in a buckskin pouch and it was once displayed at the Chicago World's Fair in 1893. Affidavits by both Elizabeth and Peter Wimmer accompany the nugget and attest to its being, indeed, the first gold found by Marshall. The “Wimmer Nugget”, is now a permanent exhibit on display in the third floor foyer of The Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley. The Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History also has an early nugget believed to have been found at Sutter’s Mill.
Some historians call Wimmer one of the most famous women in California history. Fame and fortune by-passed Jennie Wimmer. She ended her days in Valley Center, unknown and in virtual poverty.
The story of Jennie Wimmer is told in Anne Amerson's historical novel, Dahlonega’s Gold, published in 2008 by the University Press of North Georgia. It is available at the NGCSU bookstore and other shops on Dahlonega's historic Public Square.
1. Andrew Cain, History of Lumpkin County for the First Hundred Years, p. 106.
2. W.W. Allen and R.B. Avery, California Gold Book; Its Discovery and Discoverers, San Francisco, 1893.
Published by Manny Carvalho, 30 Aug 2011.