The biggest real estate deal in the history of San Joaquin County was completed for $60 worth of groceries and a white horse.
That was back in 1844 when Guillermo Gulnac — a grocery store owner in the pueblo known as San Jose — accepted those items of payment for a land grant he had received from Mexico’s California Governor Manuel Micheltorena at the time encompassing 48,747 acres in the Delta at the confluence of the San Joaquin and Calaveras rivers.
It was dubbed Rancho Campo de los Franceses as it referenced the French-Canadian fur trappers who made camp there as the southernmost outpost of the Hudson Bay Company.
The buyer was Charles Maria Weber. The German immigrant who first arrived in the United States as a 22-year-old stepping off a ship in New Orleans in 1836 was Gulnac’s partner in the grocery store. Before partnering with Gulnac he worked for a while for John Sutter.
The land he bought was where he mapped out a town in 1849 that he named Tuleberg after the prevalent tule grass in the area.
How Tulberg became Stockton and emerged at the dawn of the 20th century as one of the most promising large cities on the West Coast is one of many instances where the true wealth of the Gold Rush that built California was not from vast fortunes hardy miners collected while first panning Sierra waterways, then digging and ultimately creating the first massive widespread environmental disasters in the Golden State via placer or hydraulic mining but by selling supplies to gold seekers.
It was the money to be made off of the hundreds of thousands of miners from around the globe that allowed Yerba Buena that had been rechristened San Francisco to go from a proverbial backwater outpost of just under 1,000 residents in January 1848 to a cosmopolitan city of 342,000 by Jan. 1, 1900.
Those that became the economic disrupters of the last 19th century who built the foundation of their fortunes in supplying miners were:
* John Studebaker got wealthy manufacturing and selling wheel barrows to miners. He eventually built an automobile empire bearing his name.
* Phillip Armour got wealth operating sluices that controlled the flow of water in rivers for mining. He parlayed his earnings into the meat packing empire that carries his name.
* Levi Strauss who arrived in San Francisco with the intent to sell canvas tarps for wagons quickly saw opportunity in turning those “tarps” into pants that could withstand rugged terrain involving 16-hour work days.
* Henry Wells and William Fargo opened a bank in San Francisco to serve miners and the growing support economy that is today known as Wells Fargo.
Weber’s success was based on the same premise of not mining per se but supplying the miners.
He did dabble, though in prospecting for gold. He left his ranch with several Native Americans in his employ searching forests north of the Stanislaus River for gold and then finding gold on the Mokelumne River. His findings on the Mokelumne are considered by many as the first found in the area that would become known as the southern mines.
Weber left behind his employees and headed toward the American River finding traces of gold in every stream he crossed including one named in his honor — Weber’s Creek - west of Sutter’s Mill.
His biggest “find” was arguably that of what two of his employees that were Indigenous Californians reportedly found in Wood’s Creek.
That led to the founding of the Queen of the Southern Mines — Sonora.
Weber decided the best way to seek his fortune was to return to his ranch and make a living selling supplies to miners heading to the gold country.
Weber opted to concentrate on developing Tuleberg. It was a town site he laid out at the end of the navigable water for miners heading up from San Francisco Bay on their way to the mines. As such Tuleberg became a major supply point for miners.
Weber enlisted the help of Commodore Robert Field Stockton — the leader of the America military in California that was not a state at the time — to protect Tulberg. In appreciation of the commodore’s help, Tuleberg was renamed as Stockton in 1850. It was the same year Stockton was incorporated as a city.
It cannot be stressed enough the seismic event that the Gold Rush had on California.
There were an estimated 157,000 people in all of California — the combined population of today’s Manteca and Turlock — back in March of 1848.
Of those, 150,000 were said to be native Indians, upwards of 7,000 Californios — those of Mexican and Spanish descent — and 800 non-native Americans.
Less than two years later there were more than 100,000 non-native Americans in California. By the mid-1850s one in every 90 Americans was living in California whose population had swelled by another 300,000.
It was a time of contrasting politics. The state constitution was written in both English and Spanish with provisions all official California documents had to be published in both languages. That provision stayed intact for more than two decades until a constitution convention in Sacramento dropped the requirement.
In Sonora in 1850 — the same year the state constitution was adopted as a bilingual document — a group of Mexican miners who had been forced off their claims in Sonora struck it rich in the area now known as Columbia.
Resentment brewed among the American miners who imposed a local mining tax equivalent of $500 in today’s dollars on every foreign miner. And when that didn’t discourage the Mexican miners the growing threat of violence did, prompting them to flee.
Columbia at one point became one of the largest cities in California. It had a population of between 25,000 and 30,000 people and was outputting gold at one point at the clip of $100,000 a week. The total production of the Columbia area in mid-1800s dollars has been placed between $87 million and $150 million.
The Gold Rush also gave birth to agriculture, California-style. The massive cattle ranches and wheat farms were soon replaced with productive farmland thanks to mechanical “tractors” invented by Benjamin Holt in Stockton.
The almost brazen manner in which miners altered the terrain using water led to the concept of harnessing the water out of distant water basins to support growth to less precipitation-blessed water basins along the coast.
The Gold Rush is credited with spurring technology that changed agriculture from the need to provide food to miners using with minimal labor, altered mining worldwide, and established the infrastructure for hydroelectric power in the Sierra.
It also literally gave birth to California as a state given it was fast tracked to statehood in 1850 two years after it was bought by the United States.
The California gold field yields provided critical monetary support for the Union war effort in the 1860s. The mining increased the national money supply. And it goes without saying some people became immensely rich.
But while the economic and societal impacts were big so were the environmental pitfalls.
Large expanses of potential farmland were destroyed by mining. The same was true of the old-growth forests plundered by logging to support the Gold Rush as well as being destroyed by hydraulic or placer mining.
There was contamination of lakes, groundwater, streams and river by acids mine drainage that included cyanide, arsenic, and mercury.
The extensive hydraulic mining and clear cutting sent hundreds of tons of earthen material westward increasing flooding in the Central Valley and substantially accelerating sediment buildup in the San Francisco area bringing with it a toxic mix from chemicals.