Trails Symposium

April 14, 1999 · Salt Lake City, Sponsored by Utah Historic Trails Consortium

Plant Your Potatoes:  The Mormons and the California Gold Rush

An Address by Dean May, University of Utah

There would surely have been a good many yawns from both sides of the congressional aisles had President James K. Polk delivered his fourth annual message to congress in person on December 5, 1848. The printed version stretches on for forty-one pages, the President assuring the people that “Peace, plenty, and contentment reign throughout our borders, and our beloved country presents a sublime moral spectacle to the world.”1 I will refrain from any comparisons with the “moral spectacle” surrounding President Clinton’s State of the Union speech of last January.

President Polk spoke of the peace prevailing between the United States and all other nations, including even Mexico, nearly half of which we had just taken in the Mexican war. “The amicable relations between the two countries, which had been suspended, have been happily restored, and are destined, I trust, to be long preserved.”2 He then proceeded to wax eloquent on the benefits to the United States of that “suspension” of amicable relations, its demonstration to European powers of America’s war-making capability, the wonder of such a large mobilization without endangering American liberties, and the valor of American soldiers and seamen.

Yet sagging eyelids no doubt would have popped open, when, in enumerating the possessions America had acquired through that suspension of amicable relations, the President turned to a description of the mineral wealth of Upper California. “The accounts of the abundance of gold in that territory are of such an extraordinary character as would scarcely command belief were they not corroborated by the authentic reports of officers in the public service who have visited the mineral distinct.” The officer had found 4,000 persons there, “engaged in collecting gold. . . . The abundance of gold and the all-engrossing pursuit of it have already caused in California an unprecedented rise in the price of all the necessaries of life.”3 President Polk then turned to other matters of state, a speech that would have droned on for another two hours while weary congressmen settled back into their chairs and day dreams of holiday plans, political deals, election wrangling, power ploys and perhaps even for some, of “inappropriate relationships” with maids and servant girls.

At least part of President Polk’s message was nonetheless to resonate far beyond the Potomac. News of abundant gold in California for the taking stirred dreams and hopes of thousands upon thousands and launched a fevered migration that for the next two years would astonish the world. The American West would never again be the same. Gold had her magic, her way with men, and so in droves they left sweethearts, families, careers and offices, heading out to “see the elephant” in their passion to possess the precious metal.

In doing so, they were but reenacting a long-held European conviction that gold was of all earthly treasures the most to be sought after. The Aztecs of Tenochtitlan were astonished, when in 1519 they brought gifts to the invading Cortez and his men. “They [the Spanish] seized upon the gold as if they were monkeys, their faces gleaming. For clearly their thirst for gold was insatiable; they starved for it; they lusted for it; they wanted to stuff themselves with it as if they were pigs. So they went about fingering, taking up the streamers of gold, moving them back and forth, grabbing them to themselves, babbling, talking gibberish among themselves.”4 The cultural predisposition of people of European background towards the yellow metal was a mystery and wonder to the Aztecs.

That predisposition, much in need of further study and understanding, launched the migration by sea and land that has ever since shaped and defined cultural understandings of the American West. A famous German Hamburger seaman’s song made the point, with its verses in German but its refrain in English, “Blow boys blow, for Californio, For there’s plenty of gold, so I’ve been told, on the banks of the Sacramento.”

The summer before President Polk gave official legitimacy to reports of the gold discoveries but 400 Americans had traveled the plains across to California. The next summer, 1849, more than 25,000 made their way to the gold fields; and the year after that, 44,000 crowded onto the dusty highways, toiling up the Platte, over South Pass, across the Great Basin , over the Sierra Madres and down to the American River and its surrounding mining camps.5

There were many ways to get to California, and men no doubt debated endlessly in smoky pubs whether a trip around the Horn, a Panama crossing, a Southwest wagon track, or the long-established Platte Oregon road offered the best hopes of a safe and quick passage to the mother lode. The potential consequences of their decision were enormous. To understand them we must consider how vacant of Europeans were the vast stretches of land between the Missouri and the Pacific. Aside from small gatherings at the established Forts; Laramie, Bridger, Hall, and Carson, the only population of consequence between Council Bluffs and Sacramento was the eight or nine thousand (11,380 in 1850) Mormons hunkered down in the vicinity of the fabled Great Salt Lake.6

Given the perils of overland travel, it was inevitable that some would see the Mormon settlements as a haven where they could refresh themselves, their animals, and their provisions, before moving out on the last leg of their epic journey. Professor Brigham Madsen estimated that about a third of the gold-seekers chose to digress from the established routes and make their way down to the Mormon settlements in the vicinity of the Great Salt Lake. If this is an accurate estimate, some 8,300 came through the Utah settlements in 1849, a number at least equal to the whole Mormon population; and 14,600 in 1850, the passing immigrants substantially outnumbering the resident Mormons. No wonder Brigham Young felt that “since [the gold diggers began to arrive] . . . our peaceful valley has appeared like the half-way house of the pilgrims to Mecca.”7 Those of us who stay around through January 2002 might get a small glimpse of what such an inundation can mean to a resident population.

The first observation of significance, is that the economy of the Great Basin was at the time very much in its infancy. Farming, building, and trading were nearly the only livelihoods available to Utah’s citizens. No manufacturing establishments to speak of had as yet been founded. Anything that could not be produced in the territory, and this included such basics as iron, glass, pottery, cloth sugar, tea, coffee, tobacco, and snake bite medicine,—all such products had to be shipped nearly a thousand miles by wagon, a slow, labor-intensive, and highly costly process. Any cash that could be garnered including the gold coins the Mormons began to mint in 1849, flowed immediately east to pay for the manufactured goods the burgeoning population required.

Even farming was a decidedly risky enterprise. The crops of the 1848 season, their first full growing season, had been decimated by crickets, droughts, and frosts. The winter of 1848-49 had been cold and miserable, with temperatures dipping to thirty degrees below zero. In February, 1849 the bishops of the nineteen Salt Lake City Wards put the people on rations, recommending that they limit themselves to but three-quarters of a pound of “breadstuff” per day.8 Brigham Young was being particularly threatening towards any who tried to hoard their supplies. “If those that have do not sell to those that have not, we will just take it & distribute among the Poor, & those that have & will not divide willingly may be thankful that their Heads are not found wallowing in the snow.”9 Young’s method of countering selfishness may have not have been genteel, but it apparently was effective.

By spring the Mormons were looking forward hopefully to enhancing their Spartan rations with spring vegetables, the earliest of which were almost ready to harvest when the first Argonauts came into Salt Lake on June 16, offering to exchange worn animals and wagons, cash, and store goods, for the peas and new potatoes the Mormons had been eyeing hungrily in their gardens. One can only imagine the personal dilemmas individual men and women faced as they pondered the value of an iron stove against the food needed to feed their families. Small wonder that in many reports the Mormons were the ones trading for food.

The cruelties of such dilemmas were heightened by the fact that the migration was predictably seasonal, with the incoming Mormon converts arriving late in the season, before their labor could be applied to the season’s productive efforts. This meant that late in 1848 some 2,400 arrived, requiring food and shelter through the winter, before they could become part of the work force; in 1849 another 1,500 arrived; in 1850 2,500 more. Mormons had to make choices that would provide for and protect their own families, but also felt compelled to make choices that would care for their co-religionists as they arrived in the Salt Lake Valley each fall.

Something of the dimensions of the task can be gained by noting that even in 1850 the value of the average farm in Utah was but $377 compared to $2,500 in Oregon.10 Utahns had a horse or mule for every five persons; Oregonians a draught animal for every two people. Utah harvested nine bushels of wheat per person that year; Oregon, much of which is too moist for good wheat crops, almost 16. The produce of market gardens was valued at $2.10 per person in Utah; in Oregon $6.79. The point is, I think, well made. Utahns were miserably poor, and as the gold-seekers arrived had almost nothing they could spare. Many were discouraged, feeling the whole population should move on to California, to which Brigham Young replied: “We have been kicked out of the frying-pan into the fire, out of the fire into the middle of the floor, and here we are and here we will stay.”11

Into this environment, then came some 8,300 gold-seekers in 1849; 14,600 in 1850. And in each instance they were but a third of the whole train of immigrants who made their way across Wyoming on their way West. The result was what Leonard Arrington called, the “Harvest of ‘49” an event seen by Mormons since that time as providential, and one that clearly provided a significant economic stimulus at a critical time. It did so in several important ways.

First, Mormon ferries charged on average, $3.00 to $4.00 per wagon for ferriage across the upper North Platte, east of Casper and on the Green and Bear rivers. If we were to estimate conservatively a wagon for each five gold-seekers and that Mormons crossed a third of the wagons at two ferries their gross in 1849 would have been between $11,000 and $12,000 in 1849; in 1850 some $20,000. Payment would have been in store goods or cash, both in very short supply.

Second, though sternly discouraging gold-seeking, Brigham Young nonetheless sent officials to collect tithing from those in the fields. And many Mormon Battalion members dutifully brought tithing to Utah in the form of gold dust. Leonard J. Arrington estimated that the tithing payments alone approached some $60,000 in value from 1848 through 1851. There would have been, in addition, several times that amount brought into Utah in private hands, helping to stimulate the flow of goods and services and especially the affordability of imported goods in a cash poor economy.

Third, the complementarity of needs made it possible for Mormons to trade animals, services, such as blacksmithing, lodging, and whatever food they could find a surplus of, for the very goods that were dearest in Utah—tea, coffee, cloth, iron implements and products, all of which began suddenly to sell at or below eastern prices. The willingness of the Mormons to charge whatever the market would bear led to very high prices for flour, vegetables, and other foods during the summer months when the Argonauts were in town. The exchange process was described by the ubiquitous herbal doctor, to this day still, apparently, of influence in Utah, Priddy Meeks. Meeks was negotiating to sell a pony to one of the gold-seekers.

“What is your price?” says the man. I said “I have no price but I want clothing for my family.” which was five in number. I believe his heart was softened for he handed out goods, some ready-made, and some not, until we all had two suits each from top to toe, both shoes and stockings and everything that was needed. He said, “How much more?” I said, “Hand out and I will tell you when to stop.” he handed out factory and calico until I was almost ashamed; even my conscience reminded me of stopping. I said, “Here is a great coat and a high pair of boots for winter,” and he handed them out without a word. . . . Among the emigrants I made money enough to buy a stable horse and the best wagon I thought I ever saw, paying $60 for both.

Arrington reports Mormons were able to get $200 for fresh horses that normally would sell for $25 or $30. What flour they could count as surplus shot up to $10 or $15 a hundred pounds and vegetables also sold at premium prices. At the same time they could suddenly purchase wagons the Argonauts were eager to unload for from $15 to $25 each, compared to a common price of $50 to $125. Coffee and sugar, previously selling at a dollar a pint dropped to ten to fifteen cents. These conditions persisted through all of 1849 and 1850, making possible for many the acquisition of materials and goods that had worn out since they arrived in Utah, but that they could not replace without adding prohibitive shipping charges.

But there was more. Many immigrants in their eagerness to beat the crowd to California, simply abandoned along the trail goods they deemed nonessential to their journey. Howard Stansbury left a well-known account in 1849 of the road from Fort Laramie. “The road has been literally strewn with articles that have been thrown away. Bar-iron and steel, large blacksmiths’ anvils and bellows, crowbars, drills, augers, gold-washers, chisels, axes, lead, trunks, spades, ploughs, large grindstones, baking-ovens, cooking-stoves without number, kegs, barrels, harness, clothing, bacon, and beds were found along the road in pretty much the order in which they have been her enumerated.”12 Hearing of this bonanza, many Mormons took wagons east as far as Fort Laramie, collecting all of value that they could carry back to replenish their dwindled supply of goods.

Thus cash from ferry and tithing gold, inflated prices for commodities they could part with, bargain basement prices for goods they desperately needed, and a considerable quantity of goods that were free for the taking, all must have had a dramatic impact on the fledgling economy. Leonard Arrington notes that food rationing ended in 1850, and that, by the end of 1849, the Mormon leaders felt confident enough to launch a wide-reaching set of plans for developing the region, including the founding of the Perpetual Emigrating Fund Company, the establishment of the State of Deseret, and the first bid for statehood, plans for the Iron Mission, and designs for major freighting and transportation companies.

Perhaps most significant of all, however, is a phenomenon noted by Arrington, the demonstration, in the light of these circumstances of a remarkable degree of social cohesiveness. The Mormons seemed somehow inoculated against the gold fever with which the nation was stricken. We began by noting the cultural propensity of European peoples to hunger after gold and seek it at almost any cost, a propensity amply demonstrated in the California gold rush and the series of rushes that continued to pepper the West through the 1890s. There were, of course, Mormons present when gold was discovered at Sutter’s Mill, Henry Bigler’s being the only contemporaneous eye-witness account that has survived. And there certainly were Mormons who got caught up in the rush. But the number, given their proximity to it all, is minuscule. This is particularly telling when we consider as we have done, the relative poverty of the Utah people. The Oregon farm folk that I have studied, vastly more wealthy already than the Mormons, were mightily affected by the discovery of gold; there was hardly an Oregon farmer that did not spend some time in the gold fields. Mormons, on the other hand, sternly counseled by their leaders not to go to the fields, for the most part stayed put. I did not find one of my Alpine folk who went off to California, though several who volunteered to take teams east in the 1860s to bring back emigrants.

These facts speak not to fear of reprisals from Brigham Young’s iron fist, to the awful specter of heads wallowing in the snow, but rather to a profound cultural change that went right to the core of what it was coming to mean to be a Mormon. “We are gathered here,” wrote Young, “not to scatter around and go off to the mines , or any other place, but to build up the Kingdom of God.” Brigham Young called the Great Basin a “good place to make Saints, and it is a good place for Saints to live; it is the place that the Lord has appointed, and we shall stay here, until He tells us to go somewhere else.” He insisted, “plow your land and sow wheat, plant your potatoes.”13

Perhaps there are behind Brigham’s words useful concepts for people of our time, Mormons and non-Mormons alike. It may be that, as the Aztecs apparently understood, there are more important things than gold; that the fawning after material abundance that the gold rush exemplified, is indeed corrosive and disabling to civil society, and that as this century now ends, we might be better off if we metaphorically at least, looked away from the gilded siren of personal material abundance and put our plows back into rich, dark, soil of mutual responsibility, cooperation, and public good.


1. James D. Richardson, A Compilation of the Messages and Papers of the Presidents: 1789-1897 (Washington: 1901) IV: 629.

2. Richardson, p. 630.

3. Richardson, p. 636.

4. Sahagun, p. 24.

5. Unruh, pp. 84-85.

6. The estimate is made by subtracting the 1849 migration of 1500, as reported by Unruh, from the 1850 census count, the difference being 9880. But of course births were continuous and accounted for a significant part of population growth, leading me to suggest as a reasonable estimate, eight to nine thousand.

7. Quoted Madsen, p. xiii, from Mill Star, 11, Nov. 15, 1840, p. 337. The letter was dated July 20th and referred to the first arrival of gold seekers on June 16th.

8. Madsen, p. 6.

9. Madsen, p. 7.

10. Census p. 169.

11. Madsen, p. 8

12. Arrington, p. 70.

13. Madsen, p 8.

The Utah Historic Trails Consortium is an active umbrella organization that brings together groups interested in diverse aspects of the state's legacy of pioneer trails. Participants include:

Bureau of Land Managemnt - Cultural Resources · Daughters of Utah Pioneers · Division of State History · Heritage Foundation · Hole-in-the-Rock Association · LDS Church History Department · Lincoln Highway Association · National Park Service - Long Distance Trails Office · Mormon Battalion Association · Mormon Trails Association · National Pony Express Association · Sons of the Utah Pioneers · State Parks and Recreation · Utah Crossroads Chapter, Oregon-California Trails Association · Utah Department of Transportation