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In History: Going for Gold

07/27/2018 04:51PM

Largely overlooked by history, Nathan Hawk—who carried news of the California gold discovery east in the summer of 1848 and preceded the young riders of the Pony Express and Snowshoe Thompson in carrying contracted mail eastward overland—was instrumental in spreading gold fever in the U.S. in 1848. 

Born in Washington County, Indiana, in 1823 to William and Margaret Hawk, his family joined the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in 1836; seven years later, he married Elizabeth Conrad in Des Moines, Iowa. 

When the Mexican-American War broke out, Nathan and his father, William, joined the Mormon Battalion under Colonel Allen. They marched west over the Santa Fe route and arrived in San Diego in late 1846. By that time, the war had moved eastward, and Nathan and his father were soon sent to Los Angeles and mustered out of service. 

Rather than return directly home, the two adventurers headed to San Francisco on horseback, traveling through the San Joaquin Valley and reaching San Francisco in the fall of 1847. They spent the winter in San Francisco and Sutter’s Fort waiting for the snow to melt in the Sierra before heading home. 

In San Francisco, Nathan met Sam Brannan who operated stores in San Francisco and Sutter’s Fort. He and other businessmen were looking for ways to entice settlers from the eastern U.S. to immigrate to California so they decided to publish two boom editions of The California Star newspaper to be sent east. Sam owned a printing press—all that was needed was someone to carry the papers overland, distributing copies to migrants along the Oregon Trail and to cities in the Midwest and on the East Coast. Nathan proved to be that man.

Not one to miss an opportunity to make money, Sam also advertised that his courier would carry mail overland at a rate of 50 cents per ounce for letters and 12.5 cents per ounce for newspapers, thus initiating the first contracted overland mail delivery to the eastern states.

Before The California Star was completed, James Marshall discovered gold in the South Fork of the American River. Nathan was soon panning for gold with Indian baskets at Mormon Island and making “about $20 to the man.” 

The first boom edition of  The California Star featured an article by Dr. Victor J. Fourgeaud entitled “Prospects of California.” It spoke of the many virtues of California including the “varied soils that are good for growing foodstuffs.” A small story on the gold discovery was at the back of the paper stating that California “has a mine of gold and a probable estimate of its magnitude cannot be derived from any information we have received.” 

Nathan Hawk

In April 1848, Nathan, his father, and at least 10 other travelers (some members of the Mormon Battalion), headed east with a train of pack mules and horses, many supplied by John Sutter. The expedition was hampered by deep snows in the Sierra Nevada and by Native Americans who tried to steal the animals. 

According to Nathan, the papers weighed 80 pounds and “just bristled with flowing descriptions of the country, which Brannan declared was the long-sought Eden.” The party met Brigham Young and a group of immigrants near Independence Rock in July. The glowing reports in The California Star and the gold Nathan carried were enough to persuade many to leave the Oregon Trail and head to California. 

A copy of the paper eventually made its way to the New York Herald, which published a two-column story on the discovery of gold, fanning the flames of gold fever.

Nathan and William arrived home and promptly made plans to take their families west the following spring. William and his family settled in Salt Lake City. Nathan, his wife, and father-in-law continued onto California; he and his family lived in Sacramento, Nevada County, Yolo County, Salmon Falls, and Coloma. At the time of his death in 1910, he was living at the Soldier’s Home in Yountville. His children, John and Ella Hawk, lived in Coloma and had him interred in the Pioneer Cemetery alongside his wife.

By Nathan Hawk


The Sacramento Bee: January 4, 1904; January 15, 1967

Mormon Battalion: United States Arm of the West 1846-1848 by Norma Ricketts

Gold Rush Saints: California Mormons and the Great Rush for Riches by Kenneth N. Owens, University of Oklahoma Press

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