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A Rush of History

Union Oil Museum exhibiting a new case of gold fever.


They're redecorating again at the Union Oil Museum in Santa Paula, and you're invited to view the finished product.

"Gold Fever! Untold Stories of the California Gold Rush" will open Saturday.

The Gold Rush changed the Golden State forever. This exhibit includes two dozen photo mural panels with accompanying text, documents, artifacts, tools, period paintings, newspapers, diaries and other reminders of those avaricious old days of 150 years ago.

The exhibit looks at the legends and legacies of the Gold Rush and the characters that came west to make their fortune or, in many cases, lose their lives.

One of those early Californians was John Sutter, who arrived in 1835, became a Mexican citizen and was granted 48,000 acres at the confluence of the American and Sacramento rivers. Sutter hoped to found his own republic, Nuevo Helvetia, or New Switzerland. But on Jan. 24, 1848, John Marshall of New Jersey, who had been hired by Sutter to build a sawmill in Coloma, discovered gold.

To some, it's been downhill ever since. The idyllic lifestyle enjoyed by the California Indians--especially the Miwok and Maidu tribes--and the Mexican ranchers was forever shattered by Marshall's discovery. The area near Sacramento was overrun with gold seekers, adventurers, wheeler-dealers, Chinese laborers and others.

Marshall's discovery was one of the worst-kept secrets in history. During the rest of 1848, 32,000 people walked to California; a year later, 44,000 showed up. Hundreds of ships brought another 400,000.

In his memoirs, Gen. William Sherman, the future Union war hero, noted that there were 600 ships in San Francisco Bay without crews. The sailors had all gone searching for gold. Some found the precious metal--but all found inflation. At the time, Sherman earned $70 a month as a junior Army officer, while any small room rented for $1,000 a month.

Other pictorial exhibits explore the nature of frontier justice, or the lack of it. Law and order was pretty much reserved for the whites. Vigilante groups and mob rule was the order of the day. The Chinese, who did much of the manual labor, were especially discriminated against. They were assessed foreign miner's taxes, and a quote in the San Francisco Bulletin noted that "white men are not usually hanged for killing Chinamen."

And for the real locals, the Indians, it was far worse. Living the California dream long before any others showed up, there were 300,000 Indians before the Spanish arrived in 1769, 150,000 Indians in 1847, just 30,000 in 1870 and only 16,000 by 1900. Thus, European-style progress brought disease, disaster and death to the locals.

While the gold-fever version of the California dream was driving everyone into a frenzy up north, all that activity initially had little effect down south. In those days, Southern California was a laid-back rural paradise, characterized by large cattle- and sheep-ranching operations.

California's rapid population growth after the discovery of gold enabled it to skip the territory stage and become a state less than two years after Marshall's discovery.

Union Oil was founded in Santa Paula, "the Citrus Capital of the World." The current museum was built in 1890 by company President Thomas Bard to serve as the firm's headquarters. Costing $38,000, it was the second-largest structure in the county after the Ventura County Courthouse.

The traveling Gold Rush exhibit, created by the Oakland Museum of California and funded by the California Council of the Humanities, will be on display until Feb. 18.

The exhibit's opening on Saturday will include a reception from 1 to 4 p.m. sponsored by Santa Clara Valley Bank.


"Gold Fever! The Untold Stories of California's Gold Rush" at the Union Oil Museum, 1001 E. Main St., Santa Paula, Wed. through Sun. Adults, $2; children, $1. 933-0076.


Bill Locey can be reached by e-mail at

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