James W. Marshall was working Jan. 24, 1848, at his sawmill in Coloma, California, when he saw a glint in a nearby stream. Curious, Marshall walked over to investigate and discovered gold. As news about the gold spread, people across the country, including in Arkansas, packed up their belongings and started the arduous trip across the U.S. to California.
Many Arkansans packed up their earthly goods to seek their fortunes. Others began seeking gold in their own state.
For those heading to the West Coast, a popular starting point for going to California was Van Buren in Crawford County. The westward route was about 1,300 miles of rugged terrain, and travelers would face many challenges along the way. The Comanche and Apache nations were hostile toward travelers encroaching on their lands. Even if travelers avoided attacks, it was impossible to avoid the arid desert and high altitude landscape of the Colorado Plateau and the Rocky Mountains. Only the most prepared travelers would be able to make it to California.
Van Buren merchants made sure their stores were stocked with items for the trip. Fort Smith and Van Buren benefited financially from the gold rush because they were located on the main road that headed west. As the first town on the route, Van Buren seemed to profit the most from the travelers. Outfitting businesses sprang up overnight. The towns’ hotels also saw a modest gain in business. After all, this would be the last hotel on the trail until Santa Fe, New Mexico. The editor of the Fort Smith Weekly Herald remarked, “If gold is to be found on them as plentiful as represented, we shall expect to see our town continually filling with persons going there in quest of gold as we are situated on the right road to those mountains.”
Because of difficulties in traveling, some gold hunters hoped there would be a gold deposit closer to home. It was not long before rumors of gold deposits surfaced.
One story had it that a Native American man visiting Louisiana presented a large lump of gold. When inspected, it was revealed to be authentic. The Van Buren Intelligencer reported the man saw the look of surprise from people inspecting his gold and boasted that “If they called that gold, he could show them a household of it.” He said the gold came from the shores of the Arkansas River near an unincorporated area called Walnut Creek in the Wichita Mountains in Indian Territory.
Another story held two men living near Walnut Creek discovered gold dust on the creek bank. After further exploration, the two men announced to the public that their find was massive.
More next week