Skip to main content

“Gold, boys, gold!” When that cry of joy rang out in Coloma, Calif. on Jan. 24, 1848, the response was … well … not much. Times were different. Consider:

• California still belonged to Mexico on that day. The Mexican-American War was still winding down, and the Treaty of Guadalupe that would move California into the American column didn’t get signed until February. The guys negotiating that treaty were down near Mexico City, oblivious to the news.

• No internet, no railroad, no telegraph—news traveled slowly. Folks in San Francisco heard the rumors first, but they were skeptical. They’d been through a couple of earlier false gold alarms by this point. But they came around that spring when a guy named Samuel Brannan showed up, running through the streets and screaming “Gold! Gold! Gold from the American River!” He was waving a jar of the stuff overhead. By summertime a huge chunk of San Francisco’s male population had run off in search of gold.

• Guys from Hawaii, Oregon, Mexico, and even China showed up next. All those places got the news before it arrived on the East Coast.

• No one along the Atlantic Coast believed the early rumors, either, as they mostly came from random lay people who’d maybe heard about the find in a letter from a cousin or some such thing. Finally, on Dec. 5, 1848, President James Polk informed Congress that the rumors were true.

The Mass Migration Takes Off

All heck broke loose. Thousands of East Coast men borrowed money, mortgaged homes, and ran through their life savings to make the trip to California. Mostly, they left wives and kids behind. Those women and children soon found themselves in new roles, running big farms and managing small businesses.

Eye-popping numbers: California had 7,000 non-Native-American (mostly European) residents on the day gold was discovered. By the end of the following year, 1849, it had 100,000 non-native residents. Among the new arrivals was an enterprising young man from Sussex County, Delaware.

Born in Lewes in 1818, Harbeson Hickman was around 30 years old when the gold rush began. He’d done okay for himself so far, having partnered with a brother in a business start-up—a wholesale hardware operation in Philadelphia.

He sold his stake in that operation upon hearing the siren song of California gold. The journey he and thousands of other men took from the East Coast to California will sound insane to modern ears, but, as already noted, times were different.

California Gold Rush Portrait for Harbeson HickmanThose travelers had two choices. One, hop on a boat and sail around the tip of South America, spending nearly 20,000 miles at sea in an era long before the arrival of seasickness medicine. Two, take the hybrid route. Sail down the Atlantic to Panama, which did not yet have a canal. Get off and tromp through a disease-infested jungle to the shores of the Pacific. If you made it in good health, you’d board another ship there for the run up to San Francisco.

Hickman chose the longer route, aboard a vessel named Algoma. One possible reason is that he might have been traveling with a whole bunch of luggage, far too much to drag along while walking through that Panamanian jungle. Hickman had no intention of panning or digging for gold. He either brought along a big supply of hardware goods—buckets, shovels, pick-axes, you name it—or he carried enough cash to buy a slew of tools upon arriving in California. He settled in the town of Stockton and opened a hardware store.

‘During a gold rush, sell shovels.’

As exciting as a “gold rush” sounds in theory, the guys chasing that dream in the 1850s found themselves facing a harsh life with poor prospects. No high-tech mining inventions had appeared yet. The “placer mining” techniques they employed were centuries old by this point. They were hunting for gold that had broken away from its natural geological home in rock formations. Such nuggets, flakes, grains, and gold dust turned up mostly in stream beds or in places that used to be stream beds, like canyons. Picks and shovels were key tools in their long days of manual labor, along with specialty items with names like “cradles” and “long toms.”

California Gold Rush Scene for Harbeson HickmanThe odds of winning in the gold rush game were pretty low from the get-go, and they got lower as time went on. That long delay in the news making it across the country meant that most of the easy-to-find stuff was gone by the time East Coast guys arrived. Mostly, the miners lived in tents. If they snagged a spot in a tiny cabin, they were likely rooming with five or six other guys. Here is how one of those miners summed up the bleak reality of gold rush life:

Many, very many, that come here meet with bad success and thousands will leave their bones here.  Others will lose their health, contract diseases that they will carry to their graves with them.  Some will have to beg their way home and probably one half … will never make enough [money] to carry them back [home].

Who knows how many of Harbeson Hickman’s neighbors on the Delmarva Peninsula ended up in those desperate straits? Scores? Hundreds? More? The Delmarva Peninsula newspaper reports I came across in the early years of the California Gold Rush were mostly tempting and tantalizing, tallying up the value of gold that arrived on this or that vessel that docked in this or that East Coast city. The first note of caution I could find in those papers didn’t appear until 1855. The Smyrna (Del.) Times:

This [news about more gold arriving] will again revive the yellow fever which had somewhat allayed of late. Passengers bring conflicting accounts from this land of Opher–some, upon their return, aver it to be truly a land of gold, and that the hardships to be encountered in obtaining the precious metal are slight–others inform us of the morbid destitution of the adventurers, and the great risk of life and health, in reaching this golden soil.

Harbeson Hickman’s hardware store plan worked to perfection. In fact he personified a business-world maxim that still pops up now and again today in advice books aimed at entrepreneurs looking for the best business opportunities:

During a gold rush, sell shovels.

Hickman made a fortune during his 10-year California sojourn. When things slowed down for him after four or five years, he started speculating in California real estate. By the time he moved back home to Delaware, he was richer than God.

Back Home in Delaware

He was married, too. He met Eliza aboard a ship in the midst of his California sojourn—he was returning to Stockton after a visit home to Delaware in the wake of his father’s death. Eliza’s mother had died recently, so she was traveling west to move in with a relative. The fact that she was 13 years old didn’t stop thirtysomething-year-old Hickman from falling head over heels. Did I mention that times were different?

At least he waited until Eliza was 16 or 17 before tying the knot. They would eventually have four children together.

California Gold Rush Topsail Schooner 1833 for Harbeson HickmanBack in Delaware Hickman stuck with the real estate game. Once again his timing was perfect. Quite a few Southern Delaware farmers landed in financial trouble in the 1860s—they had mismanaged things and worn out their soils. Hickman picked up bargains in foreclosure, eventually owning more than 5,000 acres and renting the land out to tenant farmers.

He got into shipping, too, investing in at least 10 and perhaps as many as 40 vessels that sailed trading routes to the West Indies, South America, Europe, and beyond. One of those ships bore his name—the three-masted schooner Harbeson Hickman was built in Milford in 1874. (Keep scrolling at the end of this story for a strange little tidbit about that vessel that will be of interest to UFO aficionados.)

Hickman lived mostly in Lewes in his later years. He put his fortune to use in various civic and political causes. He donated land to a pair of church groups in the town near his native Lewes that eventually took his first name, Harbeson. The blink-and-you’ll-miss-it town of Hickman (northwest of Greenwood, along Route 16) might be named after him as well. He helped promote agricultural innovation through a group called the Seaside Agricultural Association. He served as a bank director and in various Democratic Party leadership roles. He tried to build a big fairground near Harbeson, but that never really took off.

When Hickman died in 1890, the Wilmington Morning News dubbed him “the richest man in Sussex County,” He reached that height by seeing better than most where the real get-rich-quick opportunities were in the frenzied days of the California Gold Rush.

–posted by Jim Duffy for Secrets of the Eastern Shore/Whimbrel Creations LLC in March 2024. All rights reserved. Thanks so much for spending a little time with this story.

NOTE #1: The Gold Rush and Photography

The California Gold Rush took off just as photography was dawning—the daguerreotype still ranked as a new-fangled thing. Some early pioneers in the art of photography spent time doing portraits of the gold rush “49ers.” Here is an extraordinary collection of those images.

NOTE # 2: The Harbeson Hickman UFO Connection

In 1891 the schooner Harbeson Hickman set sail for Martinique with a load of coal. She ran into a terrible storm, then disappeared. Newspapers in the Delmarva region and beyond reported the ship lost and presumed sunk.

But the Harbeson Hickman reappeared, docking in Martinique much later than planned. The crew had a story to tell. This is from an account in the Philadelphia Inquirer that has drawn some attention lately in our modern-day community of UFO obsessives.

• “She ran into a terrific gale from the south, accompanied by heavy seas that lasted twelve hours.“

• But then an “extraordinary sunset riveted the attention of all hands.”

• “Immediately after a huge mass of black clouds appeared as if by magic, and in its center was a small ball of fire which appeared to revolve as it constantly changed its formation.”

• “This phenomenon lasted two hours, during which a strange roaring sound was heard above the swish of the water around the ship’s sides.”

The Harbeson Hickman was eventually transformed into a barge, working waters up near Connecticut in the early 1900s. After springing a leak in 1911, she was dismantled. The only thing that survives is her name board—it’s in the collection of the Mystic Seaport Museum in Mystic, Connecticut.

 

Leave a Reply