recess radio program

The Littlest 49ers
    by John Cech

Gold was discovered this month in 1848, on the American River in California, on a construction site for a saw mill that was being built for John Sutter, a Swiss immigrant who had become, in the ten years since presiding over vast, prosperous land holdings that included a fort, farms and vineyards, herds of cattle, and, in '48, the first flecks of gold that would cause one of the largest and most concentrated migrations of people in our nation's history. Sutter had an inkling of what the news of gold might mean to his plans for expanding his personal empire, and so he swore his workers to secrecy. But within a few months, the news had leaked out in San Francisco, a sleepy port of less than a thousand souls. By the end of the year, President Polk had offically announced the discovery to the nation, and, as one commentator put it, "the world rushed in."

Among the prospectors were many children and young people. Most came overland with their parents, but groups of students from Harvard and other colleges, most of them stillteenagers, organized themselves into companies and took boats from Boston on the six-month journey around the Horn to the gold fields. One of the most celebrated appearances of a child in the roaring San Francisco of the 1850s was that of Miss Anna Maria Quinn, who at the age of seven dazzled the crowd of the Metropolitan Theater by reciting the whole first act of Hamlet from memory. The next week she did performances from long-forgotten shows, playing little Eva and Little Pickle to admiring throngs. Within a few months, she and her parents set sail for Australia, where gold had been discovered in 1851. While she virtually vanished from the recorded history of the Northern Hemisphere, she became a darling Down-under. It should be remembered that younger children were so scarce in the "instant" city of San Francisco and in the gold fields, that when they did materialize in the midst of the grizzled miners, they were treated as miracles, like the foundling child in Brett Harte's famous story, "The Luck of Roaring Camp." The very presence of this child, whom the miners name "Luck," reforms a lawless town. For its inhabitants whose dreams of gold had been dashed by the bitter realities of life in the diggins, the child called Luck in this poignant story offers a discovery of something even more precious than the metal the miners are searching for: a seam of pure joy and hope.

Copyright 2005 John Cech

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"Recess!" is a co-production of the University of Florida's Center for Children's Literature and Culture and WUFT-FM, "Classic 89."