This is the sequicentennial year of the Gold Rush. The miners were known as The Forty-Niners. But the first gold nugget was actually discovered on Sutter's Mill in northern California 150 years ago, on Jan. 24, 1848.
It was the Gold Rush that led to the admission of California as the 31st state in 1850. But perhaps even more notable was the multi-racial society it left behind. CBS News correspondent John Blackstone reports.
They look out at us across 150 years - the fortune hunters and adventurers who in 1949 began flooding into California. The discovery of gold started the greatest migration in American history. And it came just as the earliest forms of photography made it possible for the first time to capture history as it happened.
They came determined to take away California's gold. But what they left turned out to be even more valuable. They left their descendants, the families who created the foundation for this diverse and vibrant state.
The family of Nelson Ray, a freed slave who came to California seeking gold, is among that special group who can trace their roots to The Forty-Niners.
George Jenkins, Nelson Ray's great-great-grandson, has spent the last 25 years documenting his family's history. Looking at old family photos, Jenkins says: "I want to say to them, 'I appreciate you; I value you; I value what you have done for us. And you kept your family together'."
In Nevada City, Californa, Jan Garvis has spent three decades tracing her family back to the gold rush. Her great-grandfather Jake Gould was still a teenager when he headed west from New York, - drawn by rumors that gold could be found in the streets. She has discovered a lot about Jake Gould:
"He was a strong, determined young man deciding at the age of 18 that he was going to go to California. And the family suspects that the only way he could get here is, he chose to join the circus."
Sisters Doreen Ah Tye and Lani Tye Farkas have spent 30 years piecing together the story of their great-grandfather, Ye Ah Tye. Doreen explains: "Life in China was not that successful and not that wealthy or rich, so he set off to America to find his gold and have a better life for himself and his family."
For George Jenkins, no golden nugget could be worth more than the old will he found in a Missouri courthouse. It was written by the widow who once owned his great-great-grandfather, Nelson Ray. It reads: "In consideration of faithful services of my boy Nelson and the great regard I have for him I do hereby will and direct that he, Nelson, shall be set free at my death."
In these papers, the man who would go on to build wealth and a family in California was just one more item in a list of possessions.
Jenkins says: "He's mentioned as a slave under the heading of goods and chattels, one tub, one bed, four bedspreads, one tin canister, one teapot, one bucket and slaves: one black man named Nelson freed by th will. To hold it in my hands and realize the significance to a human being, to realize its significance historically - it's difficult to put those feelings into words. You have to go through it."
With the first money he made in California, Nelson Ray returned to Missouri to buy the freedom of his wife and children. In order to travel safely, he needed a pass certifying that he was free. He was able to set his family free, signing their emancipation document with an 'X'.
In Placerville, California, in the heart of gold country, Nelson Ray eventually became a landlord, the owner of what is now essentially the center of town.
Standing there, Jenkins says: "My great-great grandfather walked right past here. Here's the Carry House Hotel. It was the very best hotel in town, just a block away."
In the California gold fields, everyone faced challenges. Jan Garvis says the old photographs can only hint at the hardships her great-grandfather overcame: "This is Gibsonville and this is where Jake and his wife lived and raised their children. This is a gold camp. No power. No running water. Very hard times."
Those who not only survived but thrived in the gold rush had to be rugged. Lani Ah Tye says her research revealed her great-grandfather was tough indeed: "From the newspaper articles that we found on Ye Ah Tye, he was not at all an angel; They described him as a petty despot, a mandarin among his people."
Chinese laborers were vital to the gold rush. They were also victims of some of the harshest discrimination of their time. But as a labor contractor and merchant in the town of La Porte, Ye Ah Tye became wealthy. Not only that, says Lani, he became American, and raised an American family.
Doreen Ah Tye says her grandmother Bessie was the youngest daughter: "And many Chinese thought that daughters were not very valuable. But Ye Ah Tee insisted that America be his final resting place."
The temple in what was once San Francisco's Chinese cemetery now stands in the midst of a municipal golf course, but it remains a powerful symbol for this family. Lani Ah Tye has written a book of family history. She says: "We feel this temple remnant is a tribute to our great-grandfather who was a forerunner of a new breed called a Chinese-American."
In 30 years of researching her gold rush ancestor, the most important discovery she has made is about herself: "The completion of my book, which is entitled Bury My Bones in America, is a kind of completion, the circle has kind of been complete. I now like to think that I'm a hybrid of both Chinese and American cultures. But I feel that of the two, I am more American."
George Jenkins' journey into the past has also been one of self-discovery. He says: "The whole thing leads to a conception of who I am. The whole thing leads to an understanding of myself."
The photographs of the gold rush are not just historical documents. For some, tey are part of a fmaily album that bridges 150 years.
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Copyright 1998 CBS. All rights reserved.
CBSNews.com staff CBSNews.com staff