OLD WEST LEGENDS: George Hearst – Father of a Mining & Publishing Empire (Legends of America – March 2014)


Born near Sullivan, Missouri on September 3, 1820, to William and Elizabeth Collins Hearst, George was the oldest of three children. Two years later, his sister Martha (nicknamed Patsy,) was born and later a younger brother Philip arrived, who was unfortunately crippled from birth. From a young age, George worked on the family farm and received very little formal schooling.

Though Hearst was said to have had a lifelong interest in books, he had only rudimentary reading abilities. However, even without a formal education, Hearst was no dummy, as the world would soon see. When George was 26, his father William Hearst died owing some $10,000 to his creditors. George immediately took on the responsibility for caring for his mother, younger sister, and crippled brother.

Before long, George had improved on the farm’s profitability, opened a small store and leased a couple of prospective lead mines. The oldest economic endeavor in Missouri, lead had been mined in the area since 1715. Hearst had been interested in the mines since he was a child and once he bought the lead mines, he began to studying the mining business in earnest. His mines prospered, producing both lead and copper and within two years he was able to pay off his father’s debt.

By 1850, he had earned enough money to take care of his family and announced that he was going to California to look into gold mining By this time, his crippled brother had passed away and though his mother and sister opposed his decision to go west, Hearst was determined and soon organized a wagon train that included his cousins, Jacob and Joseph Clark, and headed to California in May, 1850.

They finally reached Placerville in October and established a winter camp in Jackass Gulch. Placer mining throughout the winter, their results were minimal and in the spring they decided to move on to Grass Valley, California, where a rich lode of gold bearing quartz had been found at Gold Hill.

Having much better luck, Hearst soon found a rich gold bearing quartz ledge between Grass Valley and Nevada City. Naming his new mine Merrimac Hill after a river in Missouri, the claim was exceptionally rich and with his former lead mining experience, Hearst quickly developed new and better ways to extract the gold.

When the Merrimack hit water, it temporarily halted the mining, but the lucky Hearst had already found another rich claim that he named the Potisi. By the end of the year, Hearst had used his mining proceeds to become a part owner in the first theater in nearby Nevada City and later, established a general store in Sacramento.

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