When Gold Caused Harm

January 31, 2008

A Lesson For the Children – John Sutter was one of many immigrants who moved to the United States in the nineteenth century. He decided to settle in California, and he set to work with great energy. And he indeed began to succeed. Sutter planted many orchards and he became the main supplier of fruit to ships landing in the area. He dug canals, built flour mills, established factories and lumber mills, and built a large farm called “Fort Sutter.” He became one of the main figures in the area and was very wealthy, he hired many workers, and he enjoyed the fruits of his labor.

One day James Marshal, one of Sutter’s workers and partners, was digging a canal for a new mill that he was building. He bent down and suddenly saw two pieces of shiny yellow metal on the bottom of the canal. He carefully picked them up and found it hard to choke back the triumphant cry: “Gold!”

He wrapped up the two pieces and galloped to the ranch on his horse. He called his employer, John Sutter, and they went into an inside room together. After tightly closing the shutters, they checked the metal and decided that they really had samples of precious metal. There was gold on the land! Who knew how much gold they might yet find, if only they would search?

They decided to keep their find a secret. After all, there was no reason to share the treasure with the entire world! Sutter himself went to the Indians who owned the land and leased large areas from them. Very quietly, Sutter and his men began to search for more and more gold, and he realized that he had a great treasure “under his nose,” and that all he had to do was bend down and pick it up.

However, within a few days, the secret became known, and it was soon reported in the newspapers. Quickly, many workers from Sutter’s businesses joined the efforts, and within six weeks everybody had abandoned their jobs and rushed to participate in gathering the wealth. Cows died, since there was nobody to feed and milk them, factories were abandoned, the fields were deserted and dried out, and herds of bison broke out of their corrals and ran away. But nobody paid any attention. Everybody was only involved in one thing – collecting the gold.

Quickly, the rumor of the gold reached the big city, San Francisco. The city was completely abandoned, and all of its inhabitants spread out over the area. But not only people from the city took part. From all over the United States, large numbers of people began to arrive, followed by others. Tens of thousands of adventurers and soldiers, clerks and teachers, farmers and sailors, and then others from all over the world, a complete blend of all kinds of people, made their way to the “land of gold.” They spread out over the land of the unfortunate Sutter, slaughtered his remaining cows for food, dismantled the wooden houses to use for firewood, trampled the fields, and they were quick to pull their guns in order to defend their “right” to dig for gold that did not really belong to them.

There was indeed gold in the ground, but only very few of the people were able to enjoy it. Much labor went into every patch of ground in order to remove the last grains of gold, and only a few men became really wealthy. Many people abandoned everything that was dear to them in order to fulfill a legendary dream, but they fell into a dreary reality of very hard work, with no blessing at all.

Sutter himself lost his entire fortune, and he spent the rest of his life in court, where he tried – with almost no success – to get compensation for the damages that he had suffered. He died penniless, his life’s dream completely covered by a thick layer of “bad gold.”

Source: “It Happened One Day,” and others. Email with reactions and suggestions for stories. Reprinted with permission from Zomet Institute ( Translated from the Hebrew by Moshe Goldberg. To subscribe to receive the complete version of Shabbat B’Shabbato please write to

The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.