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Thursday, September 03, 2015

The boy the earth spoke to

George Hearst's father was part of Dan'l Boone's party that swept into Franklin County, Missouri, to settle there in 1806, three years after the Louisiana Purchase. Forty years later, the frontiersman died owing $10,000, an enormous sum in the 19th century. But Hearst, 26, was industrious and within two years had paid off the debts, with enough money left over to take care of his mother and his sister.

At 28, Hearst set off to a frontier of his own: California, where he prospected for gold. Unlike his father, when he died, Hearst left his son a fortune that is listed by Forbes as the 53rd largest estate in American history when adjusted for inflation.

Born in a log cabin on September 3, 1820, Hearst had little formal education. His father was a farmer who sold his goods at a general store. Hearst was more interested in more earthly pursuits: mining. Lead mines were an early industry in Missouri, as were copper mines. When he was 18, he learned the rudiments of mining at the Franklin County Mining School. He built lead mines and was successful. He used a lay-of-the-land approach to geology to discover lodes. An Indian friend called him the "boy that the earth talked to."

But while he paid off his father's debts by January 1848, he did not leave for California until May 1850, against the wishes of his mother and his sister. He and two cousins went by wagon train along the Santa Fe trail. This was an arduous journey that took six months. Arriving in Jackass Gulch in October, they spent the winter panning for gold with little success. In the spring, they moved to Grass Valley, after prospectors discovered a rich lode of gold-bearing quartz at Gold Hill. Hearst discovered a rich lode of his own on a hill that he re-named Merrimac Hill after a river in Franklin County, Missouri.

His subsequently discovered another lode, which he called Potisi. He diversified his portfolio, partnering to build a theater in nearby Nevada City and building a general store in Sacramento, which unfortunately fell victim to flooding.

Hearst sold off those mines and looked for a new lode. Over the next five years, he would do this several times, building mines and selling them.

His few months at the Franklin County Mining School served him well. He had a competitive edge; he knew what he was doing. He developed a reputation as a prospector and a judge of claims. Along with two lawyers from Kentucky, James Ben Ali Haggin and Lloyd Tevis (later president of Wells Fargo), he formed Hearst, Haggin, Tevis and Co. The company developed the modern methods for mining quartz. Theirs was a far-flung mining company whose holdings included the Comstock Lode in Nevada, the Ophir mine in Nevada, the Pacific mine in New Mexico, the Ontario silver mine in Utah, the Homestake gold mine in South Dakota, the Anaconda Copper Mine in Montana, and the Cerro de Pasco Mine in Peru.

By 1860, Hearst was quite wealthy, although you could never tell. His clothes were worn and dirty. He chewed tobacco, drank bourbon, and played poker. He went back to Franklin County to visit his family and find a wife. At 41 he married 19-year-old Phoebe Elizabeth Apperson against her parents' wishes, which forced them to elope. He and his bride moved to San Francisco, where the next year she gave birth to their only child, a son whom he named after his father.

Hearst's wife became involved in philanthropy; he became involved in Democratic Party politics, and served two years in the state General Assembly. He raised thoroughbreds. He acquired the Democratic newspaper in San Francisco in a poker game. He ran for governor in 1882 but failed to win the Democratic primary. In 1886 he was appointed to the U.S. Senate after John F. Miller died, and won election to that body that fall.

He died as a senator in Washington on February 28, 1891, at age 70. Like his father, he had been a pioneer. Unlike his father, George Hearst did not leave behind a debt, but rather bequeathed one of the largest estates in the nation to his son, William Randolph Hearst. The estate included that newspaper in a poker game, the San Francisco Examiner, which used as a base for his son's newspaper empire.


I am publishing collections of the best in this series of Exceptional Americans, with the second volume published on September 1.

Which is better? "Exceptional Americans 1" or the new book, "Exceptional Americans 2"?

Buy both and tell me.

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