Golden Ages

Golden Ages

Differently than the actual 49ers who went west during the Gold Rush, the San Francisco 49ers and Kansas City Chiefs will rush (and pass and kick) for gold this Sunday. The victors’ deliriously opulent Super Bowl rings will be smithed from that prized metal, then studded with dozens or even hundreds of diamonds—treasures paid for with great effort, pain and luck.

Yet the original 49ers expended much more of each. They trekked or sailed thousands of miles, then spent months or years hacking, digging and sifting for gold in an unforgiving wilderness amid literal cutthroat competition—and unlike NFL players, they weren’t paid lavish salaries just for trying.

One of them, according to Connecticut Explored, was North Havener John Eli Brockett. Descended from founding New Havener John Brockett—the man credited with laying out the nine-square grid that renders New Haven America’s first planned town—the young Brockett scrimped and saved, then set sail in September, 1849, arriving in San Francisco near the start of spring. Jaded fortune-seekers there told him to return home while he still had the money to cover the round trip, and after a few fruitless months, Brockett considered following their advice. Instead, he kept digging and, nugget by nugget, converted his finds to a small fortune worth thousands of dollars. In 1853, having quenched his thirst for gold (or at least for gold mining), Brockett returned to Connecticut with enough cash to “help pay off some of his father’s debts… with some left over.”

As it happens, Brockett may not have needed to leave the state at all. Historical sources suggest that John Winthrop, Jr., the sixth governor of the Connecticut Colony (and spearhead of the New Haven-Connecticut merger begun in 1662), had already struck gold here two centuries earlier. In addition to being a pioneering prospector, Winthrop was the New World’s preeminent alchemist, credited at least in part with “the transfer of alchemical culture to America”—a culture utterly fascinated with gold. Alchemists believed gold “represented the perfection of all matter on any level, including that of the mind, spirit, and soul.” They also believed, to the point of obsession, that with enough experimentation, they could discover a method of transmutating baser metals into their lustrous yellow ideal.

Winthrop, for his part, appears to have simply pulled it out of the ground. A 1787 journal entry by famed Yalie Ezra Stiles described a geological formation not coincidentally called “The Governor’s Ring” as “the place to which Governor Winthrop of New London used to resort with his servant; and after spending three Weeks in the woods of this mountain in roasting ores and assaying Metals and casting gold rings, he used to return home to New London with plenty of gold.” A geographic search today for “The Governor’s Ring” yields no result, but an obscure 1944 presentation to the Connecticut Society of Civil Engineers marks the spot: a formation on the East Hampton-Portland border, rising a few hundred feet over the Meshomasic State Forest, we now call Great Hill.

It was exactly this site that produced a major gold strike in 1985. As The New York Times reported the following year, rock samples tested by the UConn field researchers who’d made the discovery contained “100 times the amount usually found in North American mines and more than 10 times as much as the richest 20th-century find in Europe.” Initial news of the find prompted a gold rush of Connecticut’s own, with “prospective gold-diggers” quickly “swarming” the surrounding forest. Federal officials and mining companies “expressed interest” in pursuing a more formal extraction effort, but it seems state legislators ultimately declined to permit one. Perhaps the estimated reward was outweighed by the plausible costs and difficulties, which included the potential for a mess of competing claims to the mineral rights.

Gold, after all, was no less alluring in 1985 than it was in 1665 or 1849—or than it is today. In 2018, the Peabody Museum organized a small but mighty exhibit of natural gold specimens (and vintage prospecting tools), and in 2022, the Yale University Art Gallery sifted through its world-class collection of early American gold to produce an exhibition examining the metal’s cultural meaning and psychological power. Local goldsmiths such as Derek Simpson and Alexis Gage entice us with handmade and even custom gold jewelry, while local breweries embrace the metal’s multisensory and narrative appeal: NEBCo with its Gold Stock Ale, Athletic with its non-alcoholic Upside Dawn golden ale, Overshores with its Aural Fixation golden tripel (and a golden sour named Good People Bad Habits) and Armada Brewing with its beer art featuring royals and gods donning golden crowns and rings.

And if you think the players in Sunday’s Super Bowl aren’t salivating over the chance to possess storied golden rings of their own—alongside figurative crowns and literal diamonds—then you’re underestimating the supercharged, bowl-you-over power of gold.

Written and photographed by Dan Mims. Image features gold dust displayed with the 2018 Peabody exhibit California Gold.

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