“A superb take-in as ever was got up to guzzle the gullible.” This is how young Edward C. Kemble referred to the 1848 gold rush at John Sutter’s mill. His scoffing was to cause him embarrassment for years to come.
Born Nov. 11, 1828, in Troy, N.Y., Edward Kemble was the son of the former state senator, John Cleveland Kemble, editor of the Troy Northern Budget.
Kemble was known as the “boy editor,” as he became interested in journalism early in his life.
At 16, he worked as a printer on a weekly Mormon publication. The Prophet. His employer, Sam Brannan, envisioned an empire in California where his sect could worship without persecution. His plans included starting a newspaper. When Brannan’s group sailed west to San Francisco, the non-Mormon, adventurous Kemble was with them.
Kemble went to work immediately in San Francisco, typesetting for an advance extra of Brannan’s paper, The California Star. He was interrupted in late October by a call to arms to put down a revolt by native Californians.
With the California Battalion under John Fremont, Kemble witnessed some of the closing scenes of the conquest of California. During the campaign, Kemble acted as correspondent for The Star.
Upon his return to San Francisco in April 1847, Kemble and another young printer, John Eager, were placed in charge of the newspaper by Brannan, who left for Salt Lake City to meet a westward migration of Mormans.
Elbert P. Jones was made editor, but mostly in name only. Jones and Kemble soon engaged in a heated argument over who was running the paper. Jones was thrown out of the office and resigned a short time later. Following Brannan’s return in September, Kemble was made editor officially. He was then just barely 19 years old. Kemble readily became involved with local politics, and in April 1848 he was elected clerk of the town council.
When gold was rumored to have been found on Captain John Sutter’s land near Sacramento, Kemble went to investigate, but he found no gold.
When he returned, Kemble called the supposed discovery “All Sham” in bold-face type. Nevertheless, a month later every man in San Francisco was digging for gold at Sutter’s mill.
Kemble had done his best to put down the rising tide of “gold fever,” as he called it, but eventually the rumor became obvious fact, and even Kemble himself left to try his luck at the mines.
In late September he returned to San Francisco and bought The Star from Brannan for $800. The paper later joined with California’s first newspaper, The Californian, which was suffering great losses because of ownership changes. It became the Alta California, the only paper in the territory at the time.
The Alta entered into the work of forming a provisional government and reforming municipal matters in San Francisco; it became “the people’s organ.” After the paper was on its feet, Kemble traveled to Sacramento to establish a sorely needed newspaper there.
Despite many problems, Kemble on April 28, 1849, published the first issue of The Placer Times. He returned to San Francisco in June, and The Times was maintained by associates of The Alta. The Alta became one of the most profitable newspapers in America, but in 1851 and 1852, tragedy and setbacks struck the paper.
On June 22, 1851 the sixth great San Francisco fire burned out The Alta. Despite large financial losses, it continued publication, but over a year later a greater blow to Kemble and The Alta struck. Kemble’s partner and close friend, Edward Gilbert, was killed in a duel. To Kemble the loss was like that of a brother. The Alta continued to prosper, but Kemble’s heart was no longer with the paper.
Kemble sold The Alta in January 1855, and by September he was back in New York to help organize and serve as secretary for the Committee on Pacific Coast Emigration. He returned to California in 1857 and became associate editor of The Sacramento Union. While working on The Union, he completed his work on the “History of California Newspapers.”
With the outbreak of the Civil War, Kemble worked as a war correspondent for The Union.
Following the war, Kemble was appointed assistant manager of the Associated Press office in New York, in charge of California and West Coast matters. At the same time he was telegraphic correspondent for the San Francisco Call and Bulletin and for The Sacramento Record-Union. He held these positions until his death at age 56 in New York on Feb. 10, 1886.
*Hall of Fame inductees are selected annually by a committee appointed by the California Press Foundation. They recognize career achievements of weekly and daily publishers in California who were important and influential in their era, as judged by their peers in the association. The write-ups are a historical and journalistic snapshot in time and not official biographies.*