George Hearst was born in 1821 to pioneer farmers in Franklin County, Missouri. Farm life was hard and demanded most of the families efforts to be focused on the production of food. He received very little formal schooling but was an avid reader and quick learner. In 1846, when George was just 25, his father died leaving him responsible for the $10,000 debt, ($236,000 in 2005 dollars) his family had accumulated. George improved the profitability of the farm, opened a store in town, and leased two lead mines.[i]
His interest in mining was aroused as a 15 year old. Always helping his father around the farm, they used to drive hogs down to some Frenchmen who were operating a smelter near them. As George writes in his autobiography, "The Frenchmen used to mine in the little shallow diggings and as soon as they got out a few hundred pounds of ore they would sell it... We had tables, and beds and chairs and that was about all, but these people had things which they brought from France which was very beautiful I thought... I naturally saw that they had a good deal of money. I think that was what induced me to go into mining."[ii]
His knack for mining and success in mining production lead to the local native American’s bestowing on him the name, “the boy the earth talked to.” By January, 1848 George had paid off the entire debt and was now running a profitable operation. That same year, George Marshall discovered gold at Coloma, California.
When he was satisfied his mother and sister were financially secure, in 1849 George headed to California with his cousins the Clarks to try their luck at gold mining. At first they had little success, but when they moved up to the Grass Valley where a quartz strike at Gold Hill was made they hit a gold bearing quartz ledge. Because of his experience in lead mining, George understood how to extract the gold efficiently from the quartz giving him an edge over other miners. Very quickly they became the experts at mining in the gold rush era and discovered mines then sold them for a quick profit. In 1857 they located the rich La Compton mine near Nevada City.
In 1859 word came around that silver was discovered in Nevada, then called the western Utah Territory. Hearst sold his interest in the Compton mine an purchased 1/6th interest in the Opher Mine. Opher later became Silver City, then Virginia City. Hearst focused his interests on developing a process to separate silver from gold. The mine became very productive setting off the “Washoe Rush.” With gold becoming scarce in California miners literally closed up shop and headed for Nevada for the “Comstock Lode.” Stock in the mine sold for as high as $1,200 per share, or about $30,000 in today’s money.
The following year, 1860, George, still single and now 39 years old, headed back to Missouri to be by the bedside of his ailing mother who later died. While in Missouri, he became more closely acquainted with a young neighbor girl, Phoebe Elizabeth Apperson who was 20 years his junior and a woman who would later be described by Alexander M. Nickless as, “The Most Powerful Woman in California,”[iii]. Her father, Randolph Walker Apperson was an elder in the Presbyterian Church and instilled in his daughter ambition and reverence for the Bible and a purpose “to do.” These early lessons would follow Phoebe the rest of her life.
To the displeasure of Phoebe’s family, the couple eloped and married before moving to California where George continued to pursue his mining interests. His investments in mines extended from California to Nevada, Utah, South Dakota and even Mexico. In the Black Hills of South Dakota he purchased the Homestake Mine in 1877 and applied his skills at extracting its ore. The mine became the leading producer of gold in the United States.
In 1880, Hearst acquired what was once the Daily Democrat Press but had changed its name to The Examiner after it had been the target of rampaging citizens when Abraham Lincoln was assesinated. The papers liberal views were thought to have been part of the effort to oust the President. There is no documentation on how Mr. Hearst purchased the paper and there has been much lore that he won it as pay off of a gambling debt. How or why he acquired it is unknown. However, his son William Randolph, then a student at Harvard, pleaded with his father to allow him to run it. In 1887 he gave the paper to William Randolph to operate and his success in journalism has consumed hundreds of pages of text and was the subject of the motion picture, Citizen Kane.
[ii] Judith Robinson, "The Hearst's, An American Dynasty" pp 35-37
[ii] Alexander M. Nickless, “Phoebe Apperson Hearst: The most Powerful Woman in California” (Ph.D. dissertation, University of California, Davis, 1994)