George Hearst's family traces its origins back to Scotland. In 1679 John Hurst participated in the uprising against Charles II and following its failure fled to the American colonies. He established himself in Virginia in 1680. One of his sons, John Hurst III, established himself in North Carolina and changed the spelling of the family name to Hearst. John Hearst married Elizabeth Knox of North Carolina and in 1776 moved his family to Abbeville County, South Carolina. John and Elizabeth had eleven children, one of whom was George Hearst. George Hearst in turn had four children, one of whom was William Hearst.
In 1806, after the 1803 purchase of the Louisiana Territory, William Hearst followed Daniel Boone to Franklin County, Missouri, where he established a small farm and served as first lieutenant in the local militia. In 1817 he married Elizabeth Collins who had been born in Georgia and had come to Franklin County in 1805 with her parents. In 1821 Elizabeth gave birth to George Hearst. In 1823 a daughter, Martha (nicknamed Patsy), was born into the family. Later another son, Philip, arrived but was crippled from birth. The Hearst's lived as pioneer farmers. George helped run the farm and received very little formal schooling. When he was eight or nine years of age he was able to attend three months of school which gave him a rudimentary reading ability and a lifelong interest in books. At age fourteen he attended another fifteen months of schooling where he developed an understanding of and delight in arithmetic. When he was twenty he attended school for three months - his last formal education,
In 1846, ten thousand dollars in debt, William Hearst died and George became responsible for looking after his mother, teenage sister, and crippled brother. George improved the profitability of the farm, opened a small store, and leased a couple of prospective lead mines. Lead mining was the oldest economic endeavor ever established in Missouri. In 1715 Antoine Laumet de la Mothe Cadillac, the French Governor of Louisiana and founder of Detroit, had discovered and developed the Mine La Motte. In 1741 lead mining was established in Franklin County. As a child Hearst had often visited nearby lead mines and family tradition has it that, because of his avid interest in mining, local native Americans called him "The-Boy-That-Earth-Talked-To." Hearst studied the mining business and his mines prospered, producing both lead and copper. He was able to pay off his father's entire debt by January 1848, the month that James Marshall discovered gold at Coloma, California.
Hearst's brother, Philip, had died and he had enough money to take care of his sister and mother so he announced that he intended on going to California to look into gold mining. His mother and sister opposed his decision, but in May 1850 Hearst organized a small wagon train that included his cousins, Jacob and Joseph Clark. The wagons went ahead and, ten days later, George followed on horseback along with a neighbor named Phillips. They first travelled south along the Santa Fe Trail. Early in July they crossed the South and North Forks of the Platte River, and caught up with the wagons at Ash Hollow. From there they went on to Fort Laramie, crossed the Rocky Mountains via South Pass, passed through Fort Bridger, crossed the desert, followed the Humboldt and Carson Rivers, crossed the Sierras via Carson Pass and reached Hangtown (now Placerville) in October 1848. The six month trip was not without incident, but Hearst and the Clarks had arrived safely in California.
Hearst and the Clarks surveyed the gold fields and established a winter camp in Jackass Gulch. They worked at placer mining through the winter with meager results and in the spring decided to move on to "richer pickings." Hearst arrived in Grass Valley and Nevada City in October 1850 just as the quartz strike was made at Gold Hill. Hearst and the Clarks had better luck in prospecting in Grass Valley and by 1851 Hearst was part owner of the first theater in booming Nevada City. Hearst continued his prospecting and discovered a rich gold bearing quartz ledge between Grass Valley and Nevada City. (He named his new mine Merrimac Hill after the river that flowed near his boyhood home in Missouri.) It was exceptionally rich and was to become the foundation of his fortune. Quartz mining was a new process in California in the 1850s and Hearst's experience in lead mining gave him an edge over others who had only their placer mining experience to guide them. He quickly set records in developing new ways to extract gold from the quartz and just as quickly developed a reputation as a capable miner.
After the Merrimack hit water at thirty feet mining was temporarily halted, but Hearst had already found another rich mine - the Potosi, not far from the Merrimack. (Potosi was named after a lead mine by that name in Missouri.) In 1851 Hearst used proceeds from the mines to establish a general merchandise business in Sacramento. "Hearst and Company" did not do well financially and that winter Sacramento flooded. Hearst decided that he did not want to keep store and he did not want to live in Sacramento. In the spring of 1852 he closed the store and headed back into the mountains. Hearst sold both the Merrimac and Potosi and realized a considerable profit. For the next five years Hearst and the Clarks engaged in locating mines and selling them for a quick profit. They did very well financially. In 1857 Hearst located the rich LeCompton Mine near Nevada City. (The mine was named in honor of Missouri Senator Samuel Dexter LeCompte, but the name "LeCompton" was also associated with a political grouping of southerners in California centered around William McKendree Gwin,)