The California Gold Rush
In the cold morning hours of January 24, 1848,
James Marshall, a construction foreman at Sutterís Mill, was inspecting
the water flow through the millís tail race. The sawmill, on the
banks of the American River in
was owned by John A. Sutter, who desperately needed lumber for the
building of a large flour mill. On that particular morning, Marshall
not only found the water to be flowing adequately through the mill, but
also spied a shiny object twinkling in the frigid stream. Stooping
to pick it up, he looked with awe at a pea-sized gold nugget lying within
He immediately went to visit Elizabeth Jane
"Jennie" Wimmer, the camp cook and laundress, who had grown up
in a prospecting family.
Ms. Wimmer used a lye
soap solution overnight to verify that the 1/3 ounce nugget Marshall
had found was true gold. Dubbing it the Wimmer Nugget, which was later
appraised at $5.12, Marshall gave it to her on a necklace. It would
later be displayed at the Columbian Exposition of 1893.
James Marshall at Sutter's Sawmill,
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informed his boss, John Sutter, of his find. Sutter, a
German/Swiss immigrant who owned thousands of acres around the
Sacramento and American Rivers, had dreams of developing part of
his land into a utopian farming settlement named "Nuevo Helvetia"
(Spanish for "New Switzerland"). His main compound was known as
Sutter's Fort and had already become a destination for immigrants,
Party. More concerned with expanding his agricultural
empire, Sutter wished to suppress the information about the gold. But such a secret was too big to keep hidden, and before long, a
Francisco newspaper confirmed reports of several gold finds in the
area and miners began to flock to the area turning it from a sleeping
outpost to a bustling center of activity.
Even with the crudest
of mining tools, the earliest miners did well. All one had to do was
to dig down into a placer, and wash the pay dirt. The entire gold
country was open to all. No taxes were levied on what the miners
found. No towns or roads existed in the gold country. Every miner was
on his own, and nobody had to work for wages unless he wanted to.
On August 19, 1848
the New York Herald was the first newspaper on the East Coast of the
United States to confirm that there was a gold rush in California;
by December 5, 1848, even President James Polk would announce this
before Congress, significantly legitimizing the news.
News of gold, free for the taking,
continued to spread. By the end of summer the first gold seekers were
arriving from outside California.
The first immigrants were probably from
where American farmers had been settling since the early 1840ís. Next
came men from the Sandwich Islands (now Hawaii). In the autumn, new
arrivals were coming from northern Mexico, and during the winter large
numbers came from Peru and Chile in South America. Still, there was
plenty of gold for all, and fresh discoveries were made daily. The
immense extent of the gold deposits was becoming clear.
As he predicted when he saw the gold nugget,
John Sutter was ruined as more and more of his agricultural workers left
in search of gold, squatters invaded his land, shot his cattle and stole
his crops. Sutter described it this way: "Everyone left, from the
clerk to the cook, and I was in great distress."
Though the great majority abandoned their
other activities to search for the precious metal, one enterprising Mormon
merchant named Samuel Brannan had a better idea. He bought all the mining
supplies he could find, and filled his store at Sutter's Fort with
buckets, pans, heavy clothing, foodstuffs, and similar provisions. Then he
took a quinine bottle full of gold flakes to the nearest town, San
Francisco. There he walked up and down the streets, waving the bottle of
gold over his head and shouting "Gold, gold, gold in the American River!"
The next day, the town's newspaper described San Francisco as a "ghost
town." Samuel Brannan quickly became
first millionaire, selling supplies to the miners as they passed by
The gold discovery sparked almost mass hysteria as thousands of immigrants
from around the world soon invaded what would soon be called the Gold
Country of California. The peak of the rush was in 1849, thus the many immigrants
became known as the '49ers. Some 80,000 prospectors poured into California
during that year alone, arriving overland on the California
Trail, by ship around Cape Horn, or through the Panama shortcut. The
majority of them came in one immense wave during mid summer, as covered
wagons reached the end of the California
trail. At the same time, sailing ships were docking in San Francisco, only
to be deserted by sailors as well as passengers.
Digging for gold from early dawn until dusk
was backbreaking work. The hope of "striking it rich" became an obsession
with many of the Forty-Niners. Stories of others who had found their
fortune in gold kept driving them on. A streak of bad luck could always be
followed by a rich strike.
By the 1850s miners were
coming from places all over the world --Britain, Europe, China, Australia,
North and South America. However, the gold was getting harder to find and
competition grew fierce between the miners. At the same time,
merchants raised the prices of mining tools, clothing, and food to
astronomical levels. A miner had to find an ounce of gold a day just to
break even. Most miners barely found enough gold to pay for daily
expenses. Nevertheless, it was among the most important eras of migration
in American history, and led to statehood for California.
As miners continued to
invent faster, more destructive methods of finding gold, the land was
ravaged. Hillsides were washed away in torrents of water, and towns
downstream were inundated by immense floods of mud. Water supplies were
poisoned with mercury, arsenic, cyanide, and other toxins. Grand forests
of oak and pine were leveled for mining timbers.
The gold discovery wrought immense changes upon the land and its people.
with its diverse population, achieved statehood in 1850, decades earlier
than it would have been without the gold.
The peak production of
placer gold occurred in 1853. Every year after that, less gold was found,
but more and more men were in California
to share in the dwindling supply. Thousands of disillusioned gold seekers
returned home with little to show for their time, glad to escape with
After the boom, many miners returned to San
Francisco, rich or more often broke and looking for wages. Like many
cities of the 19th century, the infrastructures of San Francisco and other
boom towns near the fields were strained by the sudden influx; leftover
cigar boxes and planks served as a sidewalk, and crime became a problem,
causing vigilantes to rise up and serve the populace in the absence of
Other miners, instead of returning home sent
for their families, turning to agriculture and other businesses as a way
The California Gold
Rush is generally considered to have ended in 1858, when the New
Mexican Gold Rush began. These hearty pioneers found the land
unbelievably productive, and ultimately California's
great wealth came not from its mines but from its farms.
of America, updated June, 2015.
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