The California Gold Rush was sparked by the discovery of gold nuggets in the Sacramento Valley in early 1848 and was arguably one of the most significant events to shape American history during the first half of the 19th century. As news spread of the discovery, thousands of prospective gold miners traveled by sea or over land to San Francisco and the surrounding area; by the end of 1849, the non-native population of the California territory was some 100,000 (compared with the pre-1848 figure of less than 1,000). A total of $2 billion worth of precious metal was extracted from the area during the Gold Rush, which peaked in 1852.
At the time, Marshall was working to build a water-powered sawmill owned by John Sutter, a German-born Swiss citizen and founder of a colony of Nueva Helvetia (New Switzerland, which would later become the city of Sacramento). As Marshall later recalled of his historic discovery: “It made my heart thump, for I was certain it was gold.”
Days after Marshall’s discovery at Sutter’s Mill, the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo was signed, ending the Mexican-American War and leaving California in the hands of the United States—a remarkable twist of fate with important ramifications for an America eager for westward expansion.
At the time, the population of the territory consisted of 6,500 Californios (people of Spanish or Mexican descent); 700 foreigners (primarily Americans); and 150,000 Native Americans (barely half the number that had been there when Spanish settlers arrived in 1769).
Sutter, in fact, had enslaved hundreds of Native Americans and used them as a free source of labor and makeshift militia to defend his territory and expand his empire.
Gold Fever Strikes
Though Marshall and Sutter tried to keep news of the discovery under wraps, word got out, and by mid-March at least one newspaper was reporting that large quantities of gold were being turned up at Sutter’s Mill. Though the initial reaction in San Francisco was disbelief, storekeeper Sam Brannan set off a frenzy when he paraded through town displaying a vial of gold obtained from Sutter’s Creek.
By mid-June, shops and businesses stood empty, as some three-quarters of the male population of San Francisco had abandoned the city for the gold mines, and the number of miners in the area ballooned to some 4,000 by August.
As news reports—many wildly overblown—of the easy fortunes being made in California spread worldwide, some of the first migrants to arrive were those from lands accessible by boat, such as Oregon, the Sandwich Islands (now Hawaii), Mexico, Chile, Peru and China.
Polk Spreads Gold Fever
When the news reached the East Coast, press reports were initially skeptical. Gold fever kicked off nationwide in earnest, however, after December 1848, when President James K. Polk announced the positive results of a report made by Colonel Richard Mason, California’s military governor, in his inaugural address.
As Polk wrote, “The accounts of abundance of gold are of such an extraordinary character as would scarcely command belief were they not corroborated by the authentic reports of officers in the public service.”
The ’49ers Come to California
Throughout 1849, people around the United States (mostly men) with gold fever borrowed money, mortgaged their property or spent their life savings to make the arduous journey to California. In pursuit of the kind of wealth they had never dreamed of, they left their families and hometowns. In turn, women left behind took on new responsibilities such as running farms or businesses and caring for their children alone.
Thousands of would-be gold miners, known as 49ers for the year they arrived, traveled overland across the mountains or by sea, sailing to Panama or even around Cape Horn, the southernmost point of South America.
By the end of the year, the non-native population of California was estimated at 100,000, (as compared with 20,000 at the end of 1848 and around 800 in March 1848). To accommodate the needs of the 49ers, gold mining towns had sprung up all over the region, complete with shops, saloons, brothels and other businesses seeking to make their own Gold Rush fortune.
The overcrowded chaos of the mining camps and towns grew ever more lawless, including rampant banditry, gambling, alcoholism, prostitution and violence. San Francisco, for its part, developed a bustling economy and became the central metropolis of the new frontier.
Gold Rush Politics
The Gold Rush undoubtedly sped up California’s admission to the Union as the 31st state. In late 1849, California applied to enter the Union with a constitution that barred the Southern system of racial slavery, provoking a crisis in Congress between proponents of slavery and anti-slavery politicians.
According to the Compromise of 1850, proposed by Kentucky’s Senator Henry Clay, California was allowed to enter as a free state, while the territories of Utah and New Mexico were left to decide the legal status of slavery for themselves.
After 1850, the surface gold in California largely disappeared, even as miners continued to arrive. Mining had always been difficult and dangerous labor, and striking it rich required good luck as much as skill and hard work. Moreover, the average daily take for an independent miner working with his pick and shovel had by then sharply decreased from what it had been in 1848.
As gold became more and more difficult to reach, the growing industrialization of mining drove more and more miners from independence into wage labor. The new technique of hydraulic mining, developed in 1853, brought enormous profits but destroyed much of the region’s landscape.
Though gold mining continued throughout the 1850s, it had reached its peak by 1852, when some $81 million was pulled from the ground. After that year, the total take declined gradually, leveling off to around $45 million per year by 1857. Settlement in California continued, however, and by the end of the decade the state’s population was 380,000.
Impact of the Gold Rush
New mining methods and the population boom in the wake of the California Gold Rush permanently altered the landscape of California. The technique of hydraulic mining brought enormous profits but destroyed much of the region’s landscape.
Dams designed to supply water to mine sites in summer altered the course of rivers away from farmland, while sediment from mines clogged others. The logging industry in the area was born from the need to construct extensive canals and feed boilers at mines, further consuming natural resources.
In 1884, hydraulic mining was outlawed by court order, and soon agriculture became the dominant industry in California, and it remains so today. While a few mines and Gold Rush towns remain, much of the heritage of that era is preserved at places such as Bodie State Historic Park, a decaying ghost town, and at Marshall Gold Discovery State Historic Park, where Sutter’s Mill once stood.