The California Gold Rush (1848 -1855) began on January 24, 1848, when gold was discovered at Sutter's Mill. As news of the discovery spread, some 300,000 people came to California from the rest of the United States and abroad.
While most of the newly-arrived were Americans, the Gold Rush also attracted tens of thousands from Latin America, Europe, Australia and Asia.
At first, the prospectors retrieved the gold from streams and riverbeds using simple techniques, such as panning, and later developed more sophisticated methods of gold recovery that were adopted around the world.
Gold worth billions of today's dollars was recovered, leading to great wealth for a few; many, however, returned home with little more than they started with.
The business of agriculture, California's next major growth field, was started on a wide scale throughout the state. However, the Gold Rush also had negative effects: Native Americans were attacked and pushed off traditional lands, and gold mining caused environmental harm
The Gold Rush started at Sutter's Mill, near Coloma, on January 24, 1848. James W. Marshall, a foreman working for Sacramento pioneer John Sutter, found pieces of shiny metal in the tailrace of a lumber mill Marshall was building for Sutter, along the American River.
Marshall quietly brought what he found to Sutter, and the two of them privately tested the findings. The tests showed Marshall's particles to be gold. Sutter was dismayed by this, and wanted to keep the news quiet because he feared what would happen to his plans for an agricultural empire if there were a mass search for gold. However, rumors soon started to spread and were confirmed in March 1848 by San Francisco newspaper publisher and merchant Samuel Brannan.
Soon, waves of immigrants from around the world, later called the "forty-niners," invaded the Gold Country of California or "Mother Lode." As Sutter had feared, he was ruined; his workers left in search of gold, and squatters invaded his land and stole his crops and cattle
San Francisco had been a tiny settlement before the rush began.
As with many boomtowns, the sudden influx of people strained the infrastructure of San Francisco and other towns near the goldfields. People lived in tents, wood shanties, or deck cabins removed from abandoned ships.
At first, most Argonauts, as they were also known, traveled by sea. From the East Coast, a sailing voyage around the tip of South America would take five to eight months,and cover some 18,000 nautical miles (33,000 km).
An alternative route was to sail to the Atlantic side of the Isthmus of Panama, to take canoes and mules for a week through the jungle, and then on the Pacific side, to wait for a ship sailing for San Francisco.
Eventually, most gold-seekers took the overland route across the continental United States, particularly along the California Trail. Each of these routes had its own deadly hazards, from shipwreck to typhoid fever to cholera.
To meet the demands of the new arrivals, ships bearing goods from around the world-porcelain and silk from China, ale from Scotland-poured into San Francisco as well. Upon reaching San Francisco, ship captains found that their crews deserted and went to the gold fields.
The wharves and docks of San Francisco became a forest of masts, as hundreds of ships were abandoned. Enterprising San Franciscans then took over these abandoned ships and turned them into warehouses, stores, taverns, hotels, and one into a jail. Many of these ships were later destroyed and used for landfill to create more buildable land in the boomtown.
Within a few years, there was an important but lesser-known surge of prospectors into far Northern California, specifically into present-day Siskiyou, Shasta and Trinity Counties.
The Gold Rush town of Weaverville on the Trinity River today retains the oldest continuously-used Taoist temple in California, a legacy of Chinese miners who came. While there are not many Gold Rush era ghost towns still in existence, the well-preserved remains of the once-bustling town of Shasta are a California State Historic Park in Northern California.
Gold was also discovered in Southern California but on a much smaller scale. The first discovery of gold, at Rancho San Francisco in the mountains north of present-day Los Angeles, had been in 1842, six years before Marshall's discovery, while California was still part of Mexico.
The new California State Legislature passed a foreign miners tax of twenty dollars per month, and American prospectors began organized attacks on foreign miners, particularly Latin Americans and Chinese. In addition, the huge numbers of newcomers were driving Native Americans out of their traditional hunting, fishing and food gathering areas.
To protect their homes and livelihood, Native Americans responded by attacking the miners.
Novelist and poet Joaquin Miller vividly captured one such attack in his semi-autobiographical work, Life Amongst the Modocs.
The first people to rush to the gold fields, beginning in the spring of 1848, were the residents of California themselves-primarily Americans and Europeans living in Northern California, along with Native Americans and some Californios (Spanish-speaking Californians).
Word of the Gold Rush spread slowly at first. The earliest gold-seekers to arrive in California during 1848 were people who lived near California, or people who heard the news from ships on the fastest sailing routes from California. The first large groups of Americans to arrive were several thousand Oregonians who came down the Siskiyou Trail.
Next came people from Hawaii, by ship, and several thousand Latin Americans, including people from Mexico, from Peru and from as far away as Chile, both by ship and overland.
Even ordinary prospectors averaged daily gold finds worth ten to fifteen times the daily wage of a laborer on the East Coast. A person could work for six months in the goldfields and find the equivalent of six years' wages back home.
By the beginning of 1849, word of the Gold Rush had spread around the world, and an overwhelming number of gold-seekers and merchants began to arrive from virtually every continent. The largest groups of forty-niners in 1849 were Americans, arriving by the tens of thousands overland across the continent and along various sailing routes. (The name "forty-niner" was derived from the year 1849).
Australians and New Zealanders picked up the news from ships carrying Hawaiian newspapers, and thousands, infected with "gold fever," boarded ships for California. Forty-niners came from Latin America, particularly from the Mexican mining districts near Sonora. Gold-seekers and merchants from Asia, primarily from China, began arriving in 1849, at first in modest numbers to "Gold Mountain," the name given to California in Chinese.
The first immigrants from Europe, reeling from the effects of the Revolutions of 1848 and with a longer distance to travel, began arriving in late 1849, mostly from France, with some Germans, Italians, and Britons.
The largest group continued to be Americans, but there were tens of thousands each of Mexicans, Chinese, French, and Latin Americans, together with many smaller groups of miners, such as Filipinos and Basques. A modest number of miners of African ancestry (probably less than 4,000) had come from the Southern States, the Caribbean and Brazil
When the Gold Rush began, California was a peculiarly lawless place. On the day when gold was discovered at Sutter's Mill, California was still technically part of Mexico, under American military occupation as the result of the Mexican-American War.
With the signing of the treaty ending the war on February 2, 1848, California became a possession of the United States, but it was not a formal "territory" and did not become a state until September 9, 1850.
California existed in the unusual condition of a region under military control. There was no civil legislature, executive or judicial body for the entire region. Local residents operated under a confusing and changing mixture of Mexican rules, American principles, and personal dictates.
While the treaty ending the Mexican-American War obliged the United States to honor Mexican land grants, almost all of the goldfields were outside those grants.
Instead, the goldfields were primarily on "public land," meaning land formally owned by the United States government. However, there were no legal rules yet in place, and no practical enforcement mechanisms.
Gold miners excavate a river bed after the water has been diverted into a sluice alongside the river the benefit to the forty-niners was that the gold was "free for the taking." In the goldfields, there was no private property, no licensing fees, and no taxes.
The forty-niners resorted to making up their own codes and setting up their own local enforcement. The miners essentially adopted Mexican mining law existing in California. Miners worked at a claim only long enough to determine its potential.
If a claim was deemed as low-value-as most were-miners would abandon the site in search for legendary bonanza sites. In the case where a claim was abandoned or not worked upon, other miners would "claim-jump" the land. "Claim-jumping" means that a miner began work on a previously claimed site. Disputes were sometimes handled personally and violently, and were sometimes addressed by groups of prospectors acting as arbitrators.
The rules of mining claims adopted by the forty-niners spread with each new mining rush throughout the western United States. The U.S. Congress finally legalized the practice in the "Chaffee laws" of 1866.
Development of gold recovery techniques
Because the gold in the California gravel beds was so richly concentrated, the early forty-niners simply panned for gold in California's rivers and streams, a form of placer mining.
However, panning cannot be done on a large scale, and industrious miners and groups of miners graduated to placer mining "cradles" and "rockers" or "long-toms" to process larger volumes of gravel.
Modern estimates by the U.S. Geological Survey are that some 12 million ounces (370 t) of gold were removed in the first five years of the Gold Rush (worth approximately US$7.2 billion at November 2006 prices).
A byproduct of this method of extraction was that large amounts of gravel and silt, in addition to heavy metals and other pollutants, went into streams and rivers. Many areas still bear the scars of hydraulic mining since the resulting exposed earth and downstream gravel deposits are unable to support plant life.
By the late 1890s, dredging technology (which was also invented in California) had become economical, and it is estimated that more than 20 million ounces (620 t) were recovered by dredging (worth approximately US$12 billion at November 2006 prices).
Both during the Gold Rush and in the decades that followed, gold-seekers also engaged in "hard-rock" mining, that is, extracting the gold directly from the rock that contained it (typically quartz), usually by digging and blasting to follow and remove veins of the gold-bearing quartz.
Once the gold-bearing rocks were brought to the surface, the rocks were crushed, and the gold was separated out (using moving water), or leached out, typically by using arsenic or mercury (another source of environmental contamination). Eventually, hard-rock mining wound up being the single largest source of gold produced in the gold country.
Although the conventional wisdom is that merchants made more money than miners during the Gold Rush, the reality is perhaps more complex. There were certainly merchants who profited handsomely. The wealthiest man in California during the early years of the Gold Rush was Samuel Brannan, the tireless self-promoter, shopkeeper and newspaper publisher. Brannan alertly opened the first supply stores in Sacramento, Coloma, and other spots in the gold fields.
Just as the Gold Rush began, he purchased all the prospecting supplies available in San Francisco and re-sold them at a substantial profit. However, substantial money was made by gold-seekers as well. For example, within a few months, one small group of prospectors, working on the Feather River in 1848, retrieved a sum of gold worth more than $1.5 million by 2006 prices.
On average, many early gold-seekers did perhaps make a modest profit, after all expenses were taken into account. Most, however, especially those arriving later made little or wound up losing money. Similarly, many unlucky merchants set up in settlements that disappeared, or were wiped out in one of the calamitous fires that swept the towns springing up. Other businessmen, through good fortune and hard work, reaped great rewards in retail, shipping, entertainment, lodging, or transportation.
By 1855, the economic climate had changed dramatically. Gold could be retrieved profitably from the goldfields only by medium to large groups of workers, either in partnerships or as employees. By the mid-1850s, it was the owners of these gold-mining companies who made the money.
Similarly, the population of California had grown so large and so fast, and the economic base had started to diversify enough, that money could be made in a wide variety of conventional businesses
These merchants and vendors, in turn, used the gold to purchase supplies from ship captains or packers bringing goods to California. The gold then left California aboard ships or mules to go to the makers of the goods from around the world.
A second path was the Argonauts themselves who, having personally acquired a sufficient amount sent the gold home or returned home taking with them their hard-earned "diggings."
For example, one estimate is that some US$ 80 million worth of California gold was sent to France by French prospectors and merchants. As the Gold Rush progressed, local banks and gold dealers issued "banknotes" or "drafts"-locally accepted paper currency-in exchange for gold, and private mints created private gold coins.
With the building of the San Francisco Mint in 1854, gold bullion was turned into official United States gold coins for circulation. The gold was also sent by California banks to U.S. national banks in exchange for national paper currency to be used in the booming California economy Path of the gold
Immediate Effects Effects
The arrival of hundreds of thousands of new people within a few years, compared to a population of some 15,000 Europeans and Californios beforehand, had many dramatic effects.
First, the human and environmental costs of the Gold Rush were substantial. Native Americans became the victims of disease, starvation and genocidal attacks; the Native American population, estimated at 150,000 in 1845, was less than 30,000 by 1870.
Explicitly racist attacks and laws sought to drive out Chinese and Latin American immigrants. The toll on the American immigrants could be severe as well: one in twelve forty-niners perished, as the death and crime rates during the Gold Rush were extraordinarily high, and the resulting vigilantism also took its toll. In addition, the environment suffered as gravel, silt and toxic chemicals from prospecting operations killed fish and destroyed habitats.
However, the Gold Rush propelled California from a sleepy, little-known backwater to a center of the global imagination and the destination of hundreds of thousands of people. The new immigrants often showed remarkable inventiveness and civic-mindedness.
For example, in the midst of the Gold Rush, towns and cities were chartered, a state constitutional convention was convened, a state constitution written, elections held, and representatives sent to Washington, D.C. to negotiate the admission of California as a state. Large-scale agriculture (California's second "Gold Rush") began during this time.
Roads, schools, churches, and civic organizations quickly came into existence. The vast majority of the immigrants were Americans. Pressure grew for better communications and political connections to the rest of the United States, leading to statehood for California on September 9, 1850, in the Compromise of 1850 as the 31st state of the United States.
The Gold Rush wealth and population increase led to significantly improved transportation between California and the East Coast. The Panama Railway, spanning the Isthmus of Panama, was finished in 1855. Steamships, including those owned by the Pacific Mail Steamship Company, began regular service from San Francisco to Panama, where passengers, goods and mail would take the train across the Isthmus and board steamships headed to the East Coast.
One ill-fated journey, that of the S.S. Central America, ended in disaster as the ship sank in a hurricane off the coast of the Carolinas in 1857, with an estimated three tons of California gold aboard.
Within a few years after the end of the Gold Rush, in 1863, the groundbreaking ceremony for the western leg of the First Transcontinental Railroad was held in Sacramento. The line's completion, some six years later, financed in part with Gold Rush money, united California with the central and eastern United States. Travel that had taken weeks or even months could now be accomplished in days.
The Gold Rush stimulated economies around the world as well. Farmers in Chile, Australia, and Hawaii found a huge new market for their food; British manufactured goods were in high demand; clothing and even pre-fabricated houses arrived from China.
The return of large amounts of California gold to pay for these goods raised prices and stimulated investment and the creation of jobs around the world. Australian prospector, Edward Hargraves, noting similarities between the geography of California and his home, returned to Australia to discover gold and spark the Australian gold rushes.
California's name became indelibly connected with the Gold Rush, and as a result, was connected with what became known as the "California Dream." California was perceived as a place of new beginnings, where great wealth could reward hard work and good luck. Historian H. W. Brands noted that in the years after the Gold Rush, the California Dream spread to the rest of the United States and became part of the new "American Dream."
The new dream was the dream of instant wealth, won in a twinkling by audacity and good luck. [This] golden dream . . . became a prominent part of the American psyche only after [Sutter's Mill].
Generations of immigrants have been attracted by the California Dream. California farmers, oil drillers, movie makers, airplane builders, and "dot-com" entrepreneurs have each had their boom times in the decades after the Gold Rush.
The San Francisco 49ers National Football League team, and the similarly named athletic teams of California State University, Long Beach, is named for the prospectors of the California Gold Rush. The literary history of the Gold Rush is reflected in the works of Mark Twain (The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County), Bret Harte (A Millionaire of Rough-and-Ready), Joaquin Miller (Life Amongst the Modocs), and many others.
Today, aptly-named California State Route 49 travels through the Sierra Nevada foothills, connecting many Gold Rush-era towns such as Placerville, Auburn, Grass Valley, Coloma, Jackson, and Sonora.
This state highway also passes very near Columbia State Historic Park, a protected area encompassing the historic business district of the town of Columbia; the park has preserved many Gold Rush-era buildings, which are presently occupied by tourist-oriented businesses.
This hot magma forced its way upward under what is now California, cooling as it rose, and as it solidified, veins of gold formed within fields of quartz. These minerals and rocks came to the surface of the Sierra Nevada, and eroded.
The exposed gold was carried downstream by water and gathered in quiet gravel beds along the sides of old rivers and streams. The forty-niners first focused their efforts on these deposits of gold, which had been gathered in the gravel beds by hundreds of millions of years of geologic action.
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