California’s Historic Gold Rush in the 1800s
Very few moments in history are talked about in California more than the Gold Rush. This event put California on the map and allowed it to become the state it is today. A gathering like no other, people from all over the world rushed to California for a chance to strike gold, literally. However, this wasn't all fun and games, there were some dangers involved, and also some conflict between the natives and foreigners. Flip through these slides to learn all about the Gold Rush, we bet you read some facts that may surprise you.
Thousands of people from around the world traveled for a chance of riches in California’s Gold Rush era
America was still forming an identity and finding its way in the 19th century. The 1800s were filled with pioneers giving life to the American Dream. Part of this dream relates to opportunity. In early 1848, people would have an opportunity at becoming rich when gold is discovered on the west coast of the United States. People pursued the opportunity found in California, and this era became known as the Gold Rush.
A non-native population grew 100x
The area around what is now San Francisco was the hub of the Gold Rush. California was not densely occupied by diverse groups in the early days. Until the migration of settlers, the west coast was land to Native American and Mexican populations. Before 1848, the number of non-natives was less than 1,000 people. The following year, 1849, ended with an estimated amount of 100,000 non-natives that had come from across the world to mine for gold.
Gold seekers managed to uncover 750,000 pounds of gold throughout the Gold Rush
Tremendous wealth was found in the land of California for anyone who dared to take a leap of faith. Once they took the leap, people realized the Gold Rush was indeed real. People were able to find gold, especially if they came early enough in the rush. More than 750,000 pounds of gold was uncovered during the Gold Rush. In total, the amount was worth an estimated $2 billion. The peak of the Gold Rush would come in the year 1852.
Building a sawmill led to the first discovery of plentiful gold in the region
Gold was found in the rivers of California at first; almost as if the resource was waiting to be pulled. A carpenter named James Wilson Marshall was working on building a water-powered sawmill at the American River around the Sierra Nevada Mountains area. The sawmill was in Coloma, California about 80 miles away from a city founded by his boss. Marshall worked for John Sutter who founded the colony New Helvetia (later becoming Sacramento). On January 24, 1848, Marshall found gold flakes while working on the sawmill.
The Mexican-American war ended right as the Gold Rush started
America was busy with the Mexican-American war at the time. California was not the most appealing place to settle. A few days after Marshall’s discovery the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo was signed, thus ending the war. California came under the jurisdiction of the United States, despite not being an official state yet. John Sutter and James Marshall wanted to keep their new finding a secret. To their surprise, word got out anyway.
Not many people believed in the Gold Rush, and others went right away
Most people in the area were naturally skeptical about the claims of gold found in California. No one imagined gold could be found easily in a river, and people did not think there could be enough gold for everyone. A few people decided to take a chance on the claims. Instead of following everyone’s skepticism, people set out on a journey to start a new life, and they hoped it would be a rich new life.
Sam Brannan spread the news about the gold in the river, but only so he could make a profit.
For the Gold Rush, there is a joke that’s not much of a joke. The saying is that the people who sold to miners are the ones who made the most money during the Gold Rush. There is truth in the saying. Sam Brannan had an idea to buy a large inventory of mining equipment and food to sell to miners who needed tools and nourishment. Brennan then went to San Francisco with a vial of the gold flakes to spread the word about the sawmill location. People left town almost immediately, and close to 4,000 miners would reach the sawmill area by August.
President James K. Polk magnified the Gold Rush era by validating the claims of gold
Around December 1848, President James K. Polk confirmed that the Gold Rush shared feedback from a trusted California military governor who observed the gold. Colonel Richard Mason wrote the following to the president: “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.” Such a report validated the claims. California was on America’s radar, and soon the world would be in on the Gold Rush.
Word spread across the nation, then across the sea
Beginning with the surrounding areas, people from Oregon, Hawaii, and Mexico came to mine for gold. As word spread, people from Peru and China would arrive. Whether on foot or by boat, different nations were pouring into California at an exponential rate. For reference, the Chinese population in the start of California was 54 people in 1849. The Chinese population grew to reach an estimated population of 116,000 people by 1876.
Hopeful settlers who came to California for the Gold Rush are called ‘49ers
California’s Gold Rush attracted people from all around the world. Migrants traveling to mine for gold were named ‘49ers to reflect the massive spike in population California experienced afterword about the plentiful gold became internationally known. While 1849 sparked the flame, the passion would burn on for the next decades. By the end of the 1850s, California’s overall population grew to 380,000 people, and the numbers continued to rise.
The Gold Rush helped California become an official state
After the Mexican-American war, California attained statehood in 1850. The attention and a rising population is thought of as one of the reasons the state was able to join the Union quicker to be the 31st state. California applied for statehood in 1849 during the early stages of the dramatic rush into the territory. Under the Compromise of 1850, which was proposed by Kentucky Senator Henry Clay, California entered as a free state.
California’s Gold Rush peaked in 1852
Gold seemed to be in endless supply for miners in the critical years of the Gold Rush. Once the era reached its peak in 1852, there was $81 million of gold uncovered in the year. Like any resource, the gold became hard to find with so many people searching and using the land. Even so, the profits were a reasonable gain. Gold Rush profits plateaued sometime after 1857, where the miners saw around $45 million per year of gold in California.
As surface gold became scarcer, miners turned to other methods of mining
Since gold became harder to find, miners began using different methods. People needed to mine more quickly, and they needed to dig deeper into the ground. Finding gold was not as simple as a trip to the river anymore. With the state becoming more populated, competition between miners also rose. Originally, many miners sought and labored for gold independently. Competition made it more common for miners to work under a team, laboring as a contracted worker.
Originally, most miners used panning to uncover gold
To find gold, the miners needed to separate the gold from the dirt. Gold was easy to separate from dirt when looking at water since gold has a different density. This is why a low-tech method like panning was still effective. Miners placed gravel and water into a pan and would shake the contents. Gold, being heavier, would sink to the bottom of the pan. All other contents that were not of value would float to the top of the water.
Hydraulic mining sped up the process for miners to find gold
The three steps of hydraulic mining include hydraulicking, sluicing, and educing. In this method, the force of water cannons were used to break through the ground. A stream of water and debris would be directed to sluices where the gold settled. The other materials floating along the stream washed away. This separation was a new and quicker way of pulling the gold. Not many miners thought the new method could have side effects.
In the rush to settle in California, there came a trend of boomtowns and ghost towns
Easy to imagine that with all the new people flocking to the west coast that there would be a need for more towns. In reality, the miners set up places called mining camps. These were located near and around mining sites for easy access. As populations increased, the mining camps would suddenly grow into boomtowns. If a mining site started to lack gold, miners would pick up and leave for the next site. This is how boomtowns turned into ghost towns.
The largest boomtown was Bodie, California
Bodie was a large boom town from the late 1800s during the Gold Rush. The town was founded in 1876 and soon became a ghost town when gold became scarcer. The site itself began in 1859 when William “Waterman” S. Bodey uncovered gold near Bodie Bluff. The ghost town gained the status of a State Historic Park in 1962, where the buildings are maintained in the condition they had at the time the status became official. This is done to not disturb the authentic look of the ghost town.
Boomtowns can still be visited today
Today, boomtowns of the Gold Rush era, now ghost towns, can be visited. Since these were mining sites, many of the places can be found in national parks. The Bodie ghost townsite is located inside Bodie State Historic Park near Bridgeport, CA. Some town buildings are still standing, and people can view items and machinery of the Gold Rush era in museums or the preserved buildings.
Gold mines from California’s Gold Rush era can be found in national parks
Actual mining sites are preserved, such as the Marshall Gold Discovery site, Plumas Eureka, of the Stone Wall that produced $2 million of gold during its prime. Some parks have great artifacts of the machinery from the 19th century that the miners used while searching for their fortunes. One example are the hydraulic mining pits at Malakoff Diggins. It was the largest hydraulic mining pit in 1884 at 2 miles by 1 mile.
Flooding in the Sacramento River was the aftermath of the hydraulic mining
Miners using the hydraulic mining method altered the land when breaking into the earth. This method caused the Sacramento River to flood, starting back in the 1860s. The erosive method pushed debris downstream and clogged the river. Hydraulic mining was deemed illegal, and most likely prevented the mountains of the Sierra Nevada from being leveled.
San Francisco was a boomtown in the 1800s
For one reason or another, some towns survived the constant moving of the miners. It may be the fact that everyone likes to have a place to call “home”. Since California became home to the miners, people would need to build official towns to settle and develop. One of the boom towns that further developed into the next century is San Francisco, CA. Another familiar city that was a boomtown during the Gold Rush era is Columbia, CA.
Mining and settlements drastically changed the landscape of California
Besides the erosive water drills, miners rerouted rivers. This would impact farms and wildlife in the region. California’s Gold Rush grew a need for a logging industry to extravagant canals. Settlements would also take up space and use natural resources in a way that disturbed the balance of the region. In addition, these changes would impact people who lived on the west coast before the gold rush started, like Native American tribes.
Seeking gold led to the miners being exposed to toxins
Besides destroying the land, miners were exposing themselves to toxins. As deeper layers of the earth were uncovered, toxic substances were released. A now known danger was the mercury pollution that got into the water supplies. Other toxins that could be found in the water supplies as a result of the mining include arsenic and cyanide. Miners placed their health, and the health of ecosystems, at risk for the pursuit of gold.
The United States had two other “gold rush” moments
California is not the only place people found gold. The land of the free had two other gold rushes. These events took place in other parts of the United States and were less dramatic than the first era of California. There was a gold rush in Colorado and another in Alaska. Once people heard about the gold, they would travel to claim their share of the fortune. Both of the fellow gold rush events took place in the 1800s.
Colorado had the Pike’s Peak Gold Rush
Colorado experienced the Pike's Peak Gold Rush beginning in 1858. At the time Colorado was not in existence, and the territory is better described as a mix of Kansas and Nebraska territory. More than 100,000 people settled into the territory to find gold. Similar to the California Gold Rush ‘49ers, miners who came in the year after the big discovery were nicknamed ‘59ers. The actual discovery of the gold was knowledge between Cherokee tribe members until William Green Russell. Russell married a Cherokee woman which led to finding out about the gold.
Alaska had the Klondike Gold Rush
Alaska’s boomtowns were around the Klondike River. The two towns that people traveled to were Dyea and Skagway, both of which had dangerous trails that could only be properly passed through on foot. The Klondike Gold Rush started when Skookum Jim Mason, Dawson Charlie, and George Washington Carmack found gold along the river in 1896. Their lucky find would attract around 100,000 miners to the area between 1897 and 1898.
Race encounters and discrimination were part of the Gold Rush era
Migrants from around the world settled on the west coast, thus creating a diverse hub. Chinese, Black, French, Mexican, and more cultures were in close contact as they dug for gold. The races did not interact frequently but could not avoid each other. There are people who got along despite cultural, and sometimes language, differences. On other occasions, racial tension rose, becoming a shadow within the Gold Rush era.
Racial tension of the Gold Rush era took a toll on Native American tribes
Native Americans suffered years of their land being disturbed by migrants from overseas. The Gold Rush was another era of tribes being inconvenienced and placed in danger. Miners, particularly English-speaking miners, viewed Native Americans as competition for gold. Unfortunately, the tribes would suffer from the “killing sprees” some miners would participate in doing. By 1870, there were around 30,000 Native Americans, which is a drastic drop from the 160,000 estimated population before the Gold Rush era. However, it should be mentioned that the 160,000 population was also a reduced amount that resulted from previous prejudice native people faced.
An illegal declaration by a racist army official lessened the chance “non-citizens” had for mining
Someone spread rumors that foreigners from South and Central America took $4 million worth of the gold in California. This rumor was used to promote an idea that foreigners were stealing a fortune from the “citizens”. On his way to Monterey, Gen. Persifor F. Smith was called to do a mass meeting, and he declared that “non-citizens” digging for gold would be identified as trespassers. The declaration had no grounds as “non-citizens” were meant to be considered guests and could legally mine on public lands.
The mining camp called Hangtown got its name after an unfortunate incident with a drunk crowd
During one particularly dark incident, a drunk mob hung two men. People accused five foreign miners of stealing gold from another mining camp that was nearby. Only two of the foreign miners, a Chilean and Mexican, could not understand the situation as they did not speak English well. In a frenzy, the two would be hanged by a drunk mob. This was the first hanging that took place in the state of California.
There was a tax placed on foreign miners
In 1850, a state senator named Thomas Jefferson Green passed a legislation called the Foreign Miners’ Tax. Any miner considered a foreigner was forced to pay a $20 fee per month. The feed would be reduced later and would be completely gone by 1851. A year was enough to place all miners considered “foreign” at a huge disadvantage. Despite their hard work and efforts, they were hit with restriction after restriction and faced volatile race relations.
Being a miner was not a comfortable life
The hope of gold was the only plentiful dream miners had to get through the day. People migrating into California would sometimes carry diseases into the state. The illnesses would wipe through the population. There was also the concern of malnutrition and crime among the territory. Miners would wear the same tattered clothing daily and go to search for gold. If they did find gold, they might not keep it for long. Businesses in the towns sold goods and foods at inflated prices to strip gold from the miners who worked all day.
North Carolina was actually one of the first places to discover gold, and it happened decades earlier
California was not the first U.S. territory to have gold mines and was not the first-place gold was discovered. An earlier discovery of gold on American soil took place in the 18th century. The gold was found on Reed Farm that was in North Carolina in 1799. Gold mining continued in North Carolina during that time, but there was not the same fanatic migration that came along with California’s Gold Rush.
In fact, Marshall was not the first person to find gold in California
In reality, Marshall was not the first person to find gold in California. The state was filled with the resource, and someone else did come across the gold before Marshall’s 1848 gold discovery. A man named Francisco Lopez found gold after digging up a bundle of onions near a creek. He was a native Californian. Lopez had this lucky moment in 1842, six years earlier than Marshall.
The term “Mother Lode” came from California’s Gold Rush era
Most people might think of pirate treasure when hearing the age-old phrase “Mother Lode”. Even more, people might think “lode” is supposed to be “load”. The term comes from the Gold Rush era and does relate to being ecstatic after finding a fortune. The real meaning behind the term is referencing the natural resource ore deposit called a “lode”. While still a term of jubilation, it is mainly a technical term.
Levi Strauss, a well-established Jean brand, has origins tied to the Gold Rush era
An 18-year-old Levi Strauss came to New York to help his brothers with their wholesale dry goods company called “J. Strauss Brother & Co.” When word of the Gold Rush reached the east coast, Strauss felt this was the best moment to expand his brothers’ business to the west coast. To manage confusion, he named the west coast version “Levi Strauss & Co.”. Strauss would transform his portion into the famous blue-jean business in 1873.
Thousand of people flocked to California, but they needed a lot of patience to withstand the long journey
Airplanes certainly did not exist during the Gold Rush era. In fact, during the earlier years on the Gold Rush, there was not a train that traveled across the country. The thousands of migrants that came to California went by ship, wagon, or foot. Traveling around Cape Horn when coming from South America by ship took almost five months. If people were traveling across the Great Plains by wagon, that trip took an estimated six months.
Most of the surface gold was depleted by 1850, before the peak of the Gold Rush
Most of the surface gold was depleted by 1850. Not much gold could be found around the region, despite the fact that the peak of the Gold Rush occurred in 1852. This is when miners needed to become more creative in their mining methods to dig deeper into the earth. Most of the gold found after 1850 was more about randomness and chance, something no miner could control.
Thirteen hopeful miners died in their journey across California’s deserts on the way to the gold mines
Miners still remained hopeful that they too would find their fortune. In search of an opportunity, thirteen miners trekked through a desert valley in the eastern region of California. During the journey, all members of the group died. The desert valley became known as Death Valley, with stories and folklore to match. This happened during 1849 when the first huge pulse of migrants went to find gold.
Women entrepreneurs found a sturdy opportunity in the Wild West while men mined for gold
California did not have many rules or regulations during the first years of the Gold Rush. The entire west coast was seen as open and free land. At this place, women could own businesses, and establish power in a way they could not have in other cities or settlements. Women were less bothered by their gender and could become independent business owners. While men were mining, the women-built businesses around tailoring, laundry, saloons, food, entertainment, brothels, and more.
San Francisco was called the “City of Bachelors”
Women were moving to the west coast, but the number of men was exceptionally higher. Many men went to the west coast for a different life or to become rich for their families. With the low number of women and the limited brothels, miners explored other options. In the city of San Francisco, men sometimes paid for sex with men, or preferred sex with “female impersonators”. Having this culture earned the city the nickname “City of Bachelors”.
Most people left their boats at the shore
People did not come to the west coast with a “Plan B”. To illustrate their commitment. Many migrants that arrived by sea left there boast at the shore. The dedication was spirited, but the ships littered the coastline. Another downside to the boats was the transfer of diseases. A few outbreaks were experienced during the Gold Rush as new populations continually poured into California state.
Harsh conditions caused California’s first psychiatric hospital to be opened
Disease, malnutrition, and crime all seem like stressful conditions to live with. Under these stressors, miners developed mental health issues, as they were not able to cope with the harsh realities of living in the Wild West. This was especially true for people who restlessly worked all day to not have any gold at the end. A decline in mental health pushed the opening of California’s first psychiatric hospital in 1851. The hospital was called Stockton State Hospital.
Mascots of the Gold Rush era were two stray dogs named Bummer and Lazarus
San Francisco was home to two special stray dogs named Bummer and Lazarus. The pair usually traveled together, so they were recognized easily. The city did not place the same laws regarding stray dogs against Bummer and Lazarus. When the dogs died, their remains were put on display after being stuffed. Bummer and Lazarus are known thanks to the newspaper that wrote about the canines. One of the writers of the newspaper was the famous Mark Twain.
Discovering gold came with luck for two Brothers
A number of miners got lucky almost immediately. Competition made luck scarcer, so settling in the west in the year before the rush became an advantage for anyone who wanted to migrate quicker. In 1848, two brothers named John and Daniel Murphy were able to mine $1.5 million worth of gold from California and with their success, a future town. The town of Murphys would be a tribute to the siblings.
A chef created a well-known Gold Rush dish last minute to impress a newly rich miner
A popular dish of the time was called the “Hangtown Fry”. The meal consisted of a fried egg gracefully placed over an oyster and bacon. The original chef came up with the idea at the last minute in 1850. A miner recently found gold, and with confidence, marched into a restaurant demanding the chef give the miner the most expensive item on the menu. Being quick on their feet, the chef grabbed the most expensive ingredients and placed them all together to create the Hangtown Fry.
Before manufacturing cars, this industrial leader was pushing wheelbarrows
John Studebaker is a known industry leader from the manufacturing of gasoline-powered cars. Before that work, John Studebaker worked by producing wheelbarrows for miners of the Gold Rush era. He became so well-known among the miners that he received the nickname “Wheelbarrow Johnny”. His wheelbarrow business made enough money to start a larger wagon company, which then developed into car manufacturing.
The financial management opportunity of the California Gold Rush led to Wells Fargo Bank being established
With all the newfound wealth, someone had to manage the financial parts of the business.
Henry Wells and William Fargo, the creators of Wells Fargo, thought they were perfect for the role. In 1852, the duo packed their belongings and went to the west coast to finance mining operations. No one was established in the west yet, so the duo thought the possibility and less financial competition of more clients was too good to pass on.
Pioneers transported trees for friends back to the city to give an idea of what was in the region
The large and vast west coast had a different terrain than the east coast of the country. The wide Californian landscape proved to also be different from region to region. The forests were filled with giant trees, called the giant sequoia trees. Miners would cut down the trees for lumber, but they would also take the trees back to nearby cities on the west coast. The miners wanted to prove the giant trees existed, and since cameras were not invented yet, the only option was to bring the real trees.
Gold seekers received another nickname inspired by Greek Mythology
Along with being called a nickname associated with the year of the Gold Rush migrant spike, the miners gained a poetic kind of name. This name applied to all miners, no matter what year they settled in the new territory. In Greek mythology, a hero named Jason is a captain of the ship Argo and has a mission to find the golden fleece. The crew on ship Argo are called Argonauts. Miners became known as Argonauts in reference to this mythological tale.