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California Gold Rush
1850 Woman and Men in California Gold Rush.jpg
Prospectors working California gold placer deposits in 1850
Date January 24, 1848 (1848-01-24)–1855
Location Sierra Nevada and Northern California goldfields
Participants 300,000 prospectors
Outcome California becomes a U.S. state and California genocide

The California Gold Rush (1848 - 1855) was a period in American history marked by world-wide interest following the discovery of gold in the Sierra Nevada mountains of Central California, and later in Northern California.

Gold in California

Gold-210796
Three gold nuggets from Tuolumne County, California, similar to what the early miners would have found.

Gold became highly concentrated in California, United States as the result of global forces operating over hundreds of millions of years. Volcanoes, tectonic plates and erosion all combined to concentrate billions of dollars' worth of gold in the mountains of California.

History

Panning on the Mokelumne
Panning for gold on the Mokelumne River

The gold rush began on January 24, 1848, when gold was found by James W. Marshall at Sutter's Mill in Coloma, California. The news of gold brought approximately 300,000 people to California from the rest of the United States and abroad.

Outside of California, the first to arrive were from Oregon, the Sandwich Islands (Hawaii), and Latin America in late 1848. Of the approximately 300,000 people who came to California during the Gold Rush, about half arrived by sea and half came overland on the California Trail and the Gila River trail; forty-niners often faced substantial hardships on the trip.

While most of the newly arrived were Americans, the gold rush attracted thousands from Latin America, Europe, Australia, and China. Agriculture and ranching expanded throughout the state to meet the needs of the settlers.

By 1854, more than 300,000 immigrants had arrived from around the world.

San Francisco grew from a small settlement of about 200 residents in 1846 to a boomtown of about 36,000 by 1852. Roads, churches, schools and other towns were built throughout California.

In 1849 a state constitution was written. The new constitution was adopted by referendum vote, and the future state's interim first governor and legislature were chosen. In September 1850, California became a state.

California Gold Rush handbill
A California Gold Rush handbill

At the beginning of the Gold Rush, there was no law regarding property rights in the goldfields and a system of "staking claims" was developed. Prospectors retrieved the gold from streams and riverbeds using simple techniques, such as panning. Although the mining caused environmental harm, more sophisticated methods of gold recovery were developed and later adopted around the world.

New methods of transportation developed as steamships came into regular service. By 1869, railroads were built from California to the eastern United States. At its peak, technological advances reached a point where significant financing was required, increasing the proportion of gold companies to individual miners.

Gold worth tens of billions of today's US dollars was recovered, which led to great wealth for a few, though many who participated in the California Gold Rush earned little more than they had started with.

Recovering the gold

Gullgraver 1850 California
Forty-niner panning for gold
Wooden gold sluice in California between 1890 and 1915.
Sluice for separation of gold from dirt using water
Gold seeking river operations California
Excavating a riverbed after the water has been diverted
Quartz Stamp Mill
Excavating a gravel bed with jets, circa 1863

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. However, panning cannot be done on a large scale, and industrious miners and groups of miners graduated to “cradles,” “rockers,” and “long-toms” to process larger volumes of gravel. Modern estimates are that some 12 million ounces (373 t) of gold were removed in the first five years of the Gold Rush (worth approximately US$8.5 billion at mid-2006 prices)

In the next stage, by 1853, the first hydraulic mining was used on old gold-bearing gravel beds which were on hillsides above current streams and rivers. In hydraulic mining (which was invented in California at this time), a high pressure hose directs a powerful stream of water at gold-bearing gravel beds. The loosened gravel and gold then pass over sluices, with the gold settling to the bottom, where it is collected. By the mid-1880s, it is estimated that 11 million ounces (342 t) of gold had been recovered by hydraulic mining.

The final stage to recover loose gold was to prospect for gold which had washed down over millions of years into the flat river bottoms and sandbars of California’s Central Valley and other gold-bearing areas of California (such as Scott Valley in Siskiyou County).

By the late 1890s, dredging technology (which was also invented in California at this time) had finally become economical, and it is estimated that more than 20 million ounces (622 t) were recovered by dredging (worth approximately US$14 billion at mid-2006 prices).

The Forty-Niners also engaged in “hard-rock mining,” that is, extracting the gold directly from the rock which 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 leached out, typically by using arsenic or mercury. Eventually, hard-rock mining wound up being the single largest source of gold produced in the Mother Lode.

Path of the gold

SanFranciscoharbor1851c sharp
Merchant ships fill San Francisco harbor, 1850–51

Much of the gold was used locally to purchase food, supplies and lodging for the miners. It also went towards entertainment. These transactions often took place using the recently recovered gold, carefully weighed out. These merchants and vendors in turn used the gold to purchase supplies from ship captains or packers bringing goods to California.

A lot of the gold left California aboard ships or mules to go to the makers of the goods from around the world or people returned home taking with them their hard-earned "diggings".

Effects of the gold rush

"Protecting The Settlers" Illustration by JR Browne for his work "The Indians Of California" 1864
"Protecting The Settlers" Illustration by JR Browne for his work "The Indians Of California" 1864

The sudden influx of gold into the money supply reinvigorated the American economy, and the sudden population increase allowed California to go rapidly to statehood, in the Compromise of 1850.

By the time it ended, California had gone from a thinly populated ex-Mexican territory, to having one of its first two U.S. Senators, John C. Frémont, selected to be the first presidential nominee for the new Republican Party, in 1856.

Native Americans, dependent on traditional hunting, gathering and agriculture, became the victims of starvation and disease, as gravel, silt and toxic chemicals from prospecting operations killed fish and destroyed habitats. The surge in the mining population also resulted in the disappearance of game and food gathering locales as gold camps and other settlements were built amidst them. Later farming spread to supply the settlers' camps, taking more land away from the Native Americans.

Whole indigenous societies were attacked and pushed off their lands by the gold-seekers, called "forty-niners" (referring to 1849, the peak year for Gold Rush immigration)

California's name became indelibly connected with the Gold Rush, and fast success in a new world became known as the "California Dream."

Interesting facts about the California Gold Rush

California Clipper 500
Sailing to California for the Gold Rush.
  • The gold rush had a big impact on industrial and agricultural development.
  • It helped quickly grow California economically which allowed California to go rapidly to statehood.
  • There weren't many people actively involved in the gold rush, it was mostly men.
  • It's estimated that US$80 million worth of California gold (equivalent to US$1.8 billion today) was sent to France by French prospectors and merchants.
  • There is still gold to be found in California.
  • The California Gold Rush wasn't the first gold rush in America, the first one was 50 years before in Cabarrus County, North Carolina.

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