The History and Story of the California Gold Rush.

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When you talk about the most important events in American history, you would be remiss if you didn’t mention the California Gold Rush. In terms of establishing the west coast as a place where people came for adventure and opportunity, the Gold Rush served as a major impetus.

The Discovery

Two years before the gold rush began, San Francisco was a small port town called Yuerba Buena, named after the wild mint which grew in the hills. The population, including surrounding villages totaled about 800.Change came quickly when James Marshall picked up a small yellow rock while working on John Sutter’s sawmill along the American River in the sparsely populated city of Coloma, California on January 24, 1848.  

It all started in January of 1848, when James Wilson Marshall became the first man to find gold in California. He made his famed discovery in Coloma at a place called Sutter’s Mill. Marshall’s discovery might have been the beginning of the process, but it certainly was not the culmination. It merely set into account a chain of events that would change the course of American history as it was known at the time. He called to his co-workers, uttering the now famous line “Hey, boys, by God I believe I’ve found a gold mine,” The other workers within the camp were a bit skeptical at first. As one of their tests, they hit one of the nuggets with a rock. The flake bent, but did not shatter. After a few additional tests most were convinced that they had indeed found gold. Within days most of the workers, including John Sutter himself, were out collecting nuggets by simply picking them up out of the river banks.

The first newspaper mention of the discovery was in the Californian on March 15, 1848 where a small article on an inside page read: “GOLD MINE FOUND. In the newly made raceway of the sawmill recently erected by Captain Sutter, on the American Fork, gold has been found considerable quantities. One person brought thirty dollars’ worth up to New Helvetia, gathered there in a short time. California, no doubt, is rich in mineral wealth; great chances here for scientific capitalists. Gold has been found in almost every part of the country.”

The military governor of California (which was not yet a state), Colonel Richard B. Mason, made a trip to Coloma that summer to celebrate the Fourth of July with John Sutter at Sutter’s Fort. Meanwhile, rumors of the discovery reached the eastern United States in August 1848, but was not taken seriously until Colonel Mason’s official report reached Washington (accompanied by a tea caddy full of gold), and subsequently mentioned in President Polk’s message to Congress on December 5, 1848. The caddy of gold was coined into special 1848 “CAL” quarter eagles. Mason’s report was carried in newspapers throughout the Country and in almost every edition of every newspaper there was a gold rush story.

The Rush Was On.

By the end of l848 there were only about 5,000 miners working. Gold was still relatively easy to find, and new strikes were being made every day. These early days were the good times, and the quantities of gold being reported were astonishing. However, living conditions were primitive and prices for supplies were high. News of these riches were filling the newspapers on the east, and gold fever hit hard. Men left homes and farms, wives and businesses to head for the mines.

Getting to California was the beginning of the adventure. A 15,000-mile ship journey around the tip of South America could take five months. More than 500 ships did it in 1849 alone. Those who traveled by boat were called “Argonauts” named after Greek mythological adventurers in search of a golden fleece. By cutting across the Isthmus of Panama the entire journey might take just three months, but many died of cholera and malaria. By land, the 2,200-mile journey from trail heads in Missouri or Iowa took about four months, but deadly obstacles included deserts and dehydration, the risk of snow, and starvation. These overland travelers were termed emigrants, as they left the settled United States behind. The trip was one for only the bravest and hearty, which is partly why there were few women and children in these early days.

Despite the hardships, the number of people making the trek to California was staggering. It is estimated that in 1849 over 32,000 people made the overland journey. That number grew to 44,000 in 1850 and peaked at 50,000 in 1851. The harbor master in San Francisco estimated that between April 1849 and March 1850 some 62,000 people arrived. These numbers were almost all men. With the world rushing in the easy pickings were mostly gone. Lawlessness, sickness, and disillusionment were growing problems. One in five miners died, many as the result of disease, accidental deaths working claims, malnutrition, and many even committed suicide after the disappointment of reality set in. Early mining tools quickly graduated from the gold pan to the rocker, and the rocker to the long tom and the sluice box. By the time most men arrived, successful mining required highly organized industrial operations including the diversion of streams and rivers, blasting hard rock, and the hydraulic destruction of entire of hillsides.

The census of 1850 found that 73 percent of California’s population was between the ages of 20 and 40, and 92 percent were males. A successful miner could be making $8 a day compared to the average $1 day for his coal-miner counterpart in the East. But prices were astronomical too. A loaf of bread that sold for 4 cents in New York sold for 75 cents in the mines. An 1849 report from Sacramento said eggs were $1 to $3 apiece; apples $1 to $5; coffee $5 a pound; a butcher knife $30, and boots $100 a pair.

When Marshall first discovered gold, the news spread quickly. The term “quickly” applies in relative terms for the time period. People certainly were not flocking to California that week, but less than a year later, the first explorers made their way to the state in search of their own treasure. These people were aptly called “49ers”, since they first made their way to California in 1849.

Brannan’s Genius.

Of the many methods that people used to find out about the Gold Rush, the newspaper industry was probably the most responsible. Local newspapers ran advertisements and produced headlines that talked about the opportunity and the money being made in the area. One of those people was Samuel Brannan, a San Francisco business man who took the opportunity to get more press and etch his name in lore with his famous headline proclaiming, “Gold, Gold!”

Though much of the legend says that the majority of the 300,000 or so explorers came to California by way of land, the truth is that about half of those people arrived by sea. The fact that California was being descended upon from both directions is a testament to just how important the event actually was.

California and the New Horizon.

The Gold Rush was an interesting phenomenon for a number of reasons. During that time, America was quickly expanding and there were few concrete laws on how things would be handled in the new frontier.

California was mostly unexplored territory and many of the most valuable places in the state were unclaimed at the time of the California Gold Rush. This meant that it was completely unclear who had ownership of any of the gold that was being found.

Ultimately, this added to the “rush” portion of the process and make it that much more important for people to hustle to the state to see what they could find.

The Original “Panning” for Gold

As legend tells the story, the original adventurers used relatively rudimentary methods for extracting gold. They found most of the gold in streams and many of the area’s rivers. They used the well-publicized method of “panning” to extract this gold and when successful, this led to substantial returns for the few who found it.

One of the interesting things about the Gold Rush was that it started out as a mostly individual enterprise. Since not much was known about the risk or the potential return of such a journey, the people who came out to California were mostly those folks who had little or nothing to lose in the process. Many of these people got rich, while others went away basically empty-handed after all of their travels and their painstaking efforts.

Corporate Gold Extraction.

As the California Gold Rush went along, the methods for extracting the gold become much more advanced and companies started to try their hand at getting some of the metal. When word spread that there was actually a great amount of gold to be had, these speculators sent over teams to extract the gold. The end result was billions of dollars’ worth of gold were found and many individuals got handsomely rich in the process.

Most of the 300,000 people who originally came out to California stayed in the area, and it helped to create the California that we know today. Lots of the companies were foreign or from out of state, so they took their new found wealth elsewhere.

Development of California.

The effects of the California Gold Rush are hard to overlook, as well. During the Rush, the state was incorporated into the Union as a new “free” state, under the Compromise of 1850.

During that time, a set of laws was also established to govern the new activity out in the area. These things were born out of necessity more than anything else. With so many people flocking to a mostly unwatched and unoccupied space, there needed to be some order. This was all especially true considering the large amounts of money that were battled over during that time period.

Establishing the State’s Infrastructure.

Still, the Gold Rush left its impact on the state of California and it certainly played a huge role in American history. It brought more than 1,000,000 people in total to the west coast over that period, which was a huge boost in terms of establishing California as a new state in a rapidly changing American landscape at the time.

The California Gold Rush was not just restricted to one city or one town in the state, which contributes to why the state’s infrastructure saw some major developments during the time. More roads were built, because people wanted to get to towns like San Francisco.

Likewise, with all of the people moving to the state, California saw its schools and churches get a huge boost. This helped to establish systems much more quickly than they were developed in many of the other newly occupied territories. Likewise, individual towns saw explosions in popularity as a result of what took place in the Gold Rush.

The San Francisco “Boom”

One of those was San Francisco and it is always mentioned when you talk about the event. It started out as just a small town where people would stop over, but as the Gold Rush became bigger, San Francisco grew by leaps and bounds. It became the prime destination that it is today during that time and it was really put on the map.

The gold deposits were not nearly as available in San Francisco as many people had originally thought, but that didn’t stop people from looking.

The California Gold Rush fizzled out after about a decade and there were decreasing returns for individual 49ers as the years went along. With more and more commercial companies coming in and getting all of the gold with their technologically superior equipment, not much was left for the people who might have otherwise enjoyed the spoils.

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