California Gold Rush

BACKGROUND: The search for mineral wealth was an important motivation for the Spanish in the New World in the sixteenth century. Early on large amounts of gold and silver were found in Mexico and more riches were thought to exist in the northern regions of the continent. Rumors of great wealth led the Spanish to undertake explorations in New Mexico, Arizona and Baja California, but very little was found.

When the Spanish finally decided to occupy California in 1769 it was for strategic geopolitical reasons rather than the expectation of finding great mineral wealth. During the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, California Indians occasionally brought very small amounts of gold to the attention of the Franciscan friars in charge of the Spanish missions, but it was believed that these finds did not represent any important deposits of gold.

In March 1842 a vaquero named Francisco Lopez brought some gold nuggets to the Mexican authorities in Los Angeles. A number of prospectors converged on the discovery site in Placerita Canyon in San Fernando Valley. Mining commenced and about two thousand ounces of the precious metal was recovered. California Governor Juan Bautista Alvarado sent samples to Mexico City and, in an associated report, suggested that the government send a scientific team to survey and explore to determine whether or not there might be more gold in California. The Minister of the Interior replied that Mexico had immense mineral wealth and that the California find did not seem to amount to much. He was wrong and, less than six years later, Mexico would cede California to the United States nine days after the largest gold strike in history.

THE GOLD RUSH: James Marshall discovered gold at Sutter's Mill on the American River near Coloma, California, on January 24, 1848. He reported the find to his partner, John Sutter, on January 28, 1848. Even though Sutter and Marshall tried to keep the discovery a secret, word began to leak out within a few days. In the middle of March a very brief article on Marshall's discovery appeared in a San Francisco newspaper (Californian). In May 1848, Sam Brannan traveled from his store at Sutter's Fort to San Francisco and enthusiastically and effectively spread word around town. On May 29, 1848, the Californian reported that the stampede was on in California. People from all walks of life from San Francisco to Los Angeles were dropping everything that they were doing to go into the mountains in search of gold. By the end of November 1848, newspapers on the east coast were full of the story. President James Polk officially confirmed the gold strike in his farewell address in December 1848. By the end of the year there were very few places in the world that had not heard the news.

By June 1848 it is estimated that there were two thousand men searching the streams and rivers for gold within a thirty mile radius of Coloma. By July the number had doubled and the search area broadened. Estimates as to how much gold was taken out of California in 1848 vary widely. The official figure was two million dollars and the high figure was forty-eight million dollars. By early 1849, all sorts of people were rushing to California from the four corners of the world. While both Atlantic and Pacific sea routes delivered would be miners from Europe and Asia by ship, the majority came from the United States. It is estimated that ninety thousand left from the United States in 1849 alone. American 49ers traveled three main routes:

When the 49ers reached California they still had to get to the mountains. San Francisco was a favored port of entry and permitted those who could afford it the luxury of proceeding up the Sacramento River by boat. From the river, if they had the funds necessary, they used mules and/or horses to transport their equipment and supplies over difficult trails to the areas where they intended to prospect. If they were short of funds they were only able to take what they could carry on their backs. On arrival in a mining camp they had to locate their "diggins," establish their claim, set up camp, and start the back breaking work of digging for gold. Once they had some gold they had to protect it. The camps were rudimentary in every way, disease was widespread, food and supplies were difficult to come by, and life was hard - very hard. Gradually villages developed around the more successful mines and regional towns were established to support them. Over time rough roads replaced the trails and wagons and coaches were added to the transportation system.

During the life of the Gold Rush, the nature of the mining community changed. The very first argonauts literally took placer gold from the streams by hand. Subsequent panning for the yellow metal quickly gave way to the use of rockers, long toms, and sluices. About the time that placer gold began to play out, strong interest developed in more capital intensive techniques including hydro-mining and hard rock mining. In the beginning the neophyte miner was a farmer, rancher, tradesman or laborer from somewhere in California. By 1849 increasingly large numbers of people from outside of California began overwhelming the local miners. Small operations by individuals gave way to larger operations requiring capital and corporate organization. Immigrants with mining skills entered the picture and technique and complicated machinery became vastly more important than just plain digging with a shovel. While some individual miners "struck it rich," most worked for little more than subsistence. The real money was made in the larger mines, but even there many mining companies did not make a profit.

When Marshall made his momentous discovery in 1848, the Guadalupe-Hidalgo Treaty ending the war with Mexico was still nine days away, and California did not yet have a stable government. The former system of law under the Mexican government was ineffectual and the effective reach of the American military governor did not extend into the mountains where the mines were located. In order to fill the legal vacuum, the miners established their own law and organized their own rough judicial system. It was effective enough to deal imperfectly with the situation, but reflected the ethnic prejudices of the dominant Anglo-American community. Indians, Latinos, and Chinese were dealt with more harshly than those with a European heritage. California became a state in 1850 and slowly civilian authority was extended over the mining camps, but even then local initiative was an important element in the mines and even in the villages, towns and cities. The sudden inrush of ninety thousand 49ers was followed, in 1850, by another eighty-five thousand gold hungry immigrants. That wave of young, unattached, mostly male, new comers would have been a test for any judicial system let alone the undeveloped one existing in California at the time. Because of the weak judicial system vigilante justice was not uncommon.

Ultimately the gold fields extended four hundred miles through the mountains from the Trinity River in the north to the Tuolumne River in the south. The area was and is called the Mother Lode and was one of the richest deposits of gold ever to be found. The Gold Rush is usually defined as running through 1852 although some historians use 1857, but gold continues to be mined in California today and more is known to be in the ground. The total amount of gold taken out of California during the Gold Rush is unknown but it was a staggering amount. The importance of the treasure and the sudden influx of people allowed California to bypass the usual rules for entry into the Union and silenced the debate about whether or not President Polk had been correct in seeking to take the territory away from Mexico. Before Marshall's discovery, President Polk's successor, Zachry Taylor, believed that California would never be able to achieve statehood. After the Coloma find he changed his mind.

"Whilst that for which all virtue now is sold,
And almost every vice,—almighty gold."

Ben Jonson

Coloma - Where Gold Was Found...

  Statehood for California ...