FORTY-NINERS. The discovery of gold in the Sierra in January 1848 brought hundreds of thousands of fortune hunters to California over the next few years: the forty-niners. The first to find gold tried to keep it secret, but the strike was too huge to conceal. News of the strike reached Yerba Buena, on San Francisco Bay, in May 1848. Immediately, two-thirds of the population dropped whatever they were doing and headed for the gold fields. As the word spread over the world, people from Europe, Chile, Hawaii, China, Mexico, Australia, and especially from the eastern United States converged on California. Ninety percent were men, but women also joined the gold rush.
Thousands traveled overland, in covered wagons, pushing wheelbarrows, on horseback and on foot, a journey of 3,000 miles that took three to seven months. In 1849 some 15,597 more reached San Francisco by sailing around Cape Horn, 15,000 miles requiring four to eight months. A quicker route lay through the Isthmus of Panama, half the distance and taking only two to three months.
Once in California the forty-niners found themselves in a wild, roaring country. Gold there was but finding it required backbreaking work, in competition with thousands of other increasingly desperate fortune seekers. No infrastructure existed to support so many people. Towns like Hangtown, Skunk Gulch, and Murderers Bar were clumps of tents and shacks, and the most ordinary commodities cost their weight in gold. Far from home, the forty-niners joined together in clubs for companionship and support and for the promise of a proper burial. In many California towns the oldest building is the Odd Fellows Hall, dating from the gold rush.
Few of the forty-niners got rich. Some went home. Most stayed on and settled down, in a place utterly changed. Like a human tidal wave, the gold rush demolished the old California, swept aside the Californios and the native peoples alike, and thrust the state from its quiet backwater onto the world stage, all in less than eight years.
Bancroft, Hubert Howe. History of California. San Francisco: History Company, 1884–1890.
Holliday, J. S. Rush for Riches: Gold Fever and the Making of California. Berkeley: Oakland Museum of California and University of California Press, 1999.
Levy, JoAnn. They Saw the Elephant: Women in the California Gold Rush. Hamden, Conn.: Archon Books, 1990.