Gold Rush, California

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GOLD RUSH, CALIFORNIA. When James Marshall looked into the American River and saw gold alongside John Sutter's sawmill on 24 January 1848, he unintentionally initiated a set of events that dramatically transformed both California and the United States. Although

Marshall and Sutter attempted to prevent news of their discovery from spreading, within a few months word had reached San Francisco. A visitor in June found the city nearly abandoned because of "gold fever." By September eastern newspapers offered their readers breathless reports of the incredible riches ready for the taking.

The term "rush" is appropriate. By 1850, California's American-and European-born population had increased tenfold, with San Francisco alone growing from a sleepy village of 1,000 to a bustling city of 35,000. Ships that docked in San Francisco Bay at the height of the fever risked losing their entire crews to the goldfields. The state's non-Indian population increased from about 14,000 before the discovery to nearly 250,000 in 1852 even though an average of 30,000 prospectors returned home each year. Although 80 percent of the "forty-niners" were from the United States and all states were represented, this migration also was a global event, drawing gold seekers from California Indian bands, East Asia, Chile, Mexico, and western Europe. For the United States it was the largest mass migration to date, flooding the previously lightly traveled trails to the West Coast as more than 1 percent of the nation's population moved to California in just a few years.

The apparent availability of wealth drew so many so fast. In a time when farm workers could expect to earn a dollar for a long day's work and skilled craftspeople earned perhaps half again as much, it was not uncommon for early arrivals to the goldfields to make $16 a day. The chance for such prosperity struck many Americans as not merely a potential individual windfall but as a fulfillment of their rapidly expanding country's promise of economic democracy. Just nine days after Marshall's discovery, California, ceded in the Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo by a defeated and occupied Mexico, formally became a part of the United States. It seemed that average Americans, whatever their previous backgrounds or origins, were reaping nature's bounty.

The hordes of newcomers made gold rush California a society distinct from the migrants' various homelands. The diversity of nationalities, the sharp fluctuations in economic prospects, and the overwhelming preponderance of men all kept social life in the goldfields unsettled. At the time gold rush California was for many a sharp contrast to the sobriety and respectability of middle-class America. "But they were rough," wrote Mark Twain of the forty-niners in Roughing It. "They fairly reveled in gold, whiskey, fights, fandagos, and were unspeakably happy."

It was for good reason that mining camps and towns instantly acquired reputations for wildness. Probably half of the women in early mining camps were prostitutes. Alcohol, isolation, and struggles over access to gold made for high rates of homicide and other violence. Gender roles were less predictable and more flexible than in the homes of most migrants. The small percentage of women meant that men had to perform traditionally feminine domestic tasks or pay others, often women entrepreneurs, good money to do so, and this may have given married women more power and options. But the quick end of

easy riches and the arrival of significant numbers of white women in the 1850s signaled the end of gold rush society. Newly arrived middle-class women saw themselves as "taming" California, curtailing gambling, drinking, prostitution, and much of the openness in gender roles that had characterized the region.

While the promise of easy riches drew many migrants, the reality was often not what they had hoped. Miners worked long hours in remote places, generally living in ramshackle accommodations and paying exorbitant prices for food, shelter, and clothing. The gold deposits accessible to hand digging quickly played out, and all that remained were buried veins that could be exploited only by well-capitalized ventures employing hydraulic equipment and other expensive machinery. Most miners who remained were no longer independent prospectors but rather the employees of large mining companies. Indeed, most of the gold rush fortunes were not made by extracting the nearly $300 million in gold dug in six years but rather by marketing supplies to the miners. The German immigrant Levi Strauss, for example, sold so many work pants to gold diggers that his name became the generic term for jeans (Levis).

For others the gold rush was an outright disaster. The numbers, diseases, and violence of newcomers over-whelmed most of the state's Native American peoples, initiating a demographic collapse that brought them to the edge of extinction. White discrimination, embodied most clearly in heavy taxes on foreign miners, kept most Chinese, Latin American, and African American prospectors out of the choice diggings. Even the rush's originators failed to profit. Marshall and Sutter were soon overtaken by the course of events and were ruined. Their sawmill was idled by the flight of able-bodied men to the diggings, and squatters occupied much of Sutter's expansive lands, killing most of his livestock and destroying his crops. Both men died in poverty and anonymity.

But what destroyed Sutter and Marshall created American California, with important consequences for the nation as a whole. The gold rush made the Golden State the most populous and prosperous western territory even as it removed tens of thousands of men from their families and communities for years. Connecting the West Coast to the rest of the country added to the impetus to build the transcontinental railways, to defeat the last independent Indian nations on the Great Plains, and to settle the interior West. Finally, the wealth it produced, even greater and more easily acquired in legend, made thousands flock to later discoveries of gold in Nevada, Colorado, and Alaska.


Holliday, J. S. The World Rushed In: The California Gold Rush Experience. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1981.

Johnson, Susan Lee. Roaring Camp: The Social World of the California Gold Rush. New York: Norton, 2000.

Roberts, Brian. American Alchemy: The California Gold Rush and Middle-Class Culture. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2000.

Rohrbough, Malcolm J. Days of Gold: The California Gold Rush and the American Nation. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997.

Benjamin H.Johnson

See alsoCalifornia ; Forty-Niners ; andvol. 9:Constitution of the Committee of Vigilantes of San Francisco .