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The Gold Rush

The Gold Rush

"I t was a clear cold morning I shall never forget," wroteJames Marshall in his diary on January 24, 1848 (as quoted in Rosalyn Schanzer's Gold Fever!). "My eye was caught with the glimpse of something shining in the bottom of the ditch. I reached my hand down and picked it up; it made my heart thump, for I was certain it was gold. Then I saw another piece. Putting one of the pieces on a hard river stone, I took another and commenced hammering. It was soft and didn't break; it therefore must be gold." With these words, carpenter James Marshall recorded his discovery of the mineral that would change California from a sleepy Mexican territory into the fastest-growing state in the rapidly expanding United States of America. Within six months of Marshall's discovery, word had spread that there was gold throughout the streams and hills of central California. It wasn't long before thousands of gold-hungry prospectors poured in from all over the world in what is now known as the great California gold rush.

The gold rush lasted just a few years, but it dramatically changed the lives of the individuals involved, the state, and the nation. Some who set out for California with hopes of instant riches never even made it to their destination; they died on the arduous journey west. Of the thousands who arrived in California, only a few struck it big in the goldfields. Many more built new lives providing services in the rapidly growing city of San Francisco. Migrants who were African American, Chinese, or Hispanic faced discrimination as white settlers took control of the state. The rapid migration of people to California also forced the growing United States to confront once again the issue of whether slavery should be allowed in new states.

California before the rush

California had offered riches to its inhabitants long before the discovery of gold on the American River. With its mild climate, its vast and fertile interior valleys, and an abundance of game, the country we now know as California supported a large native population. Historians estimate that before contact with the Europeans, some three hundred thousand native people lived in the area. These Indians organized themselves into more than one hundred different tribes, each with a distinct culture and traditions. All benefited from an environment that provided them with the best diet of any native population on the continent.

An early American settler in California observed: "The Indians were very well formed, robust, handsome people. They were partly tattooed, and wore ornaments of bone and beads. They used bows and arrows and were very expert fishermen. They gathered acorns, roots, and grass-seed." Though acorns were a staple food, Indians also hunted for game and caught salmon in the many streams that led to the Pacific Ocean. Indians living along the coast built their cone-shaped homes from the bark of the huge redwood trees that lined the shore. Those living inland built sturdy structures from a reed called "tule." Others built homes from palm fronds or cedar logs. Native Americans surely noticed the glittering gold nuggets lying in the streambeds, but they did not find value in the soft metal. They measured wealth differently. Some tribes valued woodpecker scalps. Others favored dentalium shells. Still others measured wealth in woven baskets or chunks of obsidian (a hard, black stone valued as a cutting tool). Instead of trading in money or gold, the Indians traded with the goods they found valuable.

Blessed with ample land and food, California's native peoples found little reason for conflict. This peaceful life began to change in 1769, when Spanish missionaries arrived on the California coast and set out to convert the natives, whom they called Diggers, to Christianity. Spaniards had visited California as early as 1602, when a fleet of Spanish galleons led by Sebastián Vizcaíno put ashore after seeing a pack of bears devouring a whale carcass. The Spaniards met a group of people they described as "generous Indians, friendly to the point of giving whatever they had." Vizcaíno named the bay Monte Rey but did not stay to settle the area. In fact, contact with the Spanish—who were busily colonizing lands to the south, in Mexico—remained limited until the missionaries arrived.

Mission life

Beginning in 1769, the Spanish sought to extend their empire northward into California. They began building missions (church-based districts), pueblos (villages), and presidios (forts) beginning in the south of the territory in San Diego and extending north all the way to San Francisco Bay. The primary goal of the Spanish missionaries who occupied the twenty-one missions in California was to convert the natives to Christianity. According to Father Francisco Palou, "We rejoiced to find so many pagans upon whom the light of our holy faith was about to dawn." And dawn it did, as missionaries baptized nearly fifty-four thousand Indians in the first decades of their work. By the turn of the nineteenth century they had gathered nearly the entire population of California Indians south of San Francisco Bay into their missions.

At first the Indians embraced the Spanish missionaries and the bands of soldiers and citizens that accompanied them. They hoped that the Spaniards would bring improved trade and spiritual power. But they soon discovered that the Spaniards wanted more than to save their souls. The soldiers who accompanied the missionaries wanted to become rich, and many claimed large plots of land for themselves, driving off the native peoples and forcing some Indians to work as slaves. But it was the missionaries who truly changed Indian life. Not only did they convert the indigenous peoples to Christianity, but they also sought to convert them to a European way of life. Neophytes (newly baptized Indians) were taught a variety of skills in the missions. They learned to be weavers, brick makers, farmers, and vaqueros (cattle drivers, or cowboys). But they did so against their will, becoming slaves to their supposed saviors. The baptized Indians could not leave the missions, and they were severely disciplined for misbehavior.

"The cost of this wholesale transformation of Indian life was horrifying," writes historian Richard White in "It's Your Misfortune and None of My Own": A New History of the American West. Some Indians escaped the tyranny of the missions and fled into the wilderness. Others living in remote mountain valleys had little contact with the Spaniards. But for the majority of the Indians, the damage was done. Of the sixteen thousand Indians baptized by missionaries in their first decade, more than nine thousand died. By 1817, 90 percent of the mission Indians had died from disease or abuse. By the end of the gold rush, the entire Indian population had declined to just thirty thousand people, down from three hundred thousand before European contact.

The Californios

Those who benefited most from the Spanish occupation of California became known as the Californios (descendants of the original Spanish settlers). When California was under Spanish rule, trade and land access were controlled by the missions and by Spanish governors. But as Spain's influence declined, some Californios began to establish large ranches, called ranchos, and to trade with the Americans who were beginning to arrive in the West and with traders traveling up and down the coast. In 1821 Mexico declared its independence from Spain. In 1834 the Mexican government ended the dominance of the missions and granted large tracts of land to the Californios. The Indians received little from the breakup of the missions, and they remained subject to the control of the wealthy landowners. The richest of the Californios laid claim to large areas of land. Their ranchos were tended by the first cowboys, called vaqueros. But not all Californios were wealthy. Many worked on the ranchos of the wealthy landowners or tended smaller ranches of their own.

Wealthy Californio Mariano Vallejo (1808–1890) remembered the days when he and his peers dominated California society (quoted by Guadalupe Vallejo in Century Magazine): "We were the pioneers of the Pacific coast, building towns and Missions while General [George] Washington was carrying on the War of the Revolution. We often talk together of the days when a few hundred large Spanish ranches and Mission tracts occupied the whole country from the Pacific to the San Joaquin." The Californios organized great ranching empires and became rich selling cowhides to Russian, English, French, and American traders who stopped in at California ports. The Californios traded their hides for manufactured goods, bright cloth, jewelry, tobacco, furniture, and a wealth of other goods that they could not produce themselves. They also developed a rich cultural life centered on the ranchos, with fiestas, bull-fights, and rodeos providing the entertainment. The wealthy families lived lives of leisure, and the ranchos employed many vaqueros. Sadly, the rancheros (ranch owners) also forced many of the remaining Indians and lower-class Mexicans to perform the lowest jobs on the ranch. For the wealthy, life in California was good; for the rest, it was a struggle.

The discovery of gold

Settlers from around the world began to arrive in California in the late 1830s and early 1840s. Some of the first American settlers reached California via overland trails in the fall of 1841. These frontiersmen and farmers settled in the Sacramento Valley, the vast and temperate valley that lies inland from San Francisco Bay. Keeping themselves separate from the Californios who lived along the coast, the settlers pursued farming and small-scale ranching. Another group of Americans arrived in 1846. Led by a printer named Sam Brannan, these 238 men, women, and children (who were members of a growing religious group known as Mormons) landed in a sleepy seaside town called Yerba Buena. Some of the band remained in the town, which would soon change its name to San Francisco, and Brannan started a newspaper, the California Star. The rest ventured out into the Sacramento Valley, where they settled near a place known as Sutter's Ranch. When the Mexican-American War (1846–48) broke out, these settlers sided with the U.S. Army and hoped that they would become the new base of power in the territory. The United States claimed California and the other southwestern territories following the Mexican-American War.

John Augustus Sutter (1803–1880; see box on p. 113) had arrived in California from Switzerland in 1839 with the dream of creating a farming empire. After attaining Mexican citizenship, he received a land grant of nearly 50,000 acres in the Sacramento Valley. Sutter built an adobe fort near the south bank of the American River and called his settlement New Helvetia. (Helvetia is another name for Switzerland.) By 1848 Sutter's Fort had become a center of trade and communications, and new settlers were arriving every day. In addition to the fortress, Sutter had built an inn, a granary (a grain storehouse), and a retail store. He had plans to build several mills powered by the many streams that flowed out of the mountains surrounding the valley. Sutter appointed carpenter James Marshall to oversee the construction of a sawmill in the Coloma Valley, about 45 miles from Sutter's Fort on the south fork of the American River.

On the morning of January 24, 1848, Marshall was surveying work on the mill when he spotted something sparkling in the river. Mill construction had disturbed the earth around the riverbed, and the moving water had washed away the gravel and sand to reveal what appeared to be gold. Picking out a few small nuggets, he ran back to the mill workers and shouted, "Boys, I believe I have found a gold mine." The men soon discovered more of the gleaming, soft metal, and Marshall decided that he must present his find to Sutter. Together the two men tested the mineral. It was gold. Marshall returned to the mine, and he and the workers dug for more gold when they were not working on the mill. Sutter hoped that he could keep Marshall's discovery secret. But word soon spread: there was gold on the American River.

A group of Mormons working on a flour mill discovered a second mine, which became known famously as Mormon Island. With this discovery gold fever spread through Sutter's settlement. According to J. S. Holliday, author of The World Rushed In: The California Gold Rush Experience, "Sutter could not hold his workers. The flour mill stood unfinished, hides rotted in the warehouse. All his plans depended on a staff of assistants, field workers, carpenters, and tanners. Suddenly they were gone, with plans of their own." Sutter's experience would be repeated across California and, within a year, across the nation. Once people heard of the gold, they quickly left their meager-paying jobs and rushed to the gold-fields to pursue the possibility of instant wealth.

Word of gold in the Sacramento Valley had reached San Francisco by March, but most viewed the rumors with suspicion. That ended on May 12, 1848, when Sam Brannan returned from a trip to Coloma brandishing a bottle full of gold dust. "Gold! Gold! Gold from the American River!" Brannan shouted to all who would listen. One hopeful miner recorded his thoughts: "A frenzy seized my soul.... Piles of gold rose up before me.... castles of marble, thousands of slaves ... myriads of fair virgins contending with each other for my love—were among the fancies of my imagination.... in short, I had a very violent attack of the gold fever." Hundreds of San Franciscans packed up their belongings and headed inland. Almost overnight the bustling seaport was transformed into a ghost town.

John Sutter

No man is more closely associated with the California gold rush than John Sutter is. It was at Sutter's Mill that the first gold was discovered in California. But Sutter failed to profit from the discovery, instead becoming one of the many casualties of the gold rush.

Johann August Sutter was born in the German village of Kandern on February 15, 1803. He was expected to follow in the tradition of his father and grandfather and work in the local paper mill, but Johann hoped for better and wandered about searching for meaningful work. Newly married in 1826, Sutter settled into a drygoods business that his mother-in-law helped him start, but his mismanagement soon led to financial disaster. Faced with imprisonment for failing to pay his debts, Sutter left his wife and children and headed to America in the summer of 1834.

In America, Sutter called himself Captain John A. Sutter, a veteran of the Royal Swiss Guards. He impressed many with stories of his exotic European life and endeared himself to several wealthy Americans. Around 1846, Sutter arrived in Yerba Buena, California, carrying an ample supply of (borrowed) money and glowing letters of recommendation. Seeing the wide-open valleys, Sutter imagined himself the master of a vast empire. By 1847 he had secured a land grant of fifty thousand acres and had begun to build a settlement at the confluence (meeting) of the Sacramento and American Rivers. When the land beneath him changed hands from Mexico to the United States, Sutter proudly declared himself an American and continued to build his inland empire.

In 1848, a terrible disruption came into Sutter's dreams of landed wealth: gold was discovered on his property. His employees began to abandon their work to pan for gold in the mountain streams, and soon his land was flooded with gold-hungry prospectors who took whatever gold they could find, regardless of who owned the land. Sutter mismanaged his way out of a potential fortune again and again and was eventually tricked out of his remaining land holdings in the town of Sacramento by newspaperman Sam Brannan. He lived out his life on his farm on the Feather River, an aging alcoholic with little to show from the gold rush except his stories.

Gold fever

News traveled slowly in the nineteenth century. It took several months for people in San Francisco, barely a hundred miles away, to hear of the discovery of gold in the Sacramento Valley. By the summer other westerners—Hawaiians, Oregonians, Mexicans, and Latin Americans—caught wind of the discovery and set out for California. Late in 1848 the Oregon Spectator reported, "Almost the entire male population has gone gold digging in California." By July 1848, the number of gold seekers stood at two thousand; by October they reached five thousand; and by year's end they numbered eight thousand. But there were more to come. Many of the first Californians to reach the goldfields—the '48ers—wrote letters to relatives in the East. These letters, filled with boasts of vast treasure troves, were often dismissed as rumors, but they were confirmed in July when copies of Sam Brannan's special edition of the California Star reached Missouri. Other papers reprinted the story, creating a buzz in cities throughout the settled East. Still, many refused to believe the stories until they received some official confirmation. That confirmation came on December 5, 1848, when President James K. Polk (1795–1849) told Congress that "the accounts of the abundance of gold in that territory are of such extraordinary character as would scarcely command belief were they not corroborated by authentic reports of officers in the public service." Polk's message left no room for doubt: there was gold in California.

The news now spread through the United States like wildfire, and the trickle of emigration turned into a steady flow. The New York Herald reported at the time that "the great discovery of gold has thrown the American people in a state of the wildest excitement. Gold can be scooped up in pans at the rate of a pound of pure dust a scoop. 'Ho! For California' is the cry everywhere." Similar announcements appeared in newspapers across the country, accompanied by letters home from miners. One such letter boasted that a Missouri carpenter had dug more gold in six months than a mule could pack; others bragged of men finding thousands of dollars worth of gold in a matter of days. At a time when wages were as low as two dollars a day, such riches sounded like heaven on earth. Men sold their belongings and their businesses to raise enough money to travel to California; others simply dropped what they were doing and headed west, figuring they would live off the land until they found their fortune. One eastern minister, the Reverend Walter Colton, complained that his congregation and town, beset with greed, simply vanished: "The blacksmith dropped his hammer, the carpenter his plane, the mason his trowel, the farmer his sickle, the baker his loaf, and the tapster his bottle. All were off for the mines, some on horses, some on carts, and some on crutches, and one went in a litter," (as quoted in Rosalyn Schanzer's Gold Fever!).

Getting there

By the spring of 1849, many easterners were planning to head west. They had a choice: they could travel overland on one of several known trails, or they could book passage on boats that would take them through the Isthmus of Panama or around South America and north to San Francisco. Neither journey was easy or inexpensive. The sea journey could take from four to nine months and cost several hundred dollars. The overland journey could be completed in four months and, for adventurers already in the Midwest, made more sense. Though there were no fixed costs for the overland journey, historians estimate that travelers typically spent six hundred to seven hundred dollars on the trip. It is estimated that between twenty-five thousand and thirty thousand people took the overland routes to California in 1849, and another forty-four thousand came in 1850. Whether they came by land or by sea, for the people known as the '49ers, getting there was more than half the battle.

Those traveling overland to California had their choice of two fairly well established routes: the southern Santa Fe Trail across land recently acquired from Mexico, with various branches leading to southern California, or the better-known Oregon-California Trail, whose southern branch led directly to the now-famous Sacramento Valley. The trails began at the major outfitting towns of Independence and St. Joseph, Missouri. There were guidebooks available for both routes, but while such books might help travelers avoid some problems, they could hardly prepare travelers for the difficulties that lay ahead. (See Chapter 5 for more information about the trails.)

As spring came to Missouri, masses of gold seekers gathered in tent cities on the banks of the Missouri River, waiting for the right time to set off on their journey. The emigrants (as they called themselves, for they were leaving their country behind) gathered themselves into traveling parties to better survive the journey. When the grass had grown long enough to feed the livestock and the spring rains had slowed, the travelers crossed the river and set off on their journey. In all, twenty-five thousand to thirty thousand men and women set off across the country in 1849 to join those seeking their fortune in the goldfields of California.

"The whole country was under water"

That season, sixty-two hundred wagons, more than twenty thousand people, and close to sixty thousand pack animals set off on the Oregon-California Trail; the Santa Fe Trail was nearly as congested. Though they were eager to cross the distant mountains before the winter snows set in, the emigrants struggled across trails left muddy by heavy rains. One traveler, J. H. Beadle, wrote (as quoted in Gold Fever!): "The whole country was under water. The mud was thicker and stickier every day; but the men kept a-hoopin' and swearin' and I never seed men so crazy to git on." Despite these difficulties, they pushed on across hundreds of miles of flat prairie. The travelers gathered around campfires at the end of a long day of travel, ate their biscuits and dried meat, and joined in songs such as "Sweet Betsy from Pike":

Oh do you remember sweet Betsy from Pike
Who crossed the wide prairie with her lover Ike?
With two yoke of oxen, an old yellow dog,
A tall Shanghai rooster and one spotted dog.

The gold seekers packed all their belongings into covered wagons that were roughly nine feet long and four or five feet wide. Most wagons were loaded down with all that was needed to start a life in a new place: bedding, dishes, clothes, and food; tools for mining, farming, and repairing the wagons; and guns and ammunition. Some of the travelers brought chickens, which swung in cages from the back of the wagon. The entire wagon was covered with a heavy canvas, waterproofed with linseed oil. If women and children were traveling with the party, they sometimes slept in the wagon. Mules or oxen pulled the wagons. Gold seekers grew accustomed to a boring diet that consisted primarily of biscuits and bacon, washed down with strong coffee. They hunted or fished when they could and gathered wild berries or greens to supplement their diet.

Legend has it that wagon trains crossing the prairie were under constant attack from marauding bands of Indians, but in truth the Sioux, Cheyenne, and other prairie tribes felt little need to disturb the bands of people who passed across their land. A more pressing danger was disease, especially cholera. Cholera is an acute intestinal infection that causes violent vomiting, fever, chills, and diarrhea. As the sickness swept through the camps, it sometimes killed travelers in a matter of hours. Those who survived were severely weakened.

Crossing the mountains

As the wagon trains reached present-day Wyoming, the flat prairies gave way to the more difficult terrain of the rising mountains. Many belongings that had seemed essential on the prairies were discarded as the mules and oxen strained to pull wagons up and down the steep mountain trails. Parties began to split up once they crossed South Pass. Some took the Mormon Trail toward Salt Lake City to restock before continuing westward. From Salt Lake City, some took the Old Spanish Trail toward Los Angeles, a route that promised refuge from snow. But most travelers stayed on the Oregon Trail to the north of the Great Salt Lake, looking for the California Trail that would take them down through present-day Nevada and across the Sierra Nevada Mountains into California.

Levi Strauss

The gold rush made fortunes for many, and some of those who got rich actually did so by finding gold. But many others acquired their riches by providing services and products to miners flush with a little bit of gold. Levi Strauss, the inventor of jeans, was one such merchant.

Levi Strauss was born in Buttenheim, Bavaria (Germany), in 1829 and moved to New York City with his family when he was eighteen. In New York he joined his half brothers in the dry-goods business. When masses of people began heading west, Strauss saw an opportunity. In 1853 he opened a West Coast branch of his brothers' business and began selling work clothes to miners, who were notoriously hard on clothes. Strauss became a respected businessman and a prominent local philanthropist, but he did not become famous until 1873, when he and Jacob Davis attached rivets to a pair of pants.

Jacob Davis was a Reno, Nevada, tailor and a customer of Strauss's. One of Davis's customers kept ripping out the pockets of the pants Davis made, and Davis came up with the idea of reinforcing the stress points with metal rivets. He was eager to patent the idea, but he didn't have the sixty-eight dollars he needed to file for the patent. Davis asked Strauss to be his partner, and the two received patent #139,321 on May 20, 1873. Their work pants—which we now call blue jeans—soon became famous among workingmen for their comfort and durability, and they remain America's most popular pants, imitated throughout the world.

By late summer or early fall, emigrants on the California trail found themselves following Nevada's Humboldt River, a sluggish stream that ends in a barren valley known as the Humboldt Basin. The travelers next had to cross the dreaded Forty-Mile Desert, with scorching heat, no food or water, and sand so deep that it threatened to swallow up oxen and wagons. And still the journey was not over, for the high and rocky Sierra Nevada Mountains had to be crossed before the snow started to fall. The mountains were hot and dry by day and freezing cold by night.

In the Sierra Nevadas, the Native Americans posed a real threat to the wagon trains. The Indians would steal the livestock and supplies from wagon trains, leaving some emigrants unable to continue their journey. The travelers were weary from the journey. In a letter to his wife quoted in The World Rushed In, emigrant William Swain described his weary fellow travelers as "living caricatures of the human species, some of them mounted on poor, dusty looking mules, others on miserable looking worn down horses, all dressed in dusty, ragged clothes, as most of us are." The trip got easier after the wagons crossed the last mountain pass and began to travel down into the Sacramento Valley. Some travelers never made it that far, having perished along the trail (see Chapter 5).

Travel by sea

For those who chose to travel to California by sea, the journey was no less arduous. Most sea travelers, called argonauts, chose the shorter passage across the Isthmus of Panama, a narrow strip of land joining North and South America. The first part of the trip was pleasant and relatively fast—it took only about three weeks to travel from New York City to Chagres, Panama. Then travel became more difficult. Gold seekers set off on canoes up the Chagres River through a torrid jungle. After a three-day trip, they reached Cruces, where they packed their belongings onto mules for a twenty-mile trip to Panama City on the Pacific coast of Panama. From there the argonauts booked a passage north to San Francisco. It was not an easy journey, but if all went well one could make it from New York to San Francisco in fifty-one days. For most, it took much longer.

The Panama crossing was both the most difficult and the most interesting part of the journey. The jungle was hot and humid, and many travelers became infected with diseases such as malaria and cholera. For those who remained healthy, however, travel through the jungle was an exotic adventure. Jennie Megquier, who traveled west with her husband, recalled, "The air was filled with the music of birds, the chattering of monkeys, parrots in any quantity, alligators lying on the banks too lazy to move," according to The Gold Rush author Liza Ketchum. With thousands of gold seekers pouring out of the jungle, Panama City soon became clogged with people seeking passage northward. Some travelers had to wait for weeks and pay a premium price to board an overcrowded ship.

Other argonauts opted for the long journey down the length of South America, around Cape Horn, and back north. The 18,000 mile journey took as long as nine months. It was, writes Linda Jacobs Altman in The California Gold Rush in American History, "a route for the stout of heart and strong of stomach." Argonauts had to endure terrible storms at sea, cramped and unsanitary conditions, spoiled food, and mind-numbing boredom.

Whichever route they took, the argonauts ended their journey in the growing city of San Francisco. By 1849 the harbor was filled with as many as five hundred boats, many of which were simply abandoned by crews eager to reach the goldfields. Enterprising merchants turned some boats into floating hotels and stores. San Francisco had become, almost overnight, a boomtown, with bars, gambling houses, restaurants, shops, shipping offices, and banks open twenty-four hours a day. Lodging was scarce, however; there were few hotels or rooms for rent, and the city was growing so fast that it looked like one large construction site. Jennie Megquier wrote, "It is the most God-forsaken country in the world," according to Ketchum. Most argonauts saw the wisdom of pushing on to the goldfields.

Whether they came by sea or by land, from the United States or from China, Nicaragua, or Europe, gold seekers who came to California in 1849 quickly put the difficulties of their journey behind them and set to their real work: looking for gold.

In the goldfields

Beginning in the summer and fall of 1848, hundreds and then thousands of men (there were few women) poured into the California interior in search of gold. The first men took to the American River, but that area soon became so crowded that prospectors looked to the north and south, along the Feather, Yuba, and Tuolumne Rivers. In the end the entire western slope of the Sierra Nevadas proved to contain some gold.

The first miners met with some spectacular successes. On the Feather River, seven miners panned out 275 pounds of gold in two weeks; on the Yuba, another group found seventy-five thousand dollars' worth of gold in just three months. In an area known as Dry Diggings (later as Hangtown), a miner could find from a few ounces to five pounds of gold per day. The true stories of men barely able to carry all the gold they dug out soon led to fantastic stories about ever-larger claims that must exist just around the bend of the next river.

Once word spread that an area might contain gold, miners rushed to the region to stake their claim. Miners staked a claim when they decided on a patch of land or riverbed that they wanted to work on. Such claims were often informal, and "jumping claims" (taking over another man's site) often led to fights. The first miners found their gold simply by sifting the bottom of the streambed, allowing the current of the water to wash away the dirt and gravel and leave the gold. Bayard Taylor, quoted in Gold Fever!, described his first encounter with men panning for gold: "When I first saw men carrying heavy stones in the sun, standing nearly waist-deep in water, and grubbing with their hands in the gravel and clay, there seemed little temptation to gold digging; but when the shining particles were poured out lavishly from a tin basin, I confess there was a sudden itching in my fingers."

As the first claims were played out, miners resorted to more labor-intensive methods of attaining gold. They shoveled soil into rockers (boxes set on curved feet that allowed them to sift the soil) and washed the excess material away, or they diverted streams and built canals to bring water to their "dry diggings." Soon, even more labor- and capital-intensive forms of mining came into play. Hydraulic mining forced pressurized water into beds of gravel, causing the ground to disintegrate and leaving a residue of gold. Quartz mining required heavy equipment to break the gold free from the quartz. By the time these latter methods were being used, the majority of the gold seekers had moved on in search of easier riches.

The mining camps

As particular areas were discovered to have gold, camps sprang up overnight to accommodate miners who had staked claims. Enterprising merchants set up tent stores and charged the men exorbitant rates for food and supplies. An egg cost a dollar—a half-day's pay. So did a slice of bread, and it cost another dollar for butter. Food was scarce, and those selling it often ended up with more money than the prospectors. Prostitutes were fairly prevalent in the camps. The slightly more proper dance-hall women offered entertainment and were beloved by the miners. Popular entertainers Lola Montez and Lotta Crabtree gained widespread renown for their dancing and singing, and both enjoyed an independence unavailable to women in the civilized East.

Because the mining camps and cities of California formed so quickly and haphazardly, they had to do without some of the luxuries of civilized life. One such luxury was law enforcement. Mining camps were lawless places filled with greedy men, many of whom were outcasts from civilized society. There was nothing to keep such men from taking whatever they wanted except the threat of revenge. Miners fought hard to maintain their claims. Many carried weapons, and it was not unusual for a thief to be killed for "jumping" another man's claim. Violence was so common in the mining camps that barroom fighting might well be considered one of a miner's principal forms of recreation.

Vigilante justice

The "established" town of San Francisco was known for its violence. As a port city, San Francisco saw a rapid influx of immigrants from around the world. Some countries, such as Nicaragua and Australia, dispatched convicts to California just to clear their prisons. One group from Sydney, Australia, was known as the Sydney Ducks. Violent career criminals, the Sydney Ducks conducted a reign of terror on the city streets that was capped by a particularly brutal robbery of a retail store in 1851. The San Francisco business community was finally prompted to take action, forming a citizens' committee, called the Committee of Vigilance, to try the offenders and to drive other criminals from the city.

Vigilante justice (justice dealt out by citizens who take the law into their own hands) became the primary form of justice in gold rush country, as in much of the West. Such justice could be extremely harsh. After three suspected criminals were quickly tried, found guilty, and hanged, Dry Diggings became known as Hangtown. A storekeeper in Sonora, California, counted four dead in that town in the third week of June and six killed in the second week of July. All miners learned to watch their backs and had to be willing to use force to protect their interests. But it was foreigners and minorities who suffered the most abuse and violence as competition in the goldfields increased.

A diverse country

Even before the gold rush began, California was home to a variety of people. U.S. settlers, Indian tribes, and Californios all lived there. But the gold rush brought a diversity of people that was astonishing. Mexicans and Chileans were some of the first to arrive after the discovery of gold. Soon miners from European countries—especially the United Kingdom, Germany, and France—came to seek their fortune. Chinese immigrants began arriving in 1850, lured by calls for laborers if not by gold; by 1855 the Chinese population in California had reached twenty-five thousand. And, of course, American settlers poured into California in vast numbers. Among them were African Americans who hoped that in this new land they might find opportunities unavailable to them in the East.

Who would wield power in this wild land? This question was answered early in the gold rush years by those seeking to make California a state. Political leaders and businessmen felt that California's rapidly growing population and wealth qualified it for immediate statehood without going through the initial stage of territorial government first. They managed to find enough delegates to call a constitutional convention in the fall of 1849 and send two senators-designate to petition the U.S. Congress for statehood in early 1850. The senators—John C. Frémont and William Gwin—found themselves in the middle of a pitched debate between the North and the South over whether slavery should be legal in new states. The Compromise of 1850 allowed California to join the United States as a free state; in return, the South was offered the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, which allowed slave owners to travel into free territory to capture runaway slaves. On October 18, 1850, news of California's statehood reached San Francisco, and the city exploded in celebration. Though miners professed not to care, they would soon use their "rights" as white citizens to dominate the gold rush in ways they could not have before.

As competition for gold heated up, miners sought any advantage to exclude others from access. In April 1850, the California legislature passed a law that required every miner not from the United States pay a tax of twenty dollars a month. Less formal and more brutal forms of discrimination exacted a higher toll on foreign miners. Though some Native Americans profited by acting as guides or laborers, the majority were run off their lands or literally hunted for sport. In the Bloody Island Massacre of 1850, hundreds of Pomo Indian men, women, and children were ruthlessly slaughtered by white forces led by Captain Nathaniel Lyon after two American Indians sought revenge for the murder of a relative. In the southern mines, all Spanish-speaking people—whether from Mexico, Chile, or California—were lumped together as "greasers" and attacked. Many of these people had staked out some of the earliest claims, but they were run off regardless. Chinese miners, who worked together to develop some of the most prosperous claims, were stoned, their houses burned, and their long braids (called queues) cut off. The San Francisco Bulletin reported, "White men are not usually hanged for killing Chinamen." This kind of brutality and violence was generally tolerated by the authorities. Sadly, white Americans were determined to ensure they had first claim to "their" country's gold.

Though foreigners were routinely discriminated against, many still found ways to build a life in gold country. The Californios landowners largely succeeded in their legal actions to reclaim their land—though such actions didn't help the many landless Mexicans and Californios. The Chinese proved adept at smuggling their earnings past tax agents, and when it proved difficult to work in the goldfields, they often opened successful businesses, including laundries. (Unlike American men, Chinese men had no inhibitions about doing laundry.) The Native Americans fared worst: their population dwindled to less than thirty thousand by 1860.

Modern Robin Hood

One Mexican exacted his revenge on his oppressors by becoming a modern Robin Hood. A peaceful young man named Joaquin Murieta ventured to California seeking gold in 1848. Within months of his arrival, his brother was lynched by a mob that hated Mexicans, his wife was raped and murdered, and Murieta himself was publicly beaten for a crime he did not commit. Enraged, Murieta became a desperado who ambushed his enemies, stole gold from white miners, and gave his takings to those who had been wronged. Murieta soon became a legend, and nearly every crime in southern California was attributed to him. When he was finally hunted down and murdered in 1853, his head was bottled in alcohol and displayed around the state.

Gold rush legacy

The violence and lawlessness that came to characterize California during the gold rush can perhaps be explained by the difference between gold seekers' dreams and reality. Of the thousands and thousands of prospectors who ventured into the goldfields, very few got rich. Most made a small strike, spent it, and then struggled to make a living in the diminishing claims. By 1858 the gold rush was over, and only those with enough money to invest in heavy machinery were still digging for gold. Miners still infected with gold fever moved on to other gold rushes: Nevada's Comstock Lode, the Fraser River in British Columbia, Pikes Peak in Colorado. But the world seemed to have learned a lesson from the gold rush of 1849, and none of these later gold rushes gained the worldwide attention that the first one did.

Many returned home from the goldfields defeated, but many more settled in the mining towns and made a new life in California. For some, the gold rush brought riches in forms other than gold nuggets: Levi Strauss (see box on p. 118) got his start as a dry-goods retailer (selling clothing and textiles) in San Francisco (and we still buy his Levi's jeans today); butcher Philip Danforth Armour supplied miners with meat and founded a meatpacking business in the East that still operates; John M. Studebaker built wagons for miners and brought his earnings back to Indiana, where his company became renowned for making quality automobiles in the next century.

For many the gold rush brought opportunities they would not have had elsewhere. Young men without prospects in the East started new lives in California. African Americans found a society freer and more open than the one they had left behind. And the few women who ventured westward with the miners enjoyed far more independence than women in the East did.

California itself was utterly transformed by the gold rush, going from a quiet Mexican territory to a rapidly growing and thriving American state within just a few years. The United States was also changed by the gold rush and the admission of California as a state. Suddenly, the young nation stretched from the Atlantic to the Pacific. The vast area between Kansas and California was now traversed regularly by settlers and travelers, and many began to settle in the western territories that would become Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado, Nevada, and Wyoming. By 1869 a transcontinental railroad made transportation from one coast to the other relatively easy. The gold rush also created a romantic myth about California that persists into the present day: for many Americans, California is still the promised land.

For More Information


Collins, James L. Exploring the American West. New York: Franklin Watts, 1989.

Groh, George W. Gold Fever. New York: William Morrow, 1966.

Jackson, Donald Dale. Gold Dust. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1982.

Lewis, Oscar. Sutter's Fort: Gateway to the Gold Fields. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1966.

Marks, Paula Mitchell. Precious Dust: The American Gold Rush Era: 1848–1900. New York: William Morrow, 1994.

McCall, Edith. Gold Rush Adventures. Chicago: Children's Press, 1980.

McNeer, May. The California Gold Rush. New York: Random House, 1962.

Stein, R. Conrad. The Story of the Gold at Sutter's Mill. Chicago: Children's Press, 1981.

Web sites

"Gold Rush Chronicles." California's Gold Discovery. [Online] (accessed April 13, 2000).

Gold Fever! The Lure and Legacy of the California Gold Rush. [Online] (accessed April 13, 2000).

The Museum of the City of San Francisco. 1849 California Gold Rush. (accessed April 13, 2000).


Altman, Linda Jacobs. The California Gold Rush in American History. Springfield, NJ: Enslow Publishers, 1997.

Holliday, J. S. The World Rushed In: The California Gold Rush Experience, An Eyewitness Account of a Nation Heading West. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1981.

Ketchum, Liza. The Gold Rush. Boston: Little, Brown, 1996.

Schanzer, Rosalyn. Gold Fever! Tales from the California Gold Rush. Washington, DC: National Geographic Society, 1999.

Vallejo, Guadalupe. "Ranch and Mission Days in Alta California." Century Magazine (December 1890).

Van Steenwyk, Elizabeth. The California Gold Rush: West with the Forty-Niners. New York: Franklin Watts, 1991.

White, Richard. "It's Your Misfortune and None of My Own": A New History of the American West. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1991.

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