Gold Rush of 1849

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On January 24, 1848 a New Jersey prospector James Marshall discovered gold on the American River in northern California, while he was working on a sawmill owned by John Sutter. When news of the discovery leaked out, there was a mass migration to California, and in subsequent years a fortune in gold was mined. Historian Malcolm J. Rohrbough called the Gold Rush the most significant event in U.S. history between the Louisiana Purchase and the outbreak of the Civil War. It had important economic, social, and political implications for the United States.

In 1848, when President James K. Polk (184549) notified Congress of the discovery in his annual message, gold fever broke out. Thousands of people made arrangements to go to the West Coast either individually or as a member of a group. These associations, which were called companies, helped lessen the cost of the trip, and they often but not always disbanded when they arrived in California. Some Argonauts, as the miners were called, took overland routes; others sailed around Cape Horn or booked passage to Panama, where they crossed the isthmus and took another ship to California. Disease and attacks by hostile natives often made the trip perilous, and many died on route.

It was the greatest mass migration in American history and completely transformed California. Until the Gold Rush the population of the future state hovered at 13,000, about half of whom were Californios, people of Spanish or Mexican descent. The natives were submerged by the flood of 80,000 people, who arrived in 1849, and who swelled to 300,000 by 1854. The immigrants were mostly young and mostly male. Because of the vast wealth that could be made, the Gold Rush cut across social classes. Both professional men and unskilled laborers could be found in the gold fields, working side by side.

The cities grew dramatically. At the beginning of 1849 San Francisco was sleepy little village of 800, but in the summer of that year, one contemporary observed that it had compressed 50 years growth into four months. San Francisco's population reached 20,000 by 1850 and 50,000 by 1860. Other towns, like Marysville, Sacramento, and Stockton, also expanded, becoming supply centers for the miners, and hundreds of smaller mining camps appeared. The large influx of people from the United States probably accelerated the move to statehood. California had been seeded to the United States after the Mexican War (1846-1848), and a constitutional convention was called in September of 1849. It became a state in 1850.

The amount of gold available and the ease with which it could be obtained seemed fanciful to those who first heard the stories in the East. But all one needed was a pick, pan, shovel, and the determination to go to California. Gold was deposited in streambeds, which could be harvested by poking around with a knife and digging it out with a spoon. Water, which originally deposited the gold, was also used to mine for it. Flowing through a tin pan, the water would carry off the lighter particles of dirt and leave the heavier gold. At a time when farm hands would earn $1.00 and skilled craftsman about $1.50 for a 12-hour day, a miner could earn $16.00 a day by panning an ounce of gold. In 1847 Eddin Lewis, a successful farmer in Sangamon County, Illinois made $350.00 for the year by selling beef, pork, lard, and corn. In the fall of 1850, C.C. Mobley, a California miner, wrote in his diary that the men in his company made an average of $350.00 each in a two-week period. From 1849 to 1855 $300 million was taken from the California gold fields.

The vast amount of wealth inflated prices. A miner from New York and his partner had a large but ordinary breakfast at a boarding house near the mines that cost the $43.00. Although the men did not complain, the miner noted that the usual price for such a meal was $5.00. The cost before the Gold Rush was 25 cents. In spite of high prices that could be ruinous, there was a considerable fortune to be made, if one was provident and avoided gambling and "fancy" women. In fact, there was very little for the miners to buy. The men wore shabby clothing that was often patched, lived in tents or lean-tos, and ate the same drab food. Appearances could be deceiving, and clothing ceased to be a mark of distinction. Walter Colton the mayor of Monterey described a man who looked like he had just climbed out of an animal's lair, but who carried a sack containing $15,000 in gold dust. Since at first there were no banks, miners usually kept their wealth on their person or left it at their campsite. The early miners had a reputation for honesty and generosity.

The great wealth attracted many people who hoped to profit indirectly. A New England dentist set up practice in Northern California and returned to New Hampshire four years later after having earned a profit of $2,800.00. Although only a few women worked in the gold fields, many moved to California in the hope of marrying a miner or providing some domestic service the miners needed. In 1850, women in Sacramento could make $150.00 a month doing housework, while men were being hired for $75.00 a month to build levees. In that same year, when the average farm laborer in the United States earned only $10.85 a month with board, one enterprising woman made $100.00 a week by washing clothes. Managing a rooming house in Sacramento for three months brought Emeline Day $184.00 in addition to her room and board. Lucy Stoddard Wakefield opened a pie shop in the mining town of Placerville, from which she grossed $240.00 a week.

Within a couple years of the initial strike, the gold that was easy to find had already been mined, and it became more difficult for a miner to realize his dreams of wealth. Gold production reached its peak in 1854, when $81 million was taken from the gold fields. The amount declined every year until 1857, when it leveled at $45 million, an average it kept until the end of the Civil War. Large companies that could afford the capital investment began to dominate the industry, and they hired miners for wages. By 1854 miners who could obtain jobs were averaging only $75.00 a month. More than a few left in bitter disappointment.

The discovery of gold had both a national and an international impact. The United States provided 45 percent of the world's gold production between 1851 and 1855. The nation was thus able to export gold, which helped offset the country's negative balance of payments in the 1850s. This abundance was also important in allowing the government to mint $40 million in gold coins during that decade. On the other hand, the discovery caused U.S. commodity prices to leap and compelled workers in the east to strike in order to protect their standard of living.

See also: California


Holliday, James S. And the World Rushed In: The California Gold Rush Experience. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1981.

Maffly-Kipp, Laurie F. Religion and Society in Frontier California. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1994.

Rodman, Paul. The California Gold Discovery: Sources, Documents, Accounts, and Memoirs Relating to the Discovery of Gold at Sutter's Mill. Georgetown, Calif.: The Talisman Press, 1966.

__. The Beginning of Mining in the Far West. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1947.

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

make a dot there and let me introduce a man, well-known to me who has worked on the yuba river sixty-four days and brought back as the result of his individual labor five thousand three hundred and fifty-six dollars.

walter colton, mayor of monterey, california, august 16, 1848

i soon shall be in frisco. and there i'll look around, and when i see the gold lumps there i'll pick them off the ground

"oh california," miners' song sung to the tune of "oh susanna"