Sutter’s Mill. On 24 January 1848 the American James Marshall discovered gold at John Sutter’s mill in northern California. This strike set off one of the most dramatic economic events of the nineteenth century. When word got out concerning the gold’s location, people soon began scurrying into the hills seeking even more of the precious yellow metal—and many found it, at least at first. Word of the placer (or surface) gold spread throughout the world. In 1849 alone, about eighty thousand people came to California; by 1854 three hundred thousand had arrived. Vast amounts of gold came out of California. Historians have estimated that miners extracted $10 million of gold in 1849, $41 million more of gold the following year, and another $81 million of gold in 1852. The amount declined thereafter, but miners still mined $45 million of gold from California in 1857.
Forty-Niners. The miners were mostly young males. Forty-Niners (as these miners were called) came from the American East, Chile, China, France, Mexico, and elsewhere. Newspapers throughout the United States—in big cities and small towns—proclaimed the newfound riches. Different visions of what could be accomplished in California appeared among the various groups, but many Americans felt that the gold strike represented an equality of opportunity, an optimistic idea that had long been the hallmark of their culture. Easterners came by ship around South America or by way of Panama. Other Americans crossed the Great Plains, Rocky Mountains, Great Basin Desert, and Sierra Nevada Mountains to reach the land of gold.
Early Success. The early days of the Gold Rush provided the greatest opportunity for the miners. Placer gold was fairly abundant. In fact, gold dust soon emerged as the currency of California. A shovel, pan, and maybe a pick were the common tools of the early miner. Many men labored with partners. Forty-Niners believed that if they worked hard, they could get rich. Few actually struck it big in the gold fields, but 1849 and 1850 were years of success for a significant number of miners.
Increasing Costs of Mining. Yet however much gold came out of California’s hills, life was never easy for the Forty-Niners. When the placer gold gave out around 1851, conditions became even more difficult, but people kept coming. Nevertheless, mining gold in northern California became increasingly expensive. The possession of capital became a necessity because new mining techniques demanded larger operations. With the scarcity of easy gold, quartz mining (digging underground in search of ore) developed; this system, too, required more capital and organization. Flocks of miners arrived, and more companies with greater resources formed. Claims, which could be sold, became costlier. By 1853 hydraulic mining appeared. In this expensive process, workers redirected water into hillsides to break up the soil and more easily extract the gold. Hydraulic mining permanently scarred the landscape of northern California. These commercial innovations led to a change in the use of water that was crucial to the large-scale operations. Water became a precious commodity, adding further to the cost of the newer, more industrial, gold mining.
The New York Herald reports on the Gold Rush
The California Gold Rush excited the imaginations of many thousands of Americans. Newspapers in the East commented on the gold craze that swept the country. They also printed letters from Forty-Miners who wrote back describing the potential riches in California.
New York Herald, 9 December 1848: “The Eldorodo of the old Spaniards is discovered at last…. In every direction vessels are being prepared to carry out passengers and merchandise to California…. The mania for emigrating to California is spreading in every direction and almost puts down and suppresses the dread of cholera…. This mania or madness is only at its commencement.”
New York Herald, 7 April 1849: “Hurrah! Here we are at last! The Land of Promise—El Dorado of the West! Our own bright, beautiful, bountiful California lies before us—her lap full of riches…. Any strong, able bodied man who is willing to labor five or six hours a day in the broiling sun, can make from $10 to $20 per day for three or four months in the year.”
Source: Peter Browning, ed. and comp., To the Golden Share: America Goes to California—1849 (LaFayette, Cal: Great West Books, 1995), pp. 45, 249.
The California Economy. Even before the arrival of these large-scale operations, prices for food and clothing in California were extremely high. Though an early miner could make more than ten times as much money mining gold than working in the East, the inflated economy and the shortage of goods diminished the Forty-Niners’ purchasing power. Sarah Royce, who went to northern California in 1849 with her husband and small daughter, found that an onion cost one dollar in the boom town of Sacramento. In fact, some migrants came to California not so much to mine gold but to mine the miners. They brought goods and services that fetched high prices in a booming economy based on gold dust. Since the scramble for gold brought conflict, it comes as no surprise that lawyers prospered. As Royce noted, some Americans came with, or developed, highly questionable schemes in order to get rich through the miners. These budding and impatient entrepreneurs tried their hand at such ventures as cattle or land speculation, but most failed. Yet some new migrants, including frustrated miners, went into other lines of work and invested in businesses that succeeded. The Royces, for example,
gave up mining and settled down and established a farm near Grass Valley, California.
The Ascendancy of the Anglos. The rush of Americans into California proved beneficial primarily for the native English-speaking people. Attacks by Anglos and the erosion of native subsistence economies in the face of the new mining regime drastically reduced the Indian population. By using law and force of arms, Americans drove Mexicans from the mines. Many Chinese men who had emigrated hoping to become rich found themselves driven out of the gold fields by racist Americans. Violence and discrimination were particularly pronounced after the placer gold diminished. White Americans believed California to be theirs alone even though the United States had only recently acquired it from Mexico.
The Golden State. The Gold Rush created the state of California. California had been part of the Spanish Empire since the late 1700s, but Mexico ceded it to the United States in 1848. It reached statehood in 1850—only two years after gold had been discovered at Sutter’s Mill. Entire cities materialized throughout the state. San Francisco surfaced as the great city of the nineteenth-century Far West. In 1848 the city had only eight hundred inhabitants; two years later, twenty thousand people lived there. By 1860 it held fifty thousand residents. In short, the precious yellow metal created not only big dreams, big disappointments, and a few big fortunes, but it also gave birth to the nation’s richest and most populous state.
Malcolm J. Rohrbough, Days of Gold: The California Gold Rush and the American Nation (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997);