On January 24, 1848 James W. Marshall stumbled upon a yellow metal while building a lumber mill for pioneer John Sutter, in Coloma, California. Together they tested the metal and discovered that it was gold. Even though Sutter wanted to keep the news a secret it quickly spread and the ‘48ers’ began flocking in. By spring, the first influx had arrived and consisted mostly of California residents, as well as a few from Oregon, Sandwich Island and Latin America.
Most of the gold miners arrived in 1849 with approximately 50,000 – 60,000 Americans and another 30,000 – 40,000 international prospectors. Every country had its representatives in the California mines. Regardless of the route taken, via land or sea, the journey would have been a difficult one for these ‘49ers.’ Many people died from diseases, such as cholera and fevers, or accidents along the way, and others arrived at the mines exhausted but eager to make their fortune. They created temporary homes in tents, deck cabins, boarding houses and anywhere else that was available and began their search immediately.
Even though most of the miners were male, women also used this opportunity to their advantage and many came to the area to run boarding houses, become prostitutes, cooks and even a few miners. There were plenty of other ways to get wealthy during the Gold Rush, as the demand for goods and services drastically increased. Samuel Brannan ingeniously purchased all the prospecting supplies that he could locate, shortly after the first discovery. He opened up a store to resell them and even helped to continue spreading the news. Brennan became one of the wealthiest men from the era, without ever having to mine for a single piece of gold. Levi Strauss began selling denim overalls to the miners in 1853, and became the pioneer of one of the most useful pieces of clothing ever designed.
The influx of people to the area meant that there was a constant demand for merchant vessels to bring in food and other supplies. Many of the ships that came suffered major losses, however, as the crews would abandon them to join in with the miners. The crewless ships were turned into warehouses, living quarters, taverns and even a jail.
The Effects of the California Gold Rush
This first worldwide gold rush transformed the State of California in just a few short years. By 1850, the population of San Francisco had increased from less than 1000 people to over 25,000 and by 1855; there were over 300,000 people in the state. When the gold was first discovered, California was still a part of Mexico. On February 2, 1848 a treaty was agreed between the countries and the land was signed over to the Americans. California legally became the country’s 31st state on September 9, 1850.
During the mass migration hundreds of thousands of people relocated to the West and it became imperative to have a good transport system coming in to the area. When The Panama Railway was completed in 1855, it became more convenient for steam ships to travel from San Francisco to Panama with mail, goods, passengers, and gold. It was then possible to continue from there to the East Coast of the USA in a much shorter period of time. The Gold Rush also financed the First Transcontinental Railroad that connected California directly to the Central and East USA.
The settlers began forming communities and schools, churches, roads, and permanent houses were built. Many people began practising large scale farming which was referred to as the ‘Second Gold Rush’ and by 1870, the San Francisco population had risen to over 150,000 people.
The California Gold Rush did not affect only those in the area, or even the country, but there became an economic boom as farmers found a new centre for the distribution of their products. The majority of the food came from Chile, Australia and Hawaii, while clothing was shipped all the way from Britain and China. Worldwide jobs were created and the countries’ economies thrived. Edward Hargraves observed the similarities between the landscapes in California and Australia, and was able to start the Australian Gold Rush upon his return to the country.
Recovering the Gold
1. Panning – There were different methods used during the Gold Rush to remove the metal. Early miners were able to pan for gold, because it was abundant and easily found, using either a pan or their hands to extract the pieces from riverbeds or streams.
2. Placer Mining – Miners were able to process lots of gravel at the same time using ‘cradles’ and ‘rockers.’ Shafts were dug 20-40ft into placer deposits and tunnels led out in all directions. When the water was diverted into a sluice, the bottom of the river became exposed along with the gold resting there.
3. Hydraulic Mining – A high-pressure hose was used to focus a water stream on the river beds forcing the gravel and gold to pass over sluices. The gold would then sink to the bottom, where it was recovered. This would cause gravel and heavy metals to enter streams and rivers, as well as affect the ability of plants to grow in the area.
4. Dredging – By the 1980s most of the gold had dried up and whatever remained was found by dredging, gathering sediments from the bottom of rivers and streams and depositing them elsewhere.
5. ‘Hard-Rock Mining’ – Rocks in the area (normally quartz) were brought to the surface and demolished and then the gold removed. The majority of the gold found in California was collected in this way, and the owners of mining companies made the biggest profits.
The Distribution of the Gold
1. Much of the gold was spent near the mines to buy food, supplies and equipment, as well as pay for housing and entertainment including brothels, gambling and drinking. The shop-keepers used it to pay suppliers, who in turn would spend it with their manufacturers.
2. Foreigners would send, or take, the gold back to their countries.
3. The Californian Banks would accept it in exchange for bank notes or drafts, and private mints used it to make gold coins.
Gold Mining Laws
At the beginning of the Gold Rush there were no laws or fees charged, as the land was free and public. Miners were able to keep all the gold that they found, and there were frequent altercations about claims. Many of these disagreements became violent and prospectors had to be willing to choose walking away or being faced with death. By 1850, the state began charging the foreign miners taxes of $20/month.
The Californian Gold Rush and the Native American Culture
During the time when gold was first discovered in Sutter’s Mill, much of the surrounding land belonged to the Native Americans. With the increase in the amount of people coming to the area, they were quickly forced out of their territory. Miners began to destroy their homes, take over their land to farm and hunt the animals in the surrounding areas. In addition, gravel and toxic chemicals used killed many of the fish which was a major source of nourishment for the Indians. Those that were unable to adapt ended up starved to death.
The American Indians would attempt to defend their property or retaliate with attacks, but were mercilessly killed because of their primitive weapons against the use of guns. In excess of 50 Native Americans were believed to have been killed daily and tribes and entire villages were wiped out. The miners viewed them as obstacles to the expansion of the trade, and lawmen would lead attacks against them as retribution for any killings that they were accused of. On April 22, 1950 The Act for the Government and Protection of Indians stated that settlers could capture them and force them to work as bonded labourers.
The complete disregard for the race led to over 20,000 Native Americans being killed by 1890, and the rest were left to choose between migration and death. The discrimination was not just reserved for indigenous people and 1 in 12 foreign miners was killed by American settlers during the Gold Rush.