California gold rush

The California gold rush took place between 1848, and the late 1850s. The discovery of easily accessible gold deposits saw huge numbers of people flock to California, in an attempt to strike it rich. It is estimated that, over the course of the gold rush, 300,000 people relocated to California to capitalise on the finds. Incredibly, about half of this number are thought to have been people that moved from other countries; the other half coming from America itself.

A map of California's gold rush areas.

Map showing the gold rush areas of California. Image courtesy of Hans van der Maarel under the Creative Commons licence.

What was the gold rush?

In 1848, landowner John Sutter was beginning a project he hoped would create an agricultural empire called New Helvetia – Spanish for “New Switzerland”. At the time, California was a Mexican province under the control of the US Army, following their victory in the Mexican-American War.

While checking the completed work of a new sawmill, carpenter James W. Marshall found flakes of gold, and eventually a nugget. After checking the authenticity of his find, Marshall took the gold to Sutter and, fearing the impact a gold rush could have, Sutter and Marshall attempted to keep the discovery quiet.

Rumours began to abound though, and were compounded when Sam Brannan – a local entrepreneur looking to sell gold panning equipment – walked through San Francisco with a bottle filled with gold from the area. The gold rush had begun, and was only made worse in December 1848, when President James Polk declared the validity of Californian gold in a public address:

“The accounts of abundance of gold are of such an extraordinary character as would scarcely command belief, were they not corroborated by the authentic reports of officers in the public service.”

1849 gold rush

Gold rush prospectors panning for gold in California.

1849 signalled the peak year of the gold rush in terms of immigration. The time it took for news to spread, and for miners to then travel to California, meant that 1849 saw thousands arriving to the area. These people are known as the “forty-niners” and, apart from Americans, included people from Australia, Mexico and China to name a few. Men and women the world over were swept up in the gold-fever and sense of adventure. California was even named Gum San – “Gold Mountain” by the new Chinese arrivals.

Travelling to the area took significant amounts of time. With no cross-country railway, journeys often involved long voyages around the coast of America, and many hopeful prospectors died before ever seeing California. Many ships that arrived in California were left abandoned at the docks, as entire crews and passengers simply abandoned the ships in pursuit of gold. The California docks became a fascinating area, with abandoned ships converted into shops, warehouses and for other purposes.

The reality of the gold rush was in stark contrast to the romantic idea of adventurers finding their fortunes. In 1849 California was still outside of official American law, not being officially recognised as a sate yet. The lack of tax and regulation was part of the charm – any gold found could be taken at will – but it was a violent and lawless time. In particular, there was a lot of racism from white miners towards Chinese and Latin Americans. Without any protection from government, and a lack of law enforcement, claims could be stolen, and many were killed to get access to deposits. When legislation was brought in, it still fell against international miners; the “Foreign miners tax” punished them further and only served to heighten tensions. Many indigenous peoples, mostly Native American and Latin American, were pushed out of their land or attacked by lawless groups looking to control lucrative sites.

The influx of gold, and the money made by accompanying businesses, rejuvenated the Californian and US economy, while money being sent abroad also helped boost international economies. The gold rush helped the calls to make California the 31st state, which was achieved as part of the 1850 Compromise. It is believed that San Francisco grew from a population of 1,000 to a massive 25,000 in just this short time.

What year did the California gold rush end?

There is no specific date in which the gold rush ended; production peaked in 1852, tailing off for some years afterwards. John Sutter, whose land began the entire thing, also became bankrupt at this time. Without legal protection in the early years of the gold rush, Sutter found his land overrun with lawless miners, and much of his property and livestock was simply stolen.

With accessible deposits running out, hydraulic mining was developed in 1853. This helped to extend the life of the gold rush and brought in more money, but was highly damaging and destroyed much of the landscape.

The age of independent prospectors had ended, and the people that remained stayed on as wage labour. By 1855 it was only profitable for large groups and mining operations to extract gold.

One of America's gold rush ghost towns - Bodie, California.

Image from Bodie, California – One of America’s gold rush ghost towns. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons under the Public Domain.

Towns like Bodie (pictured above) were abandoned wholesale, as people left California to return home, and some remain to this day as ghost towns. Though millions of Dollars of gold were mined, many left empty-handed and bitter, grateful to leave with their lives.

American gold rush

America is still the fourth biggest producer of gold today. Gold is found all over the United States, and California is not the only place to experience gold rushes. Other American gold rushes include:

The Carolina gold rush

The Carolina gold rush was one of America’s first, and began in 1799, at Cabarrus County, North Carolina. 12-year old Conrad Reed found a nugget of gold while exploring a creek on his family’s farm. The true value of the nugget was unrecognised by his family and it was used as a door-stop for some time. After showing it to a jeweller, Reed sold the 7.7kg nugget for just $3.50, massively underselling it. By 1835, President Andrew Jackson established a mint at Charlotte to process the amount of gold coming from Carolina.

The Georgia gold rush

Gold was discovered in Georgia for many years, and there are varied claims as to the official first find of gold. By 1829 though, there were significant finds coming out of Dahlonega, and by the 1830s there was an influx of miners and immigrants to the area. President Jackson once again opened a mint there to process the gold; it was captured and used during the American Civil War to produce coins for the Confederates, and was shut down after the civil war ended.

There were also a number of smaller gold rushes in British Columbia, Nevada, Colorado, Idaho, Montana and Alaska.