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The California Gold Rush

‘GOLD MINE FOUND. — In the newly made raceway of the sawmill recently erected by Captain Sutter, on the American Fork, Gold has been found in considerable quantities. One person brought thirty dollars worth to New Helvetia, gathered there in a short time. California, no doubt, is rich in mineral wealth; great chances here for scientific capitalists. Gold has been found in almost every part of the country.’1 This paragraph was published in the March 15, 1848, issue of The Californian. It comprised most of the important details of the gold discovery in California. The news began to spread and, two months later, in May, the rush for gold began. After it became known that California had large quantities of gold, people came from all over the world to claim their fortune. This became an event that changed the course of American History.

In the early 1830s, Johann “John” Sutter, a German immigrant, arrived in California with borrowed money and a host of Hawaiians that he hired and brought from the islands. He was a middle-class German man who had moved to America many years earlier with the aspiration of obtaining land and building an empire. Through a great deal of deception, he was able to convince people that he was Captain John A. Sutter of the Royal Swiss Guards in service to King Charles X of France. With this title, John acquired grants of land from Mexico and Spain that totalled more than 50,000 acres of land. However, a discovery on only a fraction of his land is responsible for the revolution of a small village named Yerba Buena into San Francisco. On January 24, 1848, James Marshall, a carpenter hired to build a sawmill near Sutter’s Fort, discovered traces of a yellow metal while inspecting a water-flow channel.

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Initially, because of his reputation for having strange behaviour, his discovery of gold was not very credible. In spite of not being believed, Marshall continued to pan the metal, which he believed was gold. It was not until many skeptics began to do tests of their own on the metal that the excitement of this metal possibly being gold began. James Marshall’s discovery of gold did not become official until he told John Sutter. Sutter recollects the conversation he had with Marshall: ‘He asked to see me alone in the “big house” where my private office and the clerk’s office were located. I was utterly surprised, because the day before I had sent up everything he required, mill iron and provisions. I could not imagine what he wanted, yet I conducted him to my private rooms… We entered and I shut the door behind me. Marshall asked me if the door was locked. “No,” I replied, “but I shall gladly lock it.”

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I knew that he was a very strange man, and I took the whole thing as a whim of his… I supposed he acted so queerly because he wanted to tell me some secret which he considered important…’2 The two men decided to keep the discovery a secret until they could find a plan that would avoid chaos. John Sutter’s primary concern was not losing workers to a gold strike. However, this incredible discovery did not remain a secret for too long. News of Marshall’s gold discovery quickly spread through Sutter’s Mill. Eventually, the news reached a Mormon named Sam Brannan. The idea of such a great quantity of gold excited him to an extent where he could keep the secret no longer. On May 12, 1848, San Francisco awoke to Brannan walking down the city street waving a bottle filled with gold saying, “Gold! Gold! Gold from the American River.” This proclamation sparked the California Gold Rush. As the news of gold in California spread, the excitement and anxiety of people escalated. One newspaper of the time read:

“The whole country resounds with the cry of ‘gold! Gold! Gold!’ while the field is left planted, the house half-built, and everything neglected but the manufacture of shovels and pickaxes.”3 The gold fever spread all over the United States and uplifted the spirits of many Americans. The gold rush is said to have come at a great time in American history. James Marshall’s discovery of gold came after the Panic of 1837 (an American crisis that lowered wages to as low as 50 cents), the continual declination of crop prices, and the bloodshed in the American confiscation of Mexico. In addition, many people believed that the United States would eventually expand across North America from coast to coast. The California Gold Rush was seen as an ideal opportunity to leave the settled east and adventure westward and expand American territory. People made numerous sacrifices to search for gold. People abandoned their houses, many left 4their jobs, and there are even reports of soldiers leaving their posts.

On May 19, 1948, just days after Brannan’s announcement, the first prospectors arrived at the American River from Northern California. These people, known as Forty-Fighters, were the people fortunate to be so close to Sutter’s Fort during the discovery of gold there. However, everyone was not as fortunate to be in such an ideal place at the right time. People came from all over the world through challenging terrain and rough seas to get their portion of California’s proclaimed riches. Many debates which was worse: the voyage to California by sea or the journey across the treacherous terrain. People who were not living in the Americas came to California by sea because it was their only option. People living in the eastern United States had the choice of travelling by land or by sea and many opted to go by sea. The severity of travelling by sea around Cape Horn (the southern tip of South America) was initially overshadowed by the prospectors’ anxiety (See Figure 2).

The voyage took between six and nine months and was physically demanding. Despite the conditions of sailing being almost the same as travelling by land, many chose sailing because the groups were more stable than their land-based counterparts. People aboard could not simply decide to leave the group and venture out on their own at the first sign of disagreement. Although the voyage was socially amiable, the living conditions and low supply of food were detrimental to the health of those aboard the vessels. The first half of the voyage tended to be fine, but the crossing of the Cape Horn waters was the worse part of the voyage. The waters were punishing to those aboard the ships and took more than thirty days to cross. One voyager, William Morgan attempted to put his experience into words: ‘The [ship] is taking water over both rails; everything on deck breaking loose; man hurt from beef-barrel rolling on him.

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Vessel heaved to, under close-reefed mainsail, and [rigging] covered with ice. Only one sail for the company on this tempest of waters.’5 People who were not adventurous enough to take the long voyage around Cape Horn opted to take a shorter journey through Panama (See Figure 2). Initially, many people expected the journey to be a luxurious cruise in the Atlantic Ocean followed by a week’s stay in the tropical rainforest concluded by a peaceful Pacific Ocean cruise. People soon learned of the almost unbearable humidity of the jungle along with the swarms of mosquitoes carrying malaria and the cholera-infested water. However, despite these variables, the ambition of the prospectors made these harsh conditions appear to be minor inconveniences. The trip by sea was rough, but the journey by landing was equally demanding. Many took a route that began by crossing the Missouri River and went through the Rocky Mountains into Nevada and ending in California.

This trail became known as the California Trail and the people who used this route became known as Forty-Niners. Before they set off for their journey, the 49ers packed plenty of food and medication in order to prevent starvation and disease. However, these were not the only problems they faced while on the trial. Because of bandits and raiders, the 49ers armed themselves with pistols and knives for protection. The California Trail began at the Missouri River. There, people joined wagon trains and headed west. One route took a 1200-mile trek through the Rocky Mountains to southern Oregon followed by an 800-mile journey south to California through the Sierra Nevada Mountains. (See figure 1)6 Another trail was longer and less popular but avoided the mountains. It went along the Santa Fe Trail and turned west towards California. No matter which route they chose, the journey by land took its toll on the families that chose those routes. Judge Eleazer Ingalls wrote in her journal:

“The appearance of the emigrants has sadly changed since we started. Then, they were full of life… and the road was enlivened with the song of “I am going to California with my tin pan on my knee.”… [B]ut now they crawl along hungry and spiritless, and if a song is raised at all, it is, “Oh carry me back to Old Virginia, to Old Virginia’s shore..”7 This attitude was commonplace among those who travelled to California by land, but their aspiration for wealth caused to them to persevere through the tough terrain to California. Once people got to California, San Francisco’s population boomed and the search for gold began.8 9 Many people used the method of panning to find gold. With this method, the prospectors would put minerals they got out of the river into a pan and stir the minerals. Gold’s high density would cause it to remain at the bottom of the pan. The other commonly-used pieces of mining equipment are the pick and the rocker.

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The rocker was used in the same way as the pan. The only difference is that the rocker was a box that rocked back and forth, with gold’s density causing it not to move as freely as the lighter sand and gravel. The pick was used to get the gold that was submerged in the earth. This was the most tedious method, yet the most rewarding because the majority of gold was actually submerged in the earth. Eventually, the easily obtained gold was all taken by prospectors, leaving gold that only is obtained through heavy machinery and expensive equipment. After this occurred, the anxiety of the California Gold Rush vanished. When the Gold Rush was over, some people had worked hard and acquired their riches, while others were not as fortunate. However, whatever the outcomes of the individuals, the California Gold Rush changed California forever and played a vital role in the westward expansion of the United States. Facts About California’s Population During the Gold Rush Era10


  • After the Gold Rush. <> (January 26, 2003)
  • Altman, Linda Jacobs. The California Gold Rush in American History. Berkeley Heights: Enslow Publishers, Inc., 1997.
  • Blumberg, Rhoda. The Great American Gold Rush. New York: Scholastic, Inc., 1989.
  • Green, Carl R. The California Trail to Gold in American History. Berkeley Heights: Enslow Publishers, Inc., 2000.
  • King, David C., Norman McRae, and Jaye Zola. The United States and Its People. Menlo Park: Addison-Wesley Publishing Company, 1995.
  • The Gold Rush. <> (January 28, 2003)
  • Green, p.12.
  • Altman, p.18
  • King, p.264
  • James Marshall at Sutter’s Sawmill, Coloma, 1851.
  • The Gold Rush, (January 28, 2003)
  • Altman, p.30
  • Green, p.35
  • Green, p.39
  • San Francisco before the Gold Rush
  • After the Gold Rush. (January 26, 2003)
  • San Francisco after the Gold Rush After the Gold Rush. (January 26, 2003)
  • Statistics from {After the Gold Rush. (January 26, 2003) and The Gold Rush, (January 28, 2003)}

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