The California Gold Rush of 1848

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Panning for Gold

The discovery of gold in the Sierra Nevada foothills brought the world to California, giving the newly acquired territory a unique multi-ethnic population.

It began on January 24, 1848, when James Marshall noticed a small and shiny object, about the size of half a pea, lying in a foot of water on the south fork of the American River, in the foothills of northern California’s Sierra Nevada mountains. It turned out to be gold; and it turned out there was more – a lot more.

Marshall was a carpenter working for a Swiss emigrant named Johann Sutter, who was ambitiously building a colony he called New Helvetia, including a trading post and fort, in California’s Central Valley. Sutter had sent Marshall up into the forested foothills to build a sawmill that could supply the lumber Sutter needed to build his settlement. When Marshall arrived with samples of what he had found, he and Sutter swore each other to secrecy.

Sam Brannan Spreads the News

But the existence of large amounts of gold just waiting to be picked up off the ground or panned out of streams was not an easy secret to keep. One of those who soon learned of the discovery was a businessman and elder of the Latter-Day Saints (Mormons) named Sam Brannan. Though entrusted with the leadership of a group of two hundred Mormons by Brigham Young himself, Brannan turned out to be not so trustworthy. He collected the mandatory tithes from his flock, but blatantly appropriated the money for his own uses, including setting up a general store at Sutter’s Fort.

By March of 1848, Brannan had begun to notice that many of his store’s customers were paying for their goods with gold. As soon as he had determined the source of the gold and its likely quantity, he began stockpiling his store with all the supplies and equipment that gold seekers might need, until his inventory included nearly every such item in northern California. Then, on May 12, he went down to San Francisco with a bag of gold dust in his hand, waving it about for all to see, and shouting, “Gold! Gold! Gold from the American River!”

The Rush Begins

Brannan’s stunt may have been the first advertising spectacle in America. It was certainly one of the most successful. By mid-June, three quarters of the male population of San Francisco had left for the gold fields, presumably by way of Brannan’s store. Because telegraph lines had not yet come to California, the news of the discovery of gold spread first along the west coast, then, via trading vessels, around the Pacific rim. Before the year was out, gold seekers had begun to arrive from Latin America, Hawaii, China, and even Australia. By the time the news reached the east coast, it was nearly the winter of 1849, and the potential prospectors had to wait for better weather before launching their own expeditions.

The coming of spring saw the leaving of thousands of eastern Americans, as well as many Europeans. The “forty-niners” brought the total number of gold seekers in California to around 40,000. By the time the rush peaked in 1852, that number had reached 100,000. It has been estimated that in the 100 years following the discovery, roughly $2 billion worth of gold was extracted from California’s soil.

The Significance of the Gold Rush

The 1850 census showed California with a population of 93,000. By contrast, the Oregon and Utah territories had about 12,000 each. The gold rush clearly “jump-started” California’s incredible growth over the next century, eventually making it the largest state in the nation. The rush also made it the most ethnically diverse state, a position it still maintains. The first gold seekers were the already diverse peoples already there: Native Americans, Hispanic californios, and Anglo-Americans. These were followed by Hawaiians, Latin Americans, Asians, and eventually whites and free blacks from “the states,” as well as Europeans. Other immigrants came later, of course; but they came to a land already populous, diverse, and productive.

Very few of the gold seekers struck it rich. Some managed to make enough to buy their passage home. Many stayed on, marrying and raising families, establishing businesses, farming the vast and fertile Central Valley. Interestingly, the $2 billion worth of gold produced over the century following its discovery represents less than half the value of a single year of California’s agricultural output in the mid 20th century. The soil itself turned out to be a greater treasure than all the gold extracted from it.

Sources:

  1. Bean, Walton, and Rawls, James J. California: An Interpretive History. 4th Ed. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1983.
  2. Howe, Daniel Walker. What Hath God Wrought: The Transformation of America, 1815–1848. Oxford University Press, 2007.