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The Gold Rush

The effects of the Gold Rush were substantial. Whole indigenous societies were attacked and pushed off their lands by the gold-seekers, called "forty-niners" (referring to 1849, the peak year for Gold Rush immigration). Outside of California, the first to arrive were from Oregon, the Sandwich Islands (Hawaii) and Latin America in late 1848. Of the approximately 300,000 people who came to California during the Gold Rush, about half arrived by sea and half came overland on the California Trail and the Gila River trail; forty-niners often faced substantial hardships on the trip. While most of the newly arrived were Americans, the gold rush attracted thousands from Latin America, Europe, Australia and China. Agriculture and ranching expanded throughout the state to meet the needs of the settlers. San Francisco grew from a small settlement of about 200 residents in 1846 to a boomtown of about 36,000 by 1852. Roads, churches, schools and other towns were built throughout California. In 1849 a state constitution was written. The new constitution was adopted by referendum vote; the future state's interim first governor and legislature were chosen. In September 1850, California became a state.

The Gold Rush


At the beginning of the Gold Rush, there was no law regarding property rights in the goldfields and a system of "staking claims" was developed. Prospectors retrieved the gold from streams and riverbeds using simple techniques, such as panning. Although mining caused environmental harm, more sophisticated methods of gold recovery were developed and later adopted around the world. New methods of transportation developed as steamships came into regular service. By 1869, railroads were built from California to the eastern United States. At its peak, technological advances reached a point where significant financing was required, increasing the proportion of gold companies to individual miners. Gold worth tens of billions of today's US dollars was recovered, which led to great wealth for a few, though many who participated in the California Gold Rush earned little more than they had started with.

Gold was discovered in California as early as March 9, 1842, at Rancho San Francisco, in the mountains north of present-day Los Angeles. Californian native Francisco Lopez was searching for stray horses and stopped on the bank of a small creek (in today's Placerita Canyon), about 3 miles (4.8 km) east of present-day Newhall, California, and about 35 miles (56 km) northwest of L.A. While the horses grazed, Lopez dug up some wild onions and found a small gold nugget in the roots among the bulbs. He looked further and found more gold.[3] Lopez took the gold to authorities who confirmed its worth. Lopez and others began to search for other streambeds with gold deposits in the area. They found several in the northeastern section of the forest, within present-day Ventura County.[3] In November, some of the gold was sent to the U.S. Mint, although otherwise attracted little notice.[4][5] In 1843, Lopez found gold in San Feliciano Canyon near his first discovery. Mexican miners from Sonora worked the placer deposits until 1846.[3] Minor finds of gold in California were also made by Mission Indians prior to 1848. The friars instructed them to keep its location secret to avoid a gold rush.[6]

Having sworn all concerned at the mill to secrecy, in February 1848, Sutter sent Charles Bennett to Monterey to meet with Colonel Mason, the chief U.S. official in California, to secure the mineral rights of the land where the mill stood. Bennett was not to tell anyone of the discovery of gold, but when he stopped at Benicia, he heard talk about the discovery of coal near Mount Diablo, and he blurted out the discovery of gold. He continued to San Francisco, where again, he could not keep the secret. At Monterey, Mason declined to make any judgement of title to lands and mineral rights, and Bennett for the third time revealed the gold discovery.[14]

By March 1848, rumors of the discovery were confirmed by San Francisco newspaper publisher and merchant Samuel Brannan. Brannan hurriedly set up a store to sell gold prospecting supplies,[15] and he walked through the streets of San Francisco, holding aloft a vial of gold, shouting "Gold! Gold! Gold from the American River!"[16]

San Francisco had been a tiny settlement before the rush began. When residents learned about the discovery, it at first became a ghost town of abandoned ships and businesses,[19] but then boomed as merchants and new people arrived. The population of San Francisco increased quickly from about 1,000[20] in 1848 to 25,000 full-time residents by 1850.[21] Miners lived in tents, wood shanties, or deck cabins removed from abandoned ships.[22]

In what has been referred to as the "first world-class gold rush,"[23] there was no easy way to get to California; forty-niners faced hardship and often death on the way. At first, most Argonauts, as they were also known, traveled by sea. From the East Coast, a sailing voyage around the tip of South America would take four to five months,[24] and cover approximately 18,000 nautical miles (21,000 mi; 33,000 km). An alternative was to sail to the Atlantic side of the Isthmus of Panama, take canoes and mules for a week through the jungle, and then on the Pacific side, wait for a ship sailing for San Francisco.[25] There was also a route across Mexico starting at Veracruz. The companies providing such transportation created vast wealth among their owners and included the U.S. Mail Steamship Company, the federally subsidized Pacific Mail Steamship Company, and the Accessory Transit Company. Many gold-seekers took the overland route across the continental United States, particularly along the California Trail.[26] Each of these routes had its own deadly hazards, from shipwreck to typhoid fever and cholera.[27] In the early years of the rush, much of the population growth in the San Francisco area was due to steamship travel from New York City through overland portages in Nicaragua and Panama and then back up by steamship to San Francisco.[28]

Supply ships arrived in San Francisco with goods to supply the needs of the growing population. When hundreds of ships were abandoned after their crews deserted to go into the goldfields, many ships were converted to warehouses, stores, taverns, hotels, and one into a jail.[31] As the city expanded and new places were needed on which to build, many ships were destroyed and used as landfill.[31]

Within a few years, there was an important but lesser-known surge of prospectors into far Northern California, specifically into present-day Siskiyou, Shasta and Trinity Counties.[32] Discovery of gold nuggets at the site of present-day Yreka in 1851 brought thousands of gold-seekers up the Siskiyou Trail[33] and throughout California's northern counties.[34]

By 1850, most of the easily accessible gold had been collected, and attention turned to extracting gold from more difficult locations. Faced with gold increasingly difficult to retrieve, Americans began to drive out foreigners to get at the most accessible gold that remained. The new California State Legislature passed a foreign miners tax of twenty dollars per month ($650 per month as of 2023), and American prospectors began organized attacks on foreign miners, particularly Latin Americans and Chinese.[36]

Word of the Gold Rush spread slowly at first. The earliest gold-seekers were people who lived near California or people who heard the news from ships on the fastest sailing routes from California. The first large group of Americans to arrive were several thousand Oregonians who came down the Siskiyou Trail.[41] Next came people from the Sandwich Islands, and several thousand Latin Americans, including people from Mexico, from Peru and from as far away as Chile,[42] both by ship and overland.[43] By the end of 1848, some 6,000 Argonauts had come to California.[43]

By the beginning of 1849, word of the Gold Rush had spread around the world, and an overwhelming number of gold-seekers and merchants began to arrive from virtually every continent. The largest group of forty-niners in 1849 were Americans, arriving by the tens of thousands overland across the continent and along various sailing routes[49] (the name "forty-niner" was derived from the year 1849). Many from the East Coast negotiated a crossing of the Appalachian Mountains, taking to riverboats in Pennsylvania, poling the keelboats to Missouri River wagon train assembly ports, and then traveling in a wagon train along the California Trail. Many others came by way of the Isthmus of Panama and the steamships of the Pacific Mail Steamship Company. Australians[50] and New Zealanders picked up the news from ships carrying Hawaiian newspapers, and thousands, infected with "gold fever", boarded ships for California.[51]

A number of immigrants were from China. Several hundred Chinese arrived in California in 1849 and 1850, and in 1852 more than 20,000 landed in San Francisco.[67] Their distinctive dress and appearance was highly recognizable in the goldfields. Chinese miners suffered enormously, enduring violent racism from white miners who aimed their frustrations at foreigners. Further animosity toward the Chinese led to legislation such as the Chinese Exclusion Act and Foreign Miners Tax.[68][67]

There were also women in the Gold Rush. However, their numbers were small. Of the 40,000 people who arrived by ship to the San Francisco Bay in 1849, only 700 were women (including those who were poor, wealthy, entrepreneurs, prostitutes, single, and married).[69] They were of various ethnicities including Anglo-American, African-American,[70] Hispanic, Native, European, Chinese, and Jewish. The reasons they came varied: some came with their husbands, refusing to be left behind to fend for themselves, some came because their husbands sent for them, and others came (singles and widows) for the adventure and economic opportunities.[71] On the trail many people died from accidents, cholera, fever, and myriad other causes, and many women became widows before even setting eyes on California. While in California, women became widows quite frequently due to mining accidents, disease, or mining disputes of their husbands. Life in the goldfields offered opportunities for women to break from their traditional work.[72][73] 041b061a72




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