The Wild West of Yester-Year

The Gold Rush
By Rachel Kovaciny


When we talk about “the gold rush,” we often mean the California Gold Rush that began in 1848, when a carpenter named James W. Marshall found flakes of gold in a stream near the mill where he worked. John Sutter, the owner, tried to keep the discovery quiet so he and Marshall could work together to mine it, but the secret got out, anyway. And California has never been the same.


In 1848, California mostly interested trappers, farmers, and ranchers. Otter and beaver pelts and cattle hides were its main exports. But the discovery of gold changed everyone’s attitude toward the far-flung territory the United States had newly annexed after a war with Mexico. Folks along the East Coast viewed California as a gold-laden Promised Land where a person could get rich by just walking around and picking gold up off the ground.


So many people set off for California that the population swelled from 157,000 people in early 1848 to nearly 300,000 less than two years later. By the time the Gold Rush ended in the mid-1850s, there were upwards of 400,000 people in California. All those people, and all the money they were finding, meant that California went from being a territory in 1848 to a state just two years later.


The biggest year of the California Gold Rush was 1849, and that’s why the term “forty-niners” is often used for gold prospectors. The lure of gold was strong enough to pull people there, even though getting to California from the rest of the United States proved difficult. You either had to travel 18,000 miles around the end of South America and back north, which took five months, or go thousands of miles across the entire continent of North America and face hostile American Indians, deserts, and diseases. You might sail to Panama, travel across the Isthmus, and hope you could book passage on a ship on the other side, but that was the least-popular option since most people feared tropical diseases.

Gold seekers didn’t just come from the eastern United States. The Gold Rush attracted people from all over the world—by 1850, nearly 25% percent of the California population were immigrants. Most were from China, but South America and Europe contributed many, too. Once the miners reached California, the biggest problem was figuring out where to look for gold. Panning for gold in rivers was a popular option for poorer prospectors because all you needed was a metal wash pan. You’d scoop up sand from a river bottom, shake it around a while to separate any gold flakes from the dirt, collect your findings, dump the trash, and start over again. Or you could build a sluice box, which let you shovel in dirt from anywhere and run water over it to wash away lighter dirt and sand, leaving the heavier gold at the bottom. You could also dig a mine and search for gold inside the mountains themselves.


At first, there was no organized system for staking claims and deciding who had the right to dig in a particular area. This led to a lot of violence. Not only did people kill each other over who had a right to look for gold in a specific area, but they quickly pushed away the native population from any place that might contain gold. By the end of the gold rush, between one-third and one-quarter of the American Indians in California had died from violence, starvation, or diseases brought by the newcomers. Eventually, organization prevailed, and people discarded the old ways of showing up, looking for gold, and then moving on. Mining cooperatives and corporations took over. In the end, although millions of dollars-worth of gold were taken from the ground in California, most of the individuals who got rich quick during the California Gold Rush were the merchants and businessmen selling supplies to the hopeful prospectors. ♦