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The Gold Rush Era of California

Updated on December 13, 2010

California had a non Indian population of under fifteen thousand when the Mexican War ended in 1848. By the 1840's ten times as many Americans emigrated to Oregon and California. But in January of 1848, gold was discovered in the foot hills of the Sierra Nevada Mountains, at a Saw hill owned by Swiss immigrant Jonn A. Sutter.The gold rush began at Sutters Mill here, near Coloma, in January 1848, by James W. Marshall. He was a foreman who was working for Sacramento pioneer John A Sutter, whom found shiny metal in the tail race of a lumber mill. Marshall brought what he found to John Sutter, and the two privately had tested the metal, which tested positive for gold. At that time, Sutter wanted to keep the news quiet, because he feared what would happen to his plans for an agricultural empire if there were a mass search for gold. But rumors soon started to spread and were confirmed in March of 1848 by San Francisco's newspaper publisher and merchant Samuel Brannan.

At the time gold was discovered, California was part of the Mexican territory of Alta California, which was ceded to the United Stated after the end of the Mexican-American War with the signing of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo in February of 1848. In August of 1848, the NY Herald was the first major newspaper on the East Coast to report the discovery of gold at the time. By December 1848, President James Polk confirmed the discovery of gold in an address to Congress. Soon, the waves of immigrants from around the world, later called the "forty-niners", invaded the Gold country of California or "Mother Lode". As John Sutter had feared, he was ruined, his workers left in search of gold and squatters took over his land and stole his crops and cattle.

When gold was discovered at Sutter's Mill, it was still technically part of Mexico, as a result of the Mexican-American War of 1848. California didn't become a state until 1850, and there was no civil legislature, executive body or for the entire region. Residents of California back then operated under a confusing and changing mix of Mexican rules, American principles, and personal dictates then. The first people to rush to the gold fields in the spring of 1848, was the residents of California themselves. The miners tended to be families in which everyone helped in the effort. Word of the Gold Rush had spread slowly at first, and then larger groups. The larger groups of Americans to arrive were that of several thousand Oregonions who came down the Siskiyou Trail. there were gold seeker of all sorts too, by 1849. Mexicans, chinese, Britons, Austrialians, French, Latin Americans, to Turks, Filipinos, to Basques. People from small villages in the hills near Genova, Italy, were among to settle in the Sierra foothills. Some notable number of immigrants were that of China, to several hundred of Chinese by 1849 to 1850. There was many women in the Gold Rush. Various roles included, prostitutes, single entrepreneurs, married women, poor and wealthy women. Some came varied, some with husbands, refusing to be left behind by their husbands to fend for themselves, some because their husbands sent for them. Others some because their husbands sent for them, and others like the singles or prostitutes, for the adventure or economic opportunity.

Experienced miners flooded in from Mexico and South America. Millions of Americans who had never seen a mine, had arrived from the East and from overseas, from Irish, Germany, Italians, and Australians. Twenty five thousand Chinese landed in 1849 to 1852, almost all young men. Most who had signed a long term labor contract with the Chinese merchants, which in turn leased these men to mining and railroad companies and other employers. San Francisco , a town then of a thousand in 1848, became the gateway to the El Dorado to Northern California. By 1850, it had thirty thousand residents and had become perhaps the world's most racially and ethnically diverse city . The law was very fragile in the Gold Rush California. From 1851 to 1856, Committees of vigilance took control of San Francisco , sweeping aside established courts to try and execute those accused of crimes.

When residents learned about the Gold Rush era, at at first became a ghost town of abandoned shipts and businesses whose owners joined the Gold Rush, but then boomed as merchants and new people arrived. A census of San Francisco back then called Yerba Buena in April 1847 had reported the town consisted of 79 buildings, including shanties, frames houses and adobes.By 1851, discovery of gold nuggets at Yreka brought thousands of gold seekers up the Siskiyou Trail and through out California's northern countries. Settlements of the Gold Rush era, such as Portuguese flat on the Sacramento River, sprang into existence and then faded. The Gold Rush town of Weaverville on the Trinity River today retains the oldest continuously used Taoist temple in California, a legacy in Chinese miners who came. The population of San Francisco exploded from perhaps 1,000 in 1848 to 25,00 residents by 1850. Quite a rise in two years time. A sudden massive influx into a remote area overwhelmed the state. Miners lived in tents, wood shanties, or deck cabins, which was removed by abandoned ships. Wherever gold was discovered, hundreds of miners would collaborate to put up a camp and stake their claims. Names like Rough and Ready, and Hangtown, each camp often had it's own saloon and gambling house.

There was no easy way to get to California during the Gold Rush era. Forty niners faced hardship and often death on the way. At first, most Argonauts, as they were also known, traveled by sea. An alternative way was to sail to the Atlantic side of the Isthmus of Panama, and then to take canoes, and then travel with mules for about a week through the jungles. They would have to wait on the Pacific side for a ship to San Francisco. Quite a haul for such travelers during the Gold Rush discovery. Most gold seekers took the overland route across the continental United States, along the California trail. Most of all these routes were in its own way deadly hazard, from shipwreck, to thyroid fever and cholera. Ships bearing goods from the around the world came to San Francisco, ships captains found that their crews deserted to go to the gold fields. The wharves and docks of San Francisco became a forest of masts, as hundreds of ships were abandoned. Enterprising San Francisco turned the abandoned ships into warehouses, stores, taverns, hotels and even a jail too. Later on, these ships were destroyed and used for landfill to create build able land in the boomtown. On the trail, many people had died from accidents, fever, Cholera and myriad other causes. Many women became widows before even setting eyes on California. While in California, women were widows quite frequently due to mining accidents, disease, or mining disputes of their husbands. Life in the gold field offered opportunities for women to break from their traditional work.

S. Shufelt was once of gold seekers. All that is known of Shufelt is contained in a letter he wrote from the gold field to his cousin in March of 1850. Nobody knows if he struck it rich or whether he ever returned to his wife and home. Nothing or no one knows his first name, as its never mentioned by the records. In May of 1849 Mr. Shufelt had boarded the steamer Panama in New York City along with two hundred other fellow fortune hunters risking all on a gamble to California. He left behind his wife and child in Windham, New York, near the Catskills. Mr. Shufelt's letter was discovered in a auction in 1924, and is now part of a collection at the library of Congress.

Some other famous Gold Rush seekers came to California as a complete unknown and took a job writing for the San Francisco Call. His name, Samuel Clemens, or as many are known to him is Mark Twain. Other seekers were the King of wheeling, dealing entrepreneur, Sam Brannan. The man who pulled the trigger on the influence, and earning unheard of profits. Brannan was only the first in a long line of entrepreneurs who made their fortunes with digging for gold. According to legend, in 1853, Levi Strauss stitched a pair of pants out of canvas, sturdy pants that later became popular with miners. But during the gold rush, Strauss was best known for his prosperous dry good business. By 1872, he added a critical innovation to canvas pants, the metal rivet the break through that would change the course of American fashion.

Philip Armour was another gold rush seeker , a New York butcher, whom had decided one day to walk to California. Eventually he opened a meat market in Placerville and later took his profits to Milwaukee where he had set up a meat processing plant. The famous The Armour meat packing company became one of the nation's largest. After saving every dime for years, Mr. Armour left California for his profits into the family wagon. Making business, the man was John Studebaker and the family enterprise would go on to build covered wagons for the Oregon bound pioneers and later automobiles.

About on average, half the gold seekers made a modest profit, after all their expenses were taken into account. Most, arriving later, made little or wound up losing money. By 1855, the economic climate had changed dramatically. Gold could be retrieved profitably from the goldfields only by medium to large groups of workers, either by partnerships or as employees. In the 1850's it was the owners of these gold mining companies who made the money. Much of the gold was used locally to purchase food, supplies and lodging for the miners. It went for entertainment, which consisted of anything from a traveling theater to alcohol, gambling and prostitutes.


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    • profile image


      6 years ago

      who made sturdy pants for the miners?

    • Gypsy1witch profile imageAUTHOR

      Christine Marie 

      6 years ago from Milton, NY

      i was unable to find a map of how they had travelled. I do know that they did in fact travel either by boat, or horses and so forth to get to California. Many just walked miles and miles, to using stage coaches, and such back then.

    • profile image


      7 years ago


    • Gypsy1witch profile imageAUTHOR

      Christine Marie 

      7 years ago from Milton, NY

      thanks Rhonda!!

    • Rhonda Waits profile image

      Rhonda Musch 

      7 years ago from The Emerald Coast

      Voted up. Great hub.


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