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The California Gold Rush

On January 24, 1848, James Wilson Marshall was inspecting work on a sawmill being built for John Sutter on the American River near the present town of Coloma when he saw gold flakes on the ground. He spent several minutes picking up all the flakes he could find and then went about his business as if nothing was out of the ordinary. The next morning, Marshall scooped up another three ounces of flakes and, after confirming to himself that he had indeed found gold, immediately made his way to Sutter's home. The two men cleaned off the flakes, weighed them, and, using every test they could think of, determined that they were 23-carat gold.

James Wilson Marshall
James W. Marshall

John Sutter
John Sutter

Sutter initially tried to keep Marshall's discovery a secret, but word eventually got out.

When news of the find first reached San Francisco, it was met with disbelief. It wasn't until entrepreneur Sam Brannan marched through town with a vial of gold as proof that people began taking the discovery seriously. By mid-June, most of the male population of San Francisco had abandoned their homes and jobs in favor of seeking gold, and Brannan had sold $36,000 worth of supplies to wanna-be miners. Military Governor Colonel Richard B. Mason toured the gold fields and sent a report detailing amazing finds, along with a tin of gold, to Washington, but that report would not be read for several months.

From San Francisco, word of the gold find spread throughout the rest of California, and then up and down the west coast, across the Pacific, and into South America. By the fall of 1848, thousands of people from the Sandwich Islands (Hawaii), Oregon, Mexico, Chile, Peru and China had joined the Californians in the gold fields.

East Coast newspapers first published accounts of gold in California in mid-summer 1848, but skeptical editors tended to downplay the stories. It wasn't until President James Polk read Mason's report as part of his December 5, 1848 State of the Union Address that Easterners became believers. Suddenly thousands of Easterners (mostly men) were borrowing money, mortgaging land, and/or using their life savings to make their way to California in hopes of striking it rich.

By the spring of 1849, the non-native population of California had grown to almost 100,000 people, the vast majority of whom were looking for gold. Some panned for gold along streams and creeks, a back-breaking and time-consuming process that more often than not resulted in just enough gold to keep the 49er's hopes alive but not enough to make him rich. Those who could afford it, however, preferred to stake out a larger claim and invest in sluices and screens. While still a labor-intensive process, this method tended to be more profitable, and many of these miners actually made a very good living; some even actually got rich. By the end of 1849, about $10 million worth of gold had been recovered from California fields. Another $41 million was recovered in 1850, and that amount had grown to $81 million by 1852.

panning for gold
a 49er panning for gold

Easterners working a gold field
Easterners, still in their city dress, try their luck in a gold field

The surface gold ran out rather quickly, and by the mid-1850's most of California's gold was being mined by companies with the resources to literally dig for it and many of the 49ers had become employees of those companies rather than individual prospectors. By 1857, the annual gold recovery in California had levelled off at about $45 million.

The discovery of silver in Nevada in 1859 brought an end to the California Gold Rush. By the time it ended, both San Francisco and Sacramento had grown into major cities, while dozens of other towns had sprouted up around the gold fields, prospered briefly, and then become ghost towns. While some 49ers actually got rich, the vast majority of them never realized their dreams. Most who had made the trip chose to stay, however, and the unique blend of populations that California is known for today can be directly traced to the Gold Rush years.

Ironically, neither James Marshall nor John Sutter ever prospered from the Gold Rush. Although Sutter did sell supplies to miners, the losses he incurred as a result of his lands being overrun by prospectors were never offset by the profits he gained as a merchant. Marshall was never able to stake a claim following his initial discovery and spent most of the gold rush years wandering aimlessly from one gold field to another. He died penniless and alone in a shack not far from the site of the find that had started the rush.


American Experience: The Gold Rush
Historic Highway 49

See Also

San Francisco

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This page was last updated on January 24, 2019.