The Gold Rush of 1849

Gold Miners During the California Gold Rush. Photographer Unknown.

On January 24, 1848, James Marshall and Johann Sutter made a discovery that would transform the territory of California and bring about pandemonium in American society. The specks of gold that they discovered, while they may have hoped to keep secret, were anything but a secret.

Within just a few months, one man, Sam Brannan, waved a sample of gold in the streets of San Francisco and shouted, “Gold! Gold! Gold from the American River!” Daniel Walker Howe, What Hath God Wrought: Transformation of America, 1815-1848, 814. Some soldiers deserted their units, some sailors left their ships, and San Francisco seemed to empty out as by mid-June, “three-quarters of the men in San Francisco had left for the gold country.” Id.

Word spread quickly, first around the Pacific Rim, with gold-seekers coming from Hawaii, Mexico, Chile, Peru, Australia, and China. See id. Those Americans on the East Coast thereafter learned about the gold discovery and many set out plans to go, with two options open to them. One could take a boat south and either attempt to go around Cape Horn at the bottom tip of South America or cross through Panama or Mexico, however, this was a risky option. Instead, most Americans chose the second option: to trek on land. The trip cost between $180 to $200 for each person, and approximately 70,000 took the trip from 1849 to 1850. See id. at 816.

California’s population experienced a growth and a diversification with the influx of so many gold-seekers. See id. at 818. Perhaps not surprisingly, the Native Americans were victimized from the start, as they were often coerced to work for others either paid a subsistence wage or working in virtual slavery. Id. at 818-19.

There was virtually no rule of law to control the population. As prostitution became widespread, so did gambling and construction of shantytowns throughout the area. Id. at 820-21. With violence and disorder being the norm, kangaroo courts emerged, without any real sense of justice being dispensed. See id.

The rush for gold represented a new aspect of democracy, where individuals could work for themselves and strike it rich. This independence appealed to many, who only knew working countless hours in grueling conditions for little pay. For many, disappointment was inevitable. For Marshall and Sutter, the two who purportedly first discovered gold, it proved to be more of a curse than a blessing, as they would be ruined later in life. See id. at 814.

Nonetheless, the rush brought about a mass migration westward to California, just as it was being admitted into statehood in 1850 as the 31st state. With that mass migration came new diversity, ideas, and hope for what the future would bring. While not everyone made a fortune from their hunt for gold, California, and America more generally, was becoming more diverse and more open. Slowly, the country was becoming the place that modern Americans would recognize, with a various types of people coming together and creating a larger marketplace of ideas.

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