Manifest Destiny

29e. Gold in California

Gold miner
Library of Congress
The gold in California was free to anyone who found it, but most miners weren't as successful as James Marshall. While some made thousands of dollars, most found the tales of wealth to be exaggeration.

In January of 1848, a man named James Marshall innocently noticed a few shiny flecks in a California stream at Sutter's Mill. Word spread of gold and soon people from all over California flocked inland seeking instant fortune. By autumn, word had reached the east, and once again Americans earned their reputation as a migratory people. During the year that followed, over 80,000 "forty-niners" flocked to California to share in the glory. Some would actually strike it rich, but most would not.

Life in a mining town was not easy. Often the towns consisted of one main street. It is in these towns that the mythical "Old American West" was born. The social center of these new communities was the saloon. Here, miners might spend some of their meager earnings after a hard day's work. Gambling, drinking, and fighting were widespread, and justice was often determined by the hardest punch or the fastest draw. About 95% of the mining population was young and male. Female companionship was in high demand. Sometimes the saloon doubled as a brothel, and as many as 20% of the female population earned their living as prostitutes. Many other women were shopkeepers and businesswomen, and some were panning for gold side by side with the men.

Sutter's Mill
This photograph of Sutter's Mill was taken in 1852, four years after the discovery that began the gold rush.

If a nearby mine became exhausted or turned out to be a hoax, there was no reason for the town to exist. The abandoned ghost towns began to dot the region.

Although predominantly young and male, the population of California was very diverse. In addition to the white American settlers who comprised the majority of the mining populace, free African-Americans could also be found among their ranks. More numerous were Mexicans who were hoping to strike it rich. Word reached European shores and immigrants headed to America's west. German-Jewish immigrant Levi Strauss invented trousers for the miners — his blue jeans became an American mainstay. Another significant segment of the diversity was the Chinese, who hoped to find gold and return to their homeland. Over 45,000 immigrants swelled the population between 1849 and 1854. Diversity did not bring harmony. The white majority often attacked the Mexican and Chinese minorities. The miners ruthlessly forced the California Native Americans off their lands. Laws were passed to restrict new land claims to white Americans.

Territorial Expansion
Between 1800 and 1854, U.S. territory had grown from the original 13 colonies to the limits of today's continental United States.

The California Gold Rush soon peaked, and by the mid-1850s California life stabilized. But the pattern established there was repeated elsewhere — in Colorado, South Dakota, and Nevada, among others. As in California, ambition merged with opportunity and ruthlessness — ethnic and racial discrimination was part of the legacy of the American West.

On the Web
California as I Saw It
The Library of Congress has a collection of 190 eyewitness accounts and illustrations of California's early years online at this website. Search by keyword, subject, or author to go right to the documents, or click on the link to "Early California History: An Overview" which reveals an illustrated list of several short essays.
California's Untold Stories: Gold Rush
The Oakland Museum of California has created a virtual monument to the California Gold Rush. For those impressed with technology, there are QuickTime videos of many exhibits, audio files on many pages, and high-quality images of art in the Museum's collections. But there is substance here, too, in the dozens of articles about California history and the people who made it.
Gold Rush Sesquicentennial
This extensive website was prepared by the Sacramento Bee newspaper in honor of the 150th anniversary of the California Gold Rush. Dozens of detailed articles prepared by Bee journalists are available.
James Wilson Marshall (1810-1885)
This biography of James Marshall who changed the character of the American West when he discovered gold in California, includes his photograph taken at Sutter's Mill.
Thomas O. Larkin's Letters
Thomas Larkin had served as the American Consul to the Mexican government until the United States acquired California in the Mexican-American War. On June 1, 1848, he reported the discovery of gold to Secretary of State James Buchanan.
The California Gold Country: Highway 49 Revisited
Gold rush towns sprung up in California like weeds in the years following 1849. This site includes a clickable map of what became known as "Highway 49." Each town has information on its history and some tips for the intrepid traveler looking to re-live the rush.
In five years the population of San Francisco rose from 800 to over 50,000.
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When I heard this, I thought something had touched Marshall's brain, when suddenly all my misgivings were put at an end to by his flinging on the table a handful of scales of pure virgin gold. -Captain Sutter, owner of Sutter's Mill.
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