The Gold Rush!
How it Started
John Sutter was a Swiss emigrant who arrived in California in 1839. He became a Mexican
citizen and received a land grant of 50,000 acres in Sacramento Valley.
He built Sutter's Fort at the site of present day Sacramento. At Sutter's Fort he developed farming
and other businesses. Sutter's Fort became a rest station for travelers and immigrants to
In 1847 John Sutter hired James Marshall to build a sawmill at a site named Coloma.
On January 4, 1848, James Marshall picked up a piece of metal at the mill that looked like gold.
He took the metal to Sutter. They tested it and confirmed that it was gold.
Sutter was afraid that the discovery of gold would take his workers away from the fields. He was
also concerned that gold would bring prospectors onto his land. He asked Marshall and the others
working at the mill to keep the gold a secret.
But word got out! By late 1848, word had spread across the country. On December 5, 1848,
President James Polk speaking to Congress confirmed accounts of gold. The discovery of gold in
California became national news.
The Rush for Gold
By 1849 the gold rush was on. People from all over the United States and the World were
rushing to California. People caught "Gold Fever" in the hope of striking it rich. Many gold
seekers arrived expecting to find rivers overflowing with gold. Unfortunately, most found
riverbanks crowded with miners.
Most prospectors were previously storekeepers, cooks, carpenters, teachers, farmers or some
other trade before heading to California in search of gold. By 1850, the mining country had
become quite populated. Many of the immigrants ended up started businesses, trading posts,
importing goods to sell to miners, farming and ranching. They took advantage of the skills they
brought with them.
In the mid-1850s gold was becoming very difficult to find. More people were making fortunes
from selling supplies to miners, than the miners themselves.
When silver was discovered in Nevada in 1859, the miners headed for Nevada. This ended the
California Gold Rush.
The Overland Trail To California by Wagon
Many people came to California by covered wagon. This was a long, difficult journey.
Travelers needed to travel across difficult land. They needed to cross the desert and climb the
mountains with their wagons, mules and oxen.
It was very important that the travelers left early enough so not to get caught in the Sierra
Mountains during the winter.
Coming by land with covered wagons had its advantages. Travelers could pack a lot more gear.
They would pack a cooking stove, plates and cups, and forks and knives. They would carry
enough food and supplies for a 6 month journey. Food was usually bacon, ham, rice, dried fruits,
bread, flour, sugar, rice, molasses, butter, coffee and tea.
Overland travelers would take tools for mining, farming, and fixing the wagon. They also took
guns and ammunition, and clothes and blankets.
All of this had to be carried in a wagon about 9 feet long and 4 feet wide.
Some travelers also brought cattle and chickens to provide food.
This was a difficult route. People were often poorly prepared. Many people died during the trip
from illness, starvation and drowning.
Coming to California by Sea
There were two water main routes to California. A 17,000 mile route around the South America
and Cape Horn took 5 to 7 months. Travelers had to deal with fierce storms, and lots of sickness
due poor living conditions and limited fruit and vegetables causing scurvy.
The second route was by steamship via Panama. This route was much quicker, but very
expensive. These ships also had very crowded living quarters and lots of sickness.
At one time there were more than 500 ships in the San Francisco harbor. Most were abandoned,
and left to decay, by crews headed in search of gold.
Many people arriving by sea expected to find gold right off the boat. They didn't know that the
gold was 150 miles inland. They had spent all their money and were very tired and hungry upon
reaching San Francisco. Many were not prepared for this extra part of the journey.
Panning for Gold
In the early days gold was easy to find. All you needed was a knife, pick, shovel and a pan.
Gold nuggets could be pried from rocks. Dirt shoveled from creeks and rivers could be swirled
in a pan to find gold.
Gold is heavier than sand or gravel. Miners would swirl sediment from a river in a pan of water.
The sand and dirt would float in the water and could be poured off leaving heavy rocks, and
The Long Tom
Once the easy gold was found, more inventive ways were needed to get gold. The Long Tom
was an 8 to 20 foot rocker. Miners would shovel dirt into it, pour water over it, and rock it like a
cradle. Lighter dirt and gravel was washed away, leaving heavier gold.
Gold veins are often deep in high cliffs and remote areas of mountains. The gold can be found in
river beds or creeks in sediment worn away by water.
Rivers would wash the gold from rocks and other deposits and carry it downstream. The heavy
gold would sink to the bottom and could be found using pans.
Some miners decided that the riverbeds under flowing rivers had gold like the dried up creeks.
They built dams to redirect the water so they could mine the river bottom.
Life of a 49er
Searching for Gold
In the early days of 1848 and 1849, it was not uncommon for a miner to dig $2000 of gold a day.
But the average miner might have been lucky to find $10 per day.
As time went on the easy gold was all found. Although some made it rich, most of the others
were lucky if they made enough to eat. After 1852 most of the surface gold was mined, panning
for gold was no longer profitable.
Thousands of miners died on the journey or in the diggings. Many died from disease, or from
accidents such as drowning in a river.
Camping and Housing
Most miners lived in tents and cooked their food over an open fire. Meals were usually beans,
bacon or local game cooked over an open fire.
Most camps and mining towns were canvas tents or wooden buildings. Fires were very common.
Many camps and towns were completely destroyed by fire.
Heavy rain and snow during the winter months made for very difficult living and mining
conditions. Most miners spent the winter in San Francisco or some mining town.
Sickness and colds were common from sleeping on cold, damp ground. The food was not very
nutritious resulting in poor health. Scurvy was common from lack of fruits and vegetables.
Sanitation was poor and miners seldom bathed or washed their clothes.
Family and Friends
Most miners came by themselves, leaving their families at home. Many young miners suffered
from home sickness from being alone.
Many miners formed friendships and communities with other travelers. Card games, gambling
and betting were common ways to pass the time.
Cost of Living
The success of finding gold drove up prices for everything. While the average worker might
make $6 to $10 per day, food and supplies could cost much more.
Many people spent 6 months earnings, or more, getting to California. When they arrived, they
could not afford basics.
Before and After the Gold Rush
Before the gold rush, California was largely populated by missionaries and Native Americans.
The total population of California was about 2000 non-natives. By late 1849 there were about
15,000 people, and in 1850 about 20,000 people. In 1850 California became a state. By 1853
there were over 300,000 people living in California.
The gold rush brought economic prosperity to California. Farms, ranches, stores, restaurants and
other businesses that grew to serve the miners continued to take advantage of California's rich
agriculture and thriving industry and commerce. In 1859 the discovery of silver in Nevada
marked the end of the gold rush.
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