During the California gold rush, thousands of people from all over the world came to the U.S. in search of gold. This event was one of the most important events in the history of California and the country. For America, it helped with the westward expansion of the nation which many believed was part of the country’s Manifest Destiny. For California it bought prosperity and eventually a place in the Union. In some instances, as with the native population, the onset of the gold rush was more negative than positive. To better understand the history of the U.S. it is important to understand the California Gold Rush and the effect that it had in history and the present day.
How it Started
In the Sacramento Valley, a Swiss Immigrant by the name of John Sutter built what is known as Sutter Fort. In his employ was a man named James Marshall. Marshall, who was to build a sawmill, discovered gold on the American River at Sutter’s property on January 4, 1848. Although the two attempted to keep the discovery quiet, word quickly spread and the gold rush began.
- The California Gold Rush
- California Natural Resources Agency CERES: The California Gold Rush
- The Virtual Museum of the City of San Francisco – The Discovery of Gold in California
- History Between the Pages – The Gold Rush
When news spread about the discovery of gold at Sutter’s Fort, people from across the nation headed westward, lured by the prospect of riches. Even people from other parts of the world such as China and France, made the journey to California’s shores in attempts of discovering gold. These people were referred to as 49ers with some referring to themselves as Argonauts. Free-men were also forty-niners as were slaves who worked to pay for their freedom. Primarily, the people who moved west to California to prospect for gold were men; however, in the rare case some women did accompany their husbands. This caused a sudden and drastic increase in the non-native population of California which went from roughly 1,000 to 100,000 by the end of that first year.
- The California Gold Rush: An Era Remembered
- History Channel: The Gold Rush of 1849
- Harvard University Library Open Collections Program – California Gold Rush (1848 – 1858)
- The Gold Rush – California Transformed (PDF)
The people who came to participate in the gold rush were often taken by surprise at the harshness of the conditions and the difficulties that they faced. Miners worked long hours, practically from sun up to sundown. There was often a lack of clean water and many fell ill to diseases and sickness including pneumonia and cholera. Gambling became a common pastime in boomtowns, and there was often violence and lawlessness. This, along with an inability to find gold, sent some of the miners back home empty handed, and found others committing suicide.
- Life of the Miner
- PBS: The Gold Rush American Experience
- KidPort Reference Library – The Gold Rush (1848 – 1859)
- The Gold Rush of North America Part III – California
Effect on the Native Population
Perhaps the greatest and most devastating impact of the gold rush effected California’s Native American population. Prior to the gold rush and the arrival of gold seekers from across the country and the world, California’s native population was an estimated 150,000 people. Within a relatively short period this number diminished drastically. Within a period of two years there were less than 60,000 Native Americans in California. This was largely due to mass murders by miners and militia groups who wanted their land and who felt the native population was standing in the way of progress. The people who came to prospect for gold also bought diseases that the native people had no resistance to. Forced relocations, and the side effects of mining caused starvation, which also contributed to the loss of Native American life.
- The California Gold Rush – The Impact of the Gold Rush
- Princeton University – California Gold Rush
- Gold Rush Days of ’49
Long Term Affect
The gold rush largely came to an end by the year 1852 when surface gold was no longer available; however, it left the country forever changed. Because of the many cultures that traveled to California in search of gold and riches, the state is now one of the most ethnically and culturally diverse in the nation. It is even courtesy of the gold rush that California had enough people to become a state, which it did in 1850. The environment was also altered as a result of mining and techniques that were employed. Because of the large numbers of people who moved from the east to the west, it also played a part in the building of transcontinental railroads.