Looking Back at the California Gold Rush

"Thar's gold in them thar hills!"

Looking Back at the California Gold Rush

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Gold rushes have shaped human history all over the world. Some of the world’s biggest cities originally flourished as gold rush towns. San Francisco was one of them. In America, the California Gold Rush took place in 1849 until around the end of the 1850s and saw around 300,000 people migrate to California from all over the United States. Some people even came from abroad to get rich quick from Californian gold.

However, the gold rush saw tensions between incomers and Californian Native Americans escalate, contributing to the California Genocide of indigenous people. Life as a miner was hard and lonely, even with the rapidly growing communities that built up because of the influx of people.

As a result, Californian culture and landscape changed forever. The mining techniques developed during the gold rush have scarred the landscape, and ghost towns sit empty, offering a window to tourists of a time long gone. Most of the large cities in Northern California were populated because of the gold mines, as people who made it rich stayed and settled in the state.

Discovery of Gold

The initial discovery of gold in California happened in March 1842. A man called Francisco Lopez dug up some onions at the bank of a river creek and found a golden nugget in the bulbs. After looking further, he found more, took it to the local authorities, who confirmed it was gold and estimated the value.

The discovery attracted little attention across America, and life went on. California was still loosely under Mexican control. But Lopez and other local people started looking for gold deposits elsewhere. They looked in streambeds and found several in the north-eastern section of the forest. Later, in 1843, Lopez found more gold in San Feliciano Canyon. Other gold was found by Mission Native Americans and was kept quiet by the friars, as they didn’t want a gold rush to start.

America went to war with Mexico over California in 1846. In 1847, James W. Marshall found gold in the tailrace of a water wheel, as he constructed a mill for Sacramento pioneer John Sutter. He brought the metal to Sutter, and they tested it, confirming it as gold. Sutter wanted to keep it a secret as he didn’t want a sudden influx of people to the area, as he intended to use it for agricultural purposes.

At the beginning of 1848, the United States beat Mexico in their two-year war and they declared California a state of America. Around the same time, Sutter sent one of his workers, Charles Bennett, to Monterey to get U.S. officials to sign over the mineral rights to the land. Bennett had firm instructions to keep the gold discovery top secret, but on his way to San Francisco he ended up telling several people, even telling the officials in Monterey.

Samuel Brannan, a San Francisco newspaper merchant, confirmed the discovery in his paper and quickly set up a gold prospecting supply store. He marched down the streets of the city shouting holding a vial of gold and shouting about the find. In August 1848, the New York Herald picked it up, and by December, President James K. Polk addressed Congress and affirmed the gold discovery.

People of America rippled with excitement. The gold rush had begun!

Beginning of The California Gold Rush

California residents were the first to mine gold. San Francisco had been a small settlement prior to the gold rush and when it was first discovered, it quickly became a ghost town as everyone packed up shop to be nearer to the gold deposits. Once the California gold rush was in full swing, it quickly filled back up and became a flourishing metropolitan centre.

Word spread of the high amounts of gold people were finding. A report written by Colonel Richard B. Mason declared two miners had found $17,000 worth of gold in just seven deals, and sales at Sam Brannan’s gold prospecting supplies store hit $36,000 across three months. More people flooded California, and by 1849 there were around 100,000 additional people in the state all looking for gold and to make money.

Life as a Gold Miner in California

Frenzied men (and some women) came from all over the United States to find their riches in California. The gold mining migrants were referred to locally as ‘forty niners’, named for the year they all started rushing into the state. A supply chain was quickly set up. The new miners needed places to sleep, eat, and socialize, so towns were quickly knocked up. Then they needed to build farms in order to grow crops to supply the towns with food.

At first, there was poor housing and sanitation. Mining camps were dangerous and had high crime levels. There was no law enforcement patrolling these brand-new camps, so vigilante justice took hold. Settlements in California, like San Francisco, skyrocketed in population and density.

Life as a forty niner was lonely. Their days comprised of mining, as fortune was always just around the corner. At night there were gambling dens and alcohol to while away the time.

It wasn’t just people in the United States who dreamed of riches, people from as far as China came over to California for their own chance to get lucky. Racial attacks were common for foreigners, as everyone was a threat or competition to the limited gold supplies on the ground.

Effect on Native Californians

Not everyone benefitted from the sudden influx of people in California. Native tribes who had called California home for thousands of years were suddenly dealing with thousands of new people encroaching on their tribal space for land to build towns and farms to supply food. Miners also considered the indigenous people as threats and competitors for the gold.

Native life depended on a traditional hunter-gatherer society, which was all thrown into chaos with the miners. Suddenly, new towns were being constructed, they took land for farming crops and animals, and the Native Americans were competing with the surge in population for all their food sources.

Conflict rose between the Native Californian’s and the new miners. One report claimed miners would sometimes kill up to 50 Natives in a day. In 1850, a new legislation was enforced, called the Act for Government and Protection of Indians, allowing miners to take Natives captive and use them for labor. The law specifically targeted Native Americans, and was in response to a worker shortage being caused by the gold rush. It was also called the Indian Indenture Act.

Native Californian populations were decimated during the California Gold Rush, the settlers captured and forced into labor up to 27,000 indigenous people. It’s estimated that between 9,492 and 16,094 Native Californians were killed because of the gold rush. Others were enslaved, kidnapped, or raped. State officials blatantly encouraged these acts and considered the Californian genocide an act of God.

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Methods of Getting to California

The state was hard to reach by land, and back then there were no countrywide railway lines, so most people came via wagon trains along the California Trail, a travel route of up to 1,600 miles. Others used sailing routes along inland rivers. As the route grew in popularity, steamships loaded passengers and transport them by going round to the bottom of South America and back up to California, which could take from four to five months as they travelled 21,000 miles. Others took a shortcut through the Isthmus of Panama and used canoes and mules to battle the jungle before waiting for ships sailing to San Francisco

Hawaiian newspapers caused people in New Zealand to get word, and people soon started arriving via steamships from all over Asia, Australia, and New Zealand. Europeans soon made the trip too, and in 1849 alone it’s estimated up to 90,000 people made the journey through sea or land to get to the gold mountains.

Each method of travel was hazardous and dangerous. Travelers caught diseases like typhoid fever and cholera, and died, and when traveling by sea, there was a constant risk of shipwrecks.

The Gold Rush Boom

From 1849 to 1855, California flourished under the gold rush boom. Mining camps sprouted up all over the foothills of the Sierra mountains. But as soon as the gold deposits were dry, everyone moved on. Some remained as supply and transportation centres. They knocked towns up, and some lasted only a few months, while others are still populated today.

Early gold prospectors could pan for gold through California’s rivers and streams thanks to centuries old deposits moved by tectonic plates. But as more people descended on the state, mining techniques developed. They built gold prospecting cradles to process more gravel and dirt at once. Miners started digging tunnels near streams up to 13 feet to reach richer gold veins. Others developed a method of diverting water from the river and then digging and panning for gold in the freshly exposed riverbed.

In 1853, hydraulic mining (using high pressure jets and hoses to direct powerful streams of water at the gravelly gold-filled riverbeds and bluffs) was developed. This resourceful technique has been replicated all over the world. They also created dredging technology to dredge the riverbeds and find the gold that had settled at the bottom.

Hard rock mining was also used. Miners dug or blasted areas of hard rock that contained gold to remove the gold veins. Once these veins were exposed, the rocks were crushed, and they separated the gold from the quartz.

All these mining technologies became primary methods used worldwide. The estimated amount of gold produced from California from the gold rush until now sits at around 3700 tonnes.

Decline of Gold in California

As the level of surface gold decreased, large mining companies sprouted up with the technology available to engage in hydraulic and hard rock mining that a single miner on his own simply couldn’t do. More men went to work for these massive companies, and by 1855, gold mining in California was no longer something an individual person did. People went and got jobs at the mining companies.

Gold mining was at its highest in 1852, and slowly the amount of gold declined gradually year on year. Fewer people travelled to California to try their luck with gold prospecting, although plenty of settlements remained. By the end of the 1850s, California’s population was 380,000.

Effect of the Gold Rush on the Environment

Hard rock and hydraulic mining techniques were devastating to the environment in California. Hydraulic mining caused mercury that was previously lying in the sediment to be exposed, and it continues to flow through the waterways of Northern California, affecting delicate ecosystems. Malakoff Diggins State Historic Park preserves the biggest site for hydraulic mining from the Gold Rush in California. Ravines and canyons of exposed rock were all created by hydraulic mining techniques. It’s estimated that mercury will continue to run in the water for at least 10,000 years.

There are thousands of abandoned mining camps and towns littering the landscape in Sierra Nevada, where people left once the gold boom was over. It’s estimated there are over 300 ghost gold rush towns in California, as prospectors moved on whenever the gold in the area dried up. Many towns are encapsulated in the several historic parks that now exist to preserve the history of the area.

What Remains of Famous Gold Rush Towns

Some gold rush towns continue to thrive today as settlement remained even after the gold in the rivers dried up. Many of the town’s main streets look the same and there are still buildings from the town’s original construction standing today. Sutter’s Creek is a favourite tourism spot, as that was where it all began. The town is the physical embodiment of the gold rush era. There are plenty of 19th-century buildings to look at.

Columbia, once known as the ‘gem of the Southern mines’, sits inside Columbia State Historic Park and has 30 buildings from the gold rush boom. It was a bustling town back in its heyday, and the area continues to thrive today. Tourists can experience what life was like for people living in the town during the gold rush boom, and everyone plays into the history of the town. Other towns, like Nevada City, continue to thrive too, with the population in 1880 sitting at 4,022 and only having decreased by 900 people in 2019 estimations.

Large cities in California, like San Francisco and Sacramento, grew in popularity primarily because of the gold rush that saw the influxes in population from 1849 to 1855. While other towns sit derelict in the foothills of the Sierra Mountains as remnants of the past.

The gold rush era defines the history of California. The miners, and mining companies, left a mark on the landscape that will remain for thousands of years.