What Was the California Gold Rush of 1849?
The California Gold Rush (1848–1855) began on January 24, 1848, when James Wilson Marshall discovered gold while constructing a water powered saw mill for John Sutter at Sutter’s Mill in Coloma, along the American River northeast of present-day Sacramento.
The discovery was reported in the San Francisco newspapers which brought some 300,000 people to California from other parts of the United States and rest of the world.
Whole indigenous societies were attacked and pushed off their lands by the gold-seekers, called “forty-niners” (referring to 1849). The first to hear confirmed information of the gold rush were the people in Oregon, the Sandwich Islands (Hawaii), and Latin America, and they were the first to start flocking to the state in late 1848.
Of the 300,000 people who came to America during the Gold Rush, approximately half arrived by sea and half came overland on the California Trail and the Gila River trail; forty-niners often faced substantial hardships on the trip. While most of the newly arrived were Americans, the gold rush attracted tens of thousands from Latin America, Europe, Australia, and China.
Agriculture and ranching expanded throughout the state to meet the needs of the settlers. San Francisco grew from a small settlement of about 200 residents in 1846 to a boomtown of about 36,000 by 1852.
Roads, churches, schools and other towns were built throughout California. In 1849 a state constitution was written. The new constitution was adopted by referendum vote, and the future state’s interim first governor and legislature were chosen. In September, 1850, California became a state.
At the beginning of the Gold Rush, there was no law regarding property rights in the goldfields and a system of “staking claims” was developed. Prospectors retrieved the gold from streams and riverbeds using simple techniques, such as panning. Although the mining caused environmental harm, more sophisticated methods of gold recovery were developed and later adopted around the world.
New methods of transportation developed as steamships came into regular service. By 1869 railroads were built across the country from California to the eastern United States. At its peak, technological advances reached a point where significant financing was required, increasing the proportion of gold companies to individual miners. Gold worth tens of billions of today’s dollars was recovered, which led to great wealth for a few, some people became rich but most did not.
The California Gold Rush ended in 1855. At that time many gold miners went back home because gold was harder to find. By the time the Gold Rush ended, California had gone from a thinly populated ex-Mexican territory, to the home state of the first presidential nominee for the new Republican Party, in 1856.