A Historical Account of the California Gold Rush

A Historical Account of the California Gold Rush

A Historical Account of the California Gold Rush

Few events in history have caused the kind of frenzy observed in the California Gold Rush. For many, the promise of quick wealth was too much temptation to resist. Once the news reached major cities, the number of fortune-seekers grew rapidly. Some did find wealth in the California hills, but many others found disappointment as the gold dust continued to prove elusive. The massive influx of people and environmentally damaging mining methods left a lasting impression on the state.

Discovery at Sutter's Mill

Small traces of gold had been found in California prior to the 1840s, but it was James W. Marshall's January 1848 discovery that kicked off the Gold Rush. While working around the site of John Sutter's new sawmill, Marshall discovered unfamiliar flecks of rock among some white quartz. Marshall didn't know what raw gold looked like, but he did know that gold was sometimes found buried within quartz. From those few humble specks, Marshall later found larger pieces, including one early piece worth 50 cents at the time (more than $15 in today's money). Soon he and his men found more, and word of his discovery spread. Over the next few years, men flocked to the area from miles around, and by early 1849, the non-native population of San Francisco had swelled from 1,000 to more than 26,000.

Effects of the California Gold Rush: Gold Fever

At first, news of the discovery spread by word of mouth, but soon, the big story hit the newspapers. Local papers carried the story right away, and by August 1848, the New York Herald had published a piece. Some doubted the lofty claims in the papers, but the fear of missing out on riches was overpowering. The flood of men, work animals, and equipment into the area surrounding San Francisco has been called the greatest mass migration in Western history. New businesses sprang up in California as people left their hometowns (sometimes selling all of their belongings and mortgaging their houses) and set out for California. Of course, not everyone set out to make money by finding gold. Some took advantage by advertising scam products in their local newspapers, like the "Goldometer," a dowsing rod that promised to find gold.

The 49ers Come to California

In the 19th century, the trip to California was not an easy one. Many travelers fell ill or died on their way west and never found the riches they sought. Many of these victims were from large cities and set out west in desperation to find a better life. They were unaccustomed to the harsh conditions, however, and many died along the trails that led west. Nonetheless, California's non-native population skyrocketed past 100,000 on its way to over 300,000 by the time of the first federal census in 1860.

The California Gold Rush was a time of rags to riches for some, but most found the going hard and fruitless. The random nature of finding gold in the hills could sustain one man abundantly and leave another with nothing. Due to price gouging at the time, it's been said that the only sure way to get rich during the gold rush was to supply miners with pans and camping supplies.

California's Mines After the Gold Rush

As soon as 1850, the massive influx of miners had taken its toll. The easier to find (and easier to reach) veins had been depleted, and each new find took more time and more effort. Soon, hand-panning for gold was all but obsolete. In its place stood hydraulic extraction, which allowed companies to blast through more rock to find the elusive gold. These changes put the individual miner at a nearly insurmountable disadvantage as hydraulic mining dominated. The new technology ushered in ever-greater profits, with gold valued in the tens of millions of dollars being extracted each year. By 1857, though, even water cannons failed to produce as many gold nuggets as they had previously. Not long after, the gold rush slowed considerably. New miners continued to boost California's population, however, as each one arrived convinced that they could still strike it rich. Others left California in search of richer veins, such as those found in New Mexico's gold rush.

Environmental Impact of the Gold Rush

Hydraulic mining methods and explosive population growth took their toll on California's environment. Hundreds of thousands of new residents, fueled by greed and desperation, trampled across the state. Hydraulic miners dammed rivers and siphoned millions of gallons of water. Blasting from water cannons led to clogged waterways and heavily modified ecosystems. Miners logged timber to build homes, businesses, and dams, with little care for sustaining the environment. Among other methods, miners used mercury to extract gold from quartz and other minerals. This poisonous element persists in the surrounding environment, leading to unsafe levels of mercury in local fish.

Lesson Plans and Study Guides on Westward Expansion

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