The California Gold Rush


During the late 1840’s and early 1850’s a source of easily accessible gold was discovered in California. The people who came to collect gold, now known as 49ers (since they came to California in 1849), had many difficulties and hardships throughout their quest for gold. Despite all of the downsides of going to California people came in extremely large numbers, by any means necessary. The idea of becoming rich overrode their common sense.

Discovery of Gold

Before the discovery of gold in California in 1848, California was a very different place than it was a few years later. Firstly, California wasn’t even a U.S. state until the second of February of 1848, a few weeks after the discovery of gold. When California was acquired after the signing of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, the discovery of gold was not yet known to the signers. At that time California and the surrounding areas were very sparsely populated territories of Mexico.

In 1839 a broke Swiss shopkeeper named John Sutter came to what is now San Francisco in California. He left his wife and his five children in Switzerland to avoid paying his many debts. John Sutter had hopes of creating his own private empire. In 1847 John Sutter sent James Marshall with 20 men to build a sawmill about 50 miles from his fort. On January 24th, 1848, when the sawmill was almost complete, James Marshall saw something shiny out of the corner of his eye. He said, “I reached my hand down and picked it up; it made my heart thump, for I was certain it was gold. The piece was about half the size and shape of a pea. Then I saw another.”[1] He was sure that it was gold. That day Marshall and his men kept finding more and more gold. James Marshall brought samples of gold back to James Sutter’s Fort. Together Marshall and Sutter tested the gold and came to the conclusion that it was indeed pure gold. Neither Sutter nor Marshall viewed this as good news because they believed that news of gold would draw people away from their fort and nearby area. This was a problem because people would be drawn away from the area by the gold and wouldn’t want to join their ‘empire’, which was mainly for agriculture. They promised each other to keep this information a secret. Just like most secrets, people in the surrounding area found out this rumor. Luckily for Sutter people didn’t believe the stories about gold at first.

A San Franciscan newspaper business owner named Sam Brannan came up with a brilliant plan to make money. He would run through the streets of San Francisco shouting about the discovery of gold, and to prove it he showed a bottle of gold dust that he obtained near Sutter’s sawmill. The way that he made money was that he bought all of the tools in the city necessary to gather gold (shovels, axes, pans, buckets etc.) and sold them at extremely high prices in his own mining shop. By May of 1948, most of San Francisco’s males had left to mine for gold. Soon, the news of gold reached the Army troops stationed in California. Within a year and a half, most of the soldiers there went to mine for gold. For the years to follow it would be nearly impossible to maintain a proper Army in California. The commander of the US Pacific Squadron wrote to the secretary of the navy in Washington, “For the present… and for the years to come, it would be impossible for the United States to maintain any naval or military establishments in California… for they [the enlisted men] would immediately desert.” [2]

Journey to California

One of the largest public announcements of gold was made by President James Polk. He talked mainly of the abundance of gold and the ease of acquiring it. By 1849 news of the gold was everywhere. People were putting there lives and families aside and leaving for California. Many people who had seen the excavation sites thought that there would be gold in California for another 1000 years, but people still hurried to California as quickly as they could for