The California Gold Rush

The land known as California was claimed and colonized by Spain and was considered part
of New Spain, whose government was situated in Mexico. In 1823, when Mexico gained
its independence from Spain, California officially transferred allegiance to Mexico. Initially
Mexico tried to control the number of foreigners allowed to settle in California, but over the
years Mexican involvement was limited and the fate of the region was uncertain. Britain,
France, Russia, and Germany, as well as the United States, had an interest in the outcome.
By the mid-1840s parties of American immigrants began to arrive overland crossing the
Sierra Nevada Mountains. With this increase of American settlers the United States
government took a more active interest in California. On July 7, 1846, the U.S. flag was
raised over Monterey, and war between Mexico and the United States began. The Treaty
of Guadalupe Hidalgo was signed in February 1848, granting the land to the United States.

Rumors of gold had long existed among the indigenous people in California. As early as
1579 Sir Francis Drake's chaplain reported their stories, but they remained rumors. Then, in
1842, Francisco Lopez, a sheepherder, discovered gold in Santa Feliciana Canyon and set
off a small gold rush. Several hundred prospectors arrived to work in the canyon. Samples
were sent to the United States mint and Thomas O'Larkin sent a letter to Secretary of State
James Buchanan giving testimony of the discovery and its yield. However, the deposit was
played out before 1848 and the discovery didn't amount to much. A few days before the
signing of the Peace Treaty with Mexico, gold was again discovered in California. On
January 24, 1848, an American immigrant, James Marshall, discovered gold while building
a sawmill on the American River for John Sutter.

Marshall's discovery was initially met with more
skepticism than credulity. The newspapers made little of
the news and it wasn't until Sam Brannan, a respected
and successful San Francisco businessman, visited the
site and verified the discovery that the local population
responded. Brannan returned to San Francisco in
mid-May, and by June half the townspeople had left for
the gold fields. Within two months the coastal towns
were abandoned. Miners gathered quickly when a
"strike" was made and within days a camp existed. In order to insure law and order, a
meeting was called, officials appointed, and rules established and announced. Because there
were no courts, difficulties were settled through arbitration.

News of the discovery traveled south first, then to Hawaii, and from there to the Northwest
Coast. Skilled miners arrived from Sonora, and by fall two-thirds of Oregon's men had left
for California. News didn't reach the East Coast until later, and was not at first given much
credence. Though newspaper accounts and letters began arriving as early as August, it was
not until Polk's official recognition and presidential endorsement on December 5, 1848, that
gold fever began. The newspapers aided in whipping up enthusiasm with their constant
accounts of wealth, and an enormous exodus began. Business on the East Coast prospered
as the "forty-niners" outfitted themselves for the journey.

Three routes of travel were available to the gold seekers: by sea around Cape Horn, by sea
via the isthmus of Panama, and overland across the country. Those choosing the Cape Horn
route faced seven months and 17,000 miles at sea, and treacherous conditions rounding the
Horn. The Panamanian route was difficult because of the threat of cholera and typhoid on
the steamy jungle crossing, as well as the possibility of a long wait on the Pacific side due to
the scarcity of ships heading north. The overland travelers crossed nearly two thousand
miles of barren, undeveloped country. They faced the threat of hostile natives, bad weather,
and a shortage of water, food, and supplies. Their greatest dangers lay in crossing the
deserts.

Because the overland trails were not open until spring, the first gold-seekers to arrive in
California came by sea. Twenty thousand left the Atlantic Coast by sea before the overland
migration began. Forty ships arrived in San Francisco Bay in July of 1849. At the close of
the year, 150 American ships were anchored in the bay, as well as ships from almost every
nation in the world. In April