The California Gold Rush Impact on California

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At a saw-mill owned by Swiss immigrant General John A. Sutter, gold was discovered by James Marshall in January 1848.  Unsure of what he had found at first, Marshall conducted some rudimentary tests on the material, which included biting it and hitting it with a hammer (Historical Impact of the California Gold Rush).  When the appearance of the discovery did not change, Marshall confirmed it was gold and notified General Sutter.  Sutter swore all of his employees to secrecy because he sensed that the discovery would negatively impact his plans of building a saw-mill and bring squatters to his property.  The secret did get out, though, and news slowly spread throughout the region and eventually the world.  Beginning in 1849, hundreds of thousands would make their way to California in search of their piece of fortune within the foothills of the Sierra Nevada Mountains and on Sutter's land, just as he had feared.  Some would strike it rich, but most would not. 

The gold rush would forever impact the development and environment of California in both positive and negative ways.The first people that arrived in the gold fields came from California.  As the news spread around the region, inhabitants scrambled to the reach the mines first.  Newspapers in San Francisco, including the Californian and the California Star, were shut down when editors and typesetters left for the land of gold (Bieber, 10).  San Francisco emptied out as people of all classes caught gold fever and headed for the diggings.  School teachers, mechanics, physicians, lawyers, tailors, clergyman, laborers, merchants, teamsters, cooks, gamblers, women and children, old men, and merchant vessel crews that came into harbor: all heeded the pull of possible wealth.  It is estimated that by the latter part of June 1848, the population of San Francisco had fallen to well under a hundred people (Bieber, 10).This mania caused similar scenes of towns emptying of residents in Sonoma, Benica, San Jose, Santa Cruz, and Monterey.  The southern California towns of Santa Barbara, Los Angeles, and San Diego were also affected.  The whole region was left in a like manner.  Ranches were either deserted or left with women attendants; wheat remained unharvested; mills stood idle; buildings were left partially finished; and cattle and horses roamed at will in uncut fields of grain (Bieber, 11).  The whole territory had succumbed to gold mania.

 Migrants and immigrants came to California to stake their claims once the news spread to the East.  They came from within America as gold mania penetrated into every part of the country and among all classes of the population from the Atlantic seaboard to the Mississippi Valley (Bieber, 22). They came from around the world: China, France, England, Mexico, Ireland, Germany, Chile, and other countries (Clay and Jones, 1005).   There were several different routes that could be taken to reach the gold fields of California.  A traveler could book passage on a ship and sail around Cape Horn and up to the western coastline.  Or a traveler could sail to Panama, cross the jungle on a horse or mule, then catch a boat to California.  Most travelers chose to come by the overland trail that cut across the American nation and through the Sierra Mountains and down into the territory.  Whatever method a traveler decided to take, the destination was the same for all: the gold rich territory of California.

This massive migration to seek gold produced a radical culture transformation in California.  What had been a sparsely populated area - consisting of trappers, Native Americans, and Mexicans – became a culturally diverse land.  The people that came from around the world in search of wealth brought with them their own beliefs, languages, cultures, foods, clothing, and entertainment.  The area's way of life that had existed was forever changed.

It was determined that the gold to be mined existed in a 100 mile long, 20 mile wide area.  This area was inundated with those who wanted to find their fortune.  Mining practices started out in the traditional way.  When those who were interested in mining arrived in California, they came with three tools to aid them: a pick, a shovel or spade, and a pan (Turrill).  The pan was made of sheet iron with a diameter of twelve inches and six inch high sides.  It was the simplest device used to separate gold from the soil in which it was found.  As time went on, more efficient methods of gold extraction were developed and the pan phased out of general mining use and was used for the purposes of prospecting instead.

As the miners and their families came to California, new settlements were being established especially in the Mother Lode district of Amador and Calaveras counties (Raup, 654).  This led to boomtowns popping up throughout the state.  Rapid economic growth and prosperity, along with the building of churches, railroads, and banks to accommodate all of the newcomers to the area were necessities of these boomtowns.  It seemed like overnight that the area was transformed from a sparsely populated region to a territory. This amazing increase in population allowed California to become the 31st state in 1850, only a few years after it was ceded from Mexico, and thus allowed for further western expansion in the United States.

The influx of this amount of people in such a short time frame, placed a huge toll on the food supply in California.  Outside suppliers were needed to keep up with the demands.  There were primary and secondary regions that started supplying food to the increased population.  These regions benefited greatly by their new task. 

The secondary sources of food supply included: Chile, China, Peru, Australia, New York, and Britain.  Australia provided wheat and flour; Chile and Peru sent potatoes, wheat, and flour; Texans and Utah residents drove cattle and hogs to the mines; the Eastern United States sent dried fish, liquor, and other processed products; and China supplied rice, fish, and tea (Dilsaver, 38). 

The Primary regions included the kingdom of Hawaii, the Oregon territory, and some areas of California itself.   These regions were closer so they were able to supply a greater proportion and a greater diversity of foodstuffs (Dilsaver, 38).  Hawaii supplied coffee, sugar, fruits, vegetables, and butter.  It remained the principle supplier of these foods until Oregon stepped in and took over due to the inconsistency of supply and demand that Hawaii suffered.  Oregon started supplying apples, vegetables, beef, potatoes and flour in 1851.  Within a few years, the California agricultural economy had risen enough to meet the needs of the people so the importing of foodstuffs from other areas decreased.

Some of those that came to California, tried their hand at farming and fruit growing instead of in the mines.  They found that California had a great environment for growing food and it was more beneficial to their bank accounts then mining.  Miners-turned farmers transformed the bottomlands along California's rivers by clearing and planting vegetables and barley.  They also constructed dairy farms to meet the needs of residents.  Fruit trees were planted and vast orchards were established which also turned a huge profit.  Many of these men turned quick profits and settled into the business of farming.  They grew fruits including: apples, oranges, peaches, plums, cherries, and figs.  Some of them grew vegetables, including: squash, corn, carrots, and potatoes.  Soon they had contracts with the mines and were growing and selling their produce for a hefty sum - more than they could have made in the gold fields mining.

Enterprising new comers from Europe, took advantage of the state's favorable climate and started satisfying the demands for wine among the settlements (Historical Impact of the California Gold Rush).  One of these immigrants, Agoston Haraszthy from Hungary, planted a dozen of varieties of grapes from Europe as well as new strains, and became known as the father of the California wine industry.  Miners may have liked their whiskey, but they had also developed a taste for wine.  Wine makers planted orchards and vineyards, and were soon making enough wine to not only supply residents, but to also export to other countries.  They found their wealth and enterprise in the green gold that California offered.

Merchants and traders saw their chance to get a piece of the wealth as well.  Shops were opened for commerce.  The port of San Francisco became more developed.  There was an increased need for lumber production, flour mills, clothing and textiles, and the leather industry.  All of these industries experienced significant growth. People who came to the state during the gold rush soon realized they could earn more money by providing goods and services to the miners then actually mining for gold. 

Some of today's most recognizable brands got their start in California during the gold rush era. Henry Wells and William Fargo saw their opportunity to provide financial services and created a bank, Wells Fargo & Co.  A German immigrant by the name of Levi Strauss saw the miner's need for sturdy clothing and created canvas pants that could withstand the punishing hours in the gold mines.  Even famed American author Mark Twain had come to California with his brother in search of gold, but found greater success as a newspaper reporter for the San Francisco Call.

The majority of people that came to California, though, came to mine gold.  It should be mentioned, that not all of them who came were independent entrepreneurs.  A large number of the African Americans, Chinese, and Mexicans that came to work in the mines came as slaves or unfree laborers giving the mines advantages.  The white Americans believed it was their right because of Manifest Destiny to expel foreigners from the gold diggings and to take over the mining areas.  This led to hostility and violence.  The minorities suffered, not only from this, but also from extra-legal forms of violence.  Foreign miners' tax measures of $20 a month were imposed by the state legislature in 1850, which put a financial hardship on them and caused about 10,000 Mexicans to leave the mining districts and return to their homeland.  This tax was later repealed in 1851, when American merchants who had lost customers complained.

The types of gold mines that could be found in California consisted of placer or quartz mines.  Placer mines were when the gold was imbedded in clay, sand, and gravel.  Areas of gold could be found in ravine gulches, shallow flats, sand bars in rivers, within hills and deep flats.  Quartz mines were when the gold was encased within rock.  Chemicals such as mercury were used to agglomerate the gold.  As the gold rush era moved forward, new methods to attain the precious metal were developed.

There were different operative classifications for working these mines.  Sluice claims were (just as the name infers) worked with sluices.  Tunnel claims were when auriferous earth (rocks containing gold) was taken out of tunnels and then washed.  Dry diggings were when earth was excavated in summer and then washed in the winter, when there was more water available to use.  Dry washing was when the fine soil was blown away, leaving the heavier gold behind.  Knife claims were when the miner dug the gold from crevices with a knife or sometimes a spoon.  Hydraulic claims were worked by hydraulic power.

In early 1852, the miners of the Sierra foothills were looking for another mode of obtaining gold quickly.  Many of them had made money by picking the gold from crevices with knives and spoons, but this could no longer be done.  The earth near the water had been mined over with pans or rocker boxes.  Sluice boxes had been used for the earth away from the water, but that mode of mining had ceased to make rich returns.  Miners also discovered that the very valuable gold deposits were to be found deeper than those which they could easily reach from tunnels and shafts.  A new method to extract the gold was developed in 1853 and changed California gold mining and the landscape forever.

In March 1853, Edward Matteson, a miner from Connecticut, and his partners fashioned a metal funnel to the end of a canvas hose.  They pumped water through it and pointed the hose at the hillside from which they were trying to extract gold.  The water came out with a surprising amount of force.  The hillside was quickly turned into a pile of gravel and provided a huge mass of pay dirt for the miners to sift through and separate the gold from.  Thus, hydraulic mining was born.

The new technique of hydraulic mining caught on fast.  The roar of water hoses and crumbling hillsides could be heard throughout the mining district of the Sierra Mountains.  This method of mining required millions of gallons of water to be productive.  Dammed streams and complex systems of ditches and wooden flumes were built to direct the water to the mining areas.  By 1859, 5726 miles of aqueducts ran through the mining region (Impact on California's Landscape).

 The profits from hydraulic mining were numerous and the state of California's economy boomed.  But this new-found method of mining left its mark on more than just the economy.  The landscape of the Sierra Mountain mining district was changed drastically by hydraulic mining and the effects it had on the rivers, streams, and agricultural land in the surrounding areas was devastating.  When the gold was extracted and filtered through, a pile of lighter particles was left behind.  This included: sand, clay, larger rocks, and wood (Rawls and Orsi, 117).  These lighter particles would be washed downstream and clog the rivers and streams.  The greatest devastation caused by this byproduct of hydraulic mining happened in 1861. 

In January 1861, the region was hit with a warm spell that brought heavy rains and caused the snowdrifts of the upper Sierras to melt and run down the canyons.  The rivers and streams swelled with flood water and over flowed the valley below.  The countryside was inundated with water, herds of cattle were drowned, and millions of yards of mud, silt, and dirt – known as slickens – was washed into the area.  When the flood water receded, eight foot drifts of silt were left in the area of Sacramento.  Riverside farms were buried in sand and thousands of fruit trees were wiped out.  The agricultural businesses, that were rivaling the mining industry in their contributions to the economy, were frustrated and began to challenge the legality of hydraulic mining and fight for laws to protect themselves.

With every new flood that rushed into the Sacramento Valley, the farmers would challenge the right of the mining companies to destroy the land through hydraulic mining.  By doing this they were challenging the near sacred institution that had built the foundation of California's economy.  The farmers would occasionally win injunctions to halt hydraulic mining, but the miners would ignore the court rulings and continue to blast away the hillsides in search of gold.  The mining companies argued that they employed thousands of people and that the industry was worth far more than the farms and towns downstream from their mines. 

The fight went on in court for 20 years, with the farmers eventually winning the battle against their best customers on January 7, 1884.  California state judge Lorenzo Sawyer finally ruled in favor of the farmers complaints and brought an official end to hydraulic mining.  Clandestine mining operations did not heed the ruling and proceeded to dump debris in the rivers and streams for the next 10 years.  The landscape of the Sacramento Valley was marred and left looking like it had been turned upside down and destroyed by giant moles.

The gold rush era left other numerous effects as well.  One of which was the famed Pony Express.  It was created to send mail and parcels to the Midwest within a two week period by ponies.  This allowed some of those who came to California to bridge the great distance between them and their family members that were left behind.

Environmental habitats and wildlife were changed by the gold rush era.  The increase of people moving into the wild country in the gold-rush days, first as prospectors, then as miners, finally as settlers, led to a massive reduction of habitats and wildlife.  Animal species such as: the grizzly bear, the sea otter, and the beaver, experienced a huge decline in number.  Elk were slaughtered to meet the demand for protein, but the near extinction of elk was caused by depletion of their habitat due to the spread of agriculture.  Grasslands were over-grazed by cattle.  Forests were cut down to meet the demands of housing.  There was no obvious concern for the environment or nature.  Anything that was in the way of the gold seeker or the farmer, was pushed aside or destroyed.

There was an explosion of manufacturing and industry during the gold rush.  There was a high demand for mining machinery and hydraulic operations equipment that the residents of the state did not want to wait for - these items had previously been shipped from the East coast.  The increased demand prompted newer, more immediate supply and manufacturing companies sprang up to meet those needs.  The state ranked sixteenth (by value of manufacturing output) among the 36 states and territories according to the 1850 census.  By the 1860 census, the manufacturing output of California had significantly risen and the state ranked seventh.  This rate of manufacturing growth was far faster than that of any other state.

Another area that was affected by the haste to California was transportation.  With the fervor surrounding the gold rush, there was a transportation revolution.  The new wealth of the gold rush era created incentives for fast transportation and enterprising individuals quickly created an up-to-date transportation system (Rawls and Orsi, 250).  New roads, bridges, ferries, wagons, steamships, scows, and schooners were built to help prospectors reach California in record time. 

San Francisco was chosen as the site for the transcontinental railroad's western terminus, which linked the East coast to California by railroad for the first time.  The cost to travel across the country was close to $1000, but with the completion of the transcontinental railroad, the cost dropped to $150.  This revolutionized transport, commerce, and trade between the two coasts and all the areas the railroad stopped at in-between.  California quickly became the core of a new Pacific market.

It is evident that the 1849 gold rush had both positive and negative effects on the development and the environment of California.  Prior to the gold rush, the area was sparsely populated and was a place where nature thrived.  During the gold rush, the environment was negatively altered by destructive mining processes: rivers were clogged with sediment, forests were ravaged to produce timber, biodiversity was compromised, and soil was polluted with harsh chemicals.  On the other hand, the gold rush also created a positive impact on the industry, agricultural development, and economic growth of California.  Visionaries, adventurers, and drifters from all over the world were drawn to the land that was rich with gold and personified much of what came to be known as the American Dream.  All of these factors combined, have made California the culturally diverse, economic powerhouse that it is today.

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The California Gold Rush Impact on California. (2019, Oct 31). Retrieved November 29, 2023 , from

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