The Gold Rush and its Impact on California

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Gold! Gold! Gold from the American River, was the famous announcement that a man by the name of Sam Brannan yelled up and down the streets of San Francisco while holding a vial of proof of its existence (Cherny, Lemke-Santangelo & Griswold del Castillo, 2014). Gold had been found previously in California, but it wasn't until after Sam Brannan's announcement did the rush for gold start to spark the possibility of being able to attain personal gain from these findings. As the news of a bountiful of gold drifting down California's river's spread across nation's, it brought great changes to California. The Gold Rush started a movement to California, increasing population, expanding diversity, changing the economy and environmentally changed California's landscape. 

        Gold was first discovered in California in 1842 by a Mexican man by the name of Francisco Lopez. Francisco Lopez was checking out a herd of cattle and hunting with two other men in the San Francisquito Canyon. When the men took a break near the river to have something to eat, Francisco Lopez decided to take a nap under a tree. As the story has been passed down through the years, it is told that as Francisco Lopez napped, he dreamt of drifting freely across a river made of pure liquefied gold. Once Francisco Lopez awoke from his fantasy of gold, he started to dig at some wild onions he had found close by. As he dug, he spotted a fragment of gold glistening in the light. Francisco Lopez couldn't believe his dream had become a reality. He truly had found gold (The First Gold Rush, 1994). With Francisco Lopez's discovery, hundreds of fortune seekers traveled to what is now known as the San Francisquito Canyon to try their luck in mining their own gold. Francisco Lopez's discovery did not yet start what is now known as the Gold Rush, but it was the beginning of what was to come. Within a year, one-hundred and twenty-five pounds of gold was taken from the San Fransciquito Canyon area. The Oak of the Golden Dream, is the same tree that still stands till this day where Francisco Lopez took his most famous nap and dreamt of gold (Sabbatini, 1994).

        Years later gold was discovered at a different location in Northern California on January 24, 1848.  James Wilson Marshall was working for John Sutter in Coloma along with fifty other men from the Mormon Battalion, including a group of Indian workers. The men were in the process of building a ditch near the American River to bring water to Sutter's Mill when James W. Marshall from his own words explains my eye was caught with the glimpse of something shining in the ditch as he discovered the flakes of gold (Marshall, 1848). After four days of collecting as much of the golden flakes as he could, he took them to Sutter's Fort to show John Sutter.  Before Marshall and Sutter could officially conclude that Marshall had indeed found gold, they researched and tested the golden flakes in order to confirm their assumptions (Cherny, Lemke-Santangelo & Griswold del Castillo, 2014). Once the 23 carats of gold past all the tests and examination's, they decided to keep the discovery under wraps. John Sutter wanted to ensure that his business of constructing and farming did not fall threw. Sutter had also been trying to attain the land in the valley from the Yalesummi Tribe. The primary document shows that Sutter and Marshall created the lease for the land on January 1, 1848, before the gold was discovered but was not yet signed. Once Marshall had discovered the gold, Sutter was more persistent in owning the land before people found out about the precious golden metal that can be acquired from this area of land. Two chiefs and two alcaldes from the Yalesummi tribe eventually signed the document on February 4, 1848 (California State Library). Sutter then sent Charles Bennet with the signed document to Colonel R. B. Mason who at the time was the military Governor of California. During his traveling, Bennet started to leak the discovery of gold. In the end unfortunately for Sutter, Governor Mason denied his request because at the time Indian's did not hold the rights to sell or lease any lands (California State Library). The construction of Sutter's Mill never finished.

        Eventually, word had spread to a clever man by the name of Sam Brannan. Brannan owned a store near Sutter's Fort and had heard that workers from the area had been purchasing supplies with flakes of gold. Brannan then purchased a vial of gold from the workers and devised a plan. Brannan stocked up on all the necessities needed to mine for gold and set off to San Francisco where he would then make his grand announcement of gold being found from the American River (PBS). Even though Brannan held proof in his hands, the spread from word of mouth to those who had not seen Brannan's vial of gold with their own eyes remained skeptical, but by June the spark of Brannan's announcement had caught fire (Cherny, Lemke-Santangelo & Griswold del Castillo, 2014). The rush for gold began and California would then be forever changed. Sam Brannan's plan eventually worked and as people headed for the river to mine for gold, he had all the supplies to equip them and sold everything way above the price he had bought them for himself. Sam Brannan did not become wealthy from gold itself, but from the demand of supplies needed to go out and mine for the gold from others.

        As the news of gold spread, people started to make their way westward to California by sea and across land. A great migration occurred within the United States and outside from South America, Australia, Europe and China, bringing diversity to California (California Department of Parks & Recreation). Before the Gold Rush there was an estimate total of around 13,000 non-Native American people residing in Alta California (Schmidt, McNully, Hummelt & Twilla, 2010). With the signing of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo on February 2, 1848 which ended the Mexican-American War, 7,000 of the 13,000 people in Alta California were mostly Hispanic. The remaining 6,000 were a mixture of different nationalities. The greatest year of migration began in 1849. Those who migrated during this year to California became known as the forty-niners. San Francisco's population alone in 1849 grew from eight-hundred and twelve people to twenty-thousand (Smithsonian American Art Museum, n.d.). A group of people from the eastern United States known as the Argonauts were made up of Scottish, French, Irish, German and British descent. The Argonauts traveled the many different dangerous routes to California by foot, boats, wagons, and horseback. Those who chose to travel overland were headed for a long journey of about five to eight months long through dangerous terrain and susceptible illnesses. Many routes that were traveled on by land were previously paved routes from previous travelers such as, the Santa Fe Trail, California Trail, Mormon Trail and the Oregon Trail (CA Department of Parks & Recreation). Routes that were traveled by sea were a lot faster and took between two to three months. One route was by taking a ship that went from New York to Panama. From Panama travelers had to take a smaller ship up the Chagres River. Then they had to travel back on land by mule to over mountains to reach the Pacific port of Panama which they then would load onto another ship that headed straight to San Francisco. This route included the Panama Isthmus. Another route traveled by sea was done by going around Cape Horn which is the tip of South America (Cherny, Lemke-Santangelo & Griswold del Castillo, 2014). Within two years the population in California rapidly grew past one-hundred thousand, with Anglo-American's now the majority (Schmidt, McNully, Hummelt & Twilla, 2010). Even though Anglo-American's were now the majority, the great migration to California for its gold brought many different nationalities to California from China, Germany, France, Australia, Peru, Chile, Mexico, British Isles and the already mixed nationalities from eastern United States (Cherny, Lemke-Santangelo & Griswold del Castillo, 2014). The Gold Rush expanded California's diversity which still continues to exist till this day.

         Since the end of the Mexican-American War, California lacked a civil government. As the population and diversity grew in California from the Gold Rush, there was a need to accomplish a government that could handle problems that began to arise.  Californian's desired to become a part of a statehood in order to resolve civil issues. After a great deliberation in the US. Congress over slavery, California entered the Union as a free state by the Compromise of 1850. California officially became the thirty-first state of the United States on September 9, 1850 in part due to the Gold Rush that brought a rise in population, diversity and even economy (CA Department of Parks & Recreation).

        Many people held the hopes that they would make it safely to California, easily find gold and become rich fast. This ended up not being the case for many. Traveling to get to California was expensive in itself. The cheapest way to get to California was by land which cost between one-hundred to two-hundred dollars. During this time with low wages, this was considered an expensive amount (Cherny, Lemke-Santangelo & Griswold del Castillo, 2014). For the people that had to travel from afar, by the time they arrived most of the land had already been torn apart and searched. By 1850, most of the gold had already been mined leaving hardly anything to find. The labor to find gold was not easy and it took a lot of work that was very stressful, and time consuming. More money was generally spent on traveling to California, buying supplies, and paying for services than actually making any in return from finding gold. Those who made a great profit during the Gold Rush and dramatically gained economically were those who provided services in either selling supplies, washing clothes, ironing and cooking which were mostly done by women (Smithsonian American Art Museum). When gold mining first began around 1848, a miner could find about twenty dollars' worth of gold per day but within five years this dropped dramatically to two dollars per day, if you were lucky (Cherny, Lemke-Santangelo & Griswold del Castillo, 2014). Many of this was in part due to California's changing environment and landscape from destructive mining. 

        As the findings of gold dwindled down, new methods arose to help decrease the odds of finding gold. Since mostly every rock and pebble in the rivers had already been overturned, miners decided to look up towards the high of the mountains to search for gold. One destructive method that was used is called hydraulic mining. The process of hydraulic mining was to first divert water from rivers and streams. This diverted water was then collected and used under pressure to blast the sides of the mountain (Cherny, Lemke-Santangelo & Griswold del Castillo, 2014). This strong water pressure had the ability to bring down trees and boulders to expose the entire side of a mountain's bedrock. As the sand and gravel came down from the mountain they were then run through sluices in order to separate the gold out. Hydraulic mining led to clogging the rivers with sediment (Thornton, 2011). Another destructive method of mining that created problems was as the rivers were dug up, silt was produced. Mercury was then used to separate the gold out and the silt and mercury would flow downstream through the rivers and contaminate the water. Another problem that occurred was that mining shafts were built underground in the Sierra Nevada Mountains (Thornton, 2011). Lastly, a major change in California's environment was that the natural element of gold that started the Gold Rush in the first place was starting to diminish itself from overmining.

        Around 1855, after seven years of overmining, the Gold Rush era ended. With lack of luck in finding gold many people started to look elsewhere in trying to claim a fortune. Within this short amount of time, California changed dramatically. The population in California grew from around 2,000 non-Native American's living in California before the Gold Rush to about 250,000 people that had made their way to California by 1855. With the migration coming from all over the world it brought diversity to California that still remains today. With the rapid increase in population, California then decides to become the 31st state to join the Union as a free state. California's economy strived for those who banked off services and supplies for miners while miners themselves struggled in finding gold to bring in money. In the end, California was left dug up with the landscape destroyed in areas where mining was strongly active. The Gold Rush impacted California positively and negatively, and the effects of the Gold Rush remain present till this day with California being a diverse populous state of riches.

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The Gold Rush and Its Impact On California. (2019, Aug 16). Retrieved May 29, 2024 , from

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