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- The history of the California Gold Rush
- The California Gold Rush and its effects, particularly on: slavery, foreigners, Native Americans, and the environment
- The aftermath of the California Gold Rush
Key Facts And Information
Let’s know more about California Gold Rush!
- The California Gold Rush of 1848 was an event in US history when thousands of prospectors travelled to the West to find gold after news spread that gold had been discovered in the Sierra Nevada Mountains in California.
- Prospecting miners travelled by sea and land to San Francisco and its environs, leading to a population explosion, reaching 10,000 by the end of 1849 with over 750,000 pounds of gold mined.
- Though the Gold Rush had a significant economic impact on the white Americans, there were negative effects as well, mainly to the (1) foreigners who had lesser profits due to the California State Legislature of acquiring taxes from foreign miners; (2) environment as hydraulic mining altered the landscape of the region and clogged the rivers with sediment; and (3) Native Americans who were either driven out of their lands, slaughtered, or starved to death because of white miners hungry for gold.
The California Gold Rush
- In January 1848, James Wilson Marshall discovered gold in an American river at the foot of the Sierra Nevada Mountains, California.
- He had been hired by Swiss citizen, John Sutter, to build a mill.
- Days after the discovery, the Mexican-American war ended with the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, leaving California to the United States.
- In those early days, the area had 6,500 occupants of Spanish and Mexican descent, 700 Americans, and 150,000 Native Americans, half the number that had been there when the Spaniards arrived in 1769.
- Marshall and Sutter agreed to keep the news of the discovery to themselves, but soon one of the newspapers reported the discovery. Thousands of fortune seekers then besieged them after the spread of the news. With Sutter’s property, goods, and livestock either stolen or destroyed, he was quickly bankrupt by 1852.
- In San Francisco, the story was met with indifference until Sam Brannan started showing off a vial of gold that he had obtained from Sutter’s Creek, which caused an influx of miners into the region.
- At first, only those who could travel by boat came to California, from Oregon, present-day Hawaii, Mexico, Chile, Peru and even China.
- Later, in his inaugural address, President James Polk announced the abundance of gold in California, causing another influx of prospecting settlers from the East of America.
- The earliest gold-seekers collected large amounts of gold in the year 1848. However the following year when the news of gold spread throughout the world, an overwhelming number of prospective miners from around the world flooded to California. They were referred to as “forty-niners”.
- All prospectors were men who had borrowed money, mortgaged their property, or spent their life savings on the difficult nine-month journey to California. Women were left behind and took on the responsibility of running homes and businesses.
- Over time, San Francisco’s economy blossomed and was the central metropolis of the new frontier. To support the needs of the miners, towns with shops, bars, brothels, saloons, and other businesses seeking to make a fortune from the rush, sprang up in the region.
- There was overcrowding and rampant lawlessness, with an increase in banditry, gambling, prostitution, and violence. The non-native population grew from an estimated 800 in March 1848, to 20,000 at the end of the year, and 100,000 in 1849.
Gold Rush and Slavery
- With the influx of miners from around the world, the Gold Rush hastened the process of admitting California into the Union as the 31st State.
- California applied to enter into the Union as a non-slave holding state after a bitter contestation between slaveholding states and free states.
- The Compromise of 1850 recommended by Senator Henry Clay allowed California to be admitted as a free state while Utah and New Mexico (territories ceded by Mexico after the Mexican-American War) were territories where the legality of slaves was still undecided.
- The Fugitive State Law in California was strengthened and required fugitive slaves to be returned to their owners. The Congressmen decided that slaves who were naturally accustomed to hard labour would have an unfair advantage in California.
Gold Rush and Merchants
- It would be fair to assume that the wealthiest people during the California Gold Rush were the miners. However, it was the merchants who had greater fortunes.
- In fact, Sam Brannan – a merchant who capitalized on the Gold Rush by buying and reselling at a steep mark-up all the picks, shovels, and other gold mining supplies he could find – is considered to be California’s first millionaire.
- As more and more people flooded into California in search of gold, more businesses opened to cater for the newly arrived prospectors. Some men stopped gold-hunting and opened up their own businesses as it was more likely to profit them immediately, rather than competing with thousands of gold-seekers.
- Some of America’s greatest industrialists – Philip Armour, John Studebaker, Henry Wells, William Fargo, and Levi Strauss among others – started in the Gold Rush.
Gold Rush and Foreigners
- By 1850, most gold found in accessible areas had already been collected. Thus, prospective miners turned their attention to seeking gold in the more difficult areas. Fearing that foreigners might steal their gold, Americans began to drive them out so that they could get the remaining gold for themselves.
- Organised attacks began on foreign miners, particularly the Latin Americans and Chinese. Moreover, the California State Legislature was passed in 1851 which taxed foreign miners twenty dollars per month (as of 2021, $610 per month).
- Because the white miners were so eager to keep the gold all to themselves, they became more financially successful than the black, Chinese, Latino, and Native American miners who also travelled to California in the hopes of changing their lives through the profit they could get from the Gold Rush.
Gold Rush and Native Americans
- Prospective miners, in the hopes of retrieving more gold, began to drive out Native Americans who had been settled in the West.
- Dependent on traditional hunting, agriculture, and fishing, Native Americans became victims of starvation with the surge of prospective miners during the Gold Rush. In order to protect their livelihood and territories, Native Americans attacked the miners, resulting in counterattacks on native villages.
- Since most miners were armed, Native Americans were often slaughtered. On the other hand, those who did not fight the miners either starved to death or were forced to survive without access to food-gathering areas.
- A semi-autobiographical work titled “Life Amongst the Modocs” by Joaquin Miller was able to capture one such attack on Native Americans at the time of the Gold Rush.
- Historian Benjamin Madley also recorded the numbers of Native American casualties from 1846 and 1873 to be at least 9,400 to 16,000; thus, the indigenous population of California fell below 20,000.
- Moreover, some Native Americans died because of diseases that came from the gravel, silt, and toxic chemicals from prospecting operations. These harmed the fish and destroyed habitats, resulting in a negative effect on the environment.
Gold Rush and the Environment
- In the wake of the California Gold Rush, new mining techniques were introduced such as hydraulic mining in 1853.
- Though this new mining method was able to extract $170 million in gold between 1860 and 1880, it devastated much of the landscape of the region and clogged the rivers with sediment.
- In 1884, however, a court ruling ended hydraulic mining. Agriculture then took over as the principal force behind the California economy.
Impact of Gold Rush
- California was able to demand concessions because of its value.
- There was a dramatic change in California’s demographic as its population increased to 300,000 by 1855.
- With population increasing, California was able to secure itself as a state.
- Businesses boomed in California because of increasing demands from prospectors.
- Gold was exhausted with the massive influx of prospective miners. Settlements that lacked other viable economic activities after the Gold Rush soon became ghost towns.
- Native Americans, who initially dominated the West, were attacked, slaughtered, and driven out of their lands by gold-seekers.
- There was a big impact in the environment as gravel, silt, and toxic chemicals from prospecting operations killed fish and destroyed habitats. Moreover, hydraulic mining destroyed much of the region’s landscape.
Aftermath of the Gold Rush
- The surface gold diminished after 1850, but prospectors continued to trickle into California. Many individual prospectors who got to California early were lucky and became rich, but the later arrivals had to work hard and would be lucky if they were successful.
- This led to an increase in waged labourers and a decrease of independent miners. The depletion of the surface gold facilitated technological innovation in 1853, with hydraulic machines for deep mining resulting in increased profits.
- Successful gold mining continued through the 1850s, reaching its peak in 1852 when some $81 million was extracted. Gradual decline saw this levelling off to around $45 million per year by 1857. However, settlement in California continued and by the end of the decade the state’s population was 380,000.
- California’s name also became indelibly connected to the Gold Rush thus, acquiring the name “Golden State”. The standard route shield of state highways in California is even shaped like a miner's spade to honour the California Gold Rush.
- Moreover, the “California Dream” spread across the nation where the state was perceived as a place for new beginnings that rewarded one’s hard work with great wealth.