- Gold discovery in Sacramento Valley in early 1848 sparked the California Gold Rush which was among the major events shaping the westward expansion.
- Prospecting Miners travelled by sea and overland to San Francisco and its environs leading to a population explosion reaching 10,000 by the end of 1849
- Over 750,000 pounds of gold was mined during the California Gold Rush
In January 1848 James Wilson Marshall discovered gold in the American River at the foot of the Sierra Nevada Mountains, California. He had been hired by John Sutter, a Swiss citizen 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 occupants of the area were 6,500 people of Spanish and Mexican descent, 700 Americans and 150,000 Native Americans which was 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 was reporting the discovery. In San Francisco, the story was met with indifference until Sam Brannan walked around town showing off a vial of gold that he had obtained from Sutter’s Creek causing 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 President James Polk announced in his inaugural address of the abundance of gold in California causing another band of prospecting settlers from the East of America.
During the year in 1849, thousands of prospecting miners known as ‘49ers’ travelled to California, 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 to and took on the responsibility of leading 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 sprung 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, 20,000 at the end of the year and 100,000 in 1849.
Slavery in the Gold Rush
The Gold Rush hastened the process of admitting California into the Union as the 31 State. California applied to enter into the Union as a non-slave holding state after a bitter contestation between slaveholding 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 which were the other territories ceded by Mexico after the war, were territories and the legality of slaves was still undecided. The Fugitive State Law was also strengthened in California, which required fugitive slaves be returned to their owner. The Congressmen figured that slaves, who were naturally accustomed to hard labour, would have an unfair advantage in California.
Aftermath of the Gold Rush
Over time, the surface gold disappeared after 1850 even as more prospectors continue to trickle into California. Most of the individual prospectors who got to California first were lucky and became rich, but the later arrivals had to work hard and have a lot of luck on their side to be successful in the endeavour. This led to an increase in wage labourers and a decrease of independent miners. The depletion of the surface gold also facilitating to technological innovation such as hydraulic machines for deep mining in 1853, resulting in an increase in profits.
Gold mining continued through the 1850s, it reached its peak by 1852, when some $81 million was pulled from the ground. After that year, the total take declined gradually, levelling off to around $45 million per year by 1857. Settlement in California continued, however, and by the end of the decade, the state’s population was 380,000.