The California Gold Rush & Its Lasting Impact

Upon the discovery of gold in Coloma, the California Gold Rush attracted mass amounts of people from all over the world who hoped to get rich by mining for gold.

Mar 15, 2024By Amy Hayes, BA History w/ English minor
california gold rush miners

 

Gold was discovered in California in the late 1840s, and it caused a mass migration to the soon-to-be state. The California Gold Rush encouraged people to move westward in hopes that they’d strike it rich. It largely influenced the growth of California’s major cities and urged the construction of the Transcontinental Railroad that linked the east coast of the US to the West. The large influx of people from all around the world also influenced restrictions on immigration to the states as xenophobia worsened. Once the excitement of gold hunting calmed, people settled in the state, established businesses, and began farming to make ends meet.

 

Events Leading Up to the California Gold Rush

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Illustration depicting the Mexican War of Independence, via Texas State Historical Association

 

California was in a transitional period prior to the discovery of gold. Spain had ownership of the land up until the end of the Mexican War of Independence in 1821. As Spain was at the height of political turmoil in the early 19th century, the people of Mexico seized the opportunity of Spain’s fragile state to seek independence. Roman Catholic priest Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla is largely responsible for sparking the revolution when he called for Mexican independence in a speech called the Grito de Dolores in September 1810.

 

The Plan of Iguala was drafted in February 1821, which outlined Mexico’s principles for gaining independence. Although a treaty was signed in August recognizing the Plan of Iguala and Mexico’s independence, Spain tried to maintain control of some parts of the Mexican nation. Mexico officially gained permanent independence from Spain upon the signing of the Santa María–Calatrava Treaty on December 28, 1836. Wealthy Mexican families called Californios acquired farmland in the newly independent territory. Various markets that served the eastern US and South America were established, including cattle hide and soap and candle factories.

 

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Map of US territories at the beginning of the Mexican-American War by E.W.A. Rowles and Modern School Supply Company, 1919, via Library of Congress, Washington DC

 

Mexico would only hang on to the California territory for a decade before American settlers began encroaching upon the land, prompting the Mexican-American War. Americans that settled in the Texas territory in the 1820s called for their own independence, leading to the creation of the Republic of Texas in March 1836. Support grew amongst American settlers for the annexation of Texas.

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One of President James K. Polk’s major campaign issues was westward expansion. Just two years after being elected into office, Polk requested permission from Congress to declare war on Mexico. In February 1848, the Mexican-American War officially ended upon the signing of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, and Mexico surrendered a vast amount of land, including present-day California. Just as the war was settling a month prior, gold was discovered. Not only did the US gain control of 55% of Mexico’s territory and accomplish the belief of Manifest Destiny, but Americans would also reap the benefits of the newly discovered gold treasures hidden beneath California’s soil.

 

The Discovery of Gold in California

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Sketch of Coloma Valley featuring the south fork of the American River where gold was discovered by James Marshall, via California State Library

 

German-born immigrant Johann August Suter, referred to by his changed name John Sutter, is responsible for kicking off the California Gold Rush. Sutter traveled far and wide to get to California in 1839 with dreams of starting an agricultural settlement that became known as Sutter’s Fort. It was a main trade center in the California territory and supported many travelers passing through the area. In early 1848, Sutter requested lumber from one of his workers, James Marshall.

 

After completing the construction of a sawmill in Coloma along the south fork of the American River in January 1848, Marshall decided to deepen a stream to increase the water flow to gain more power for the mill wheel. Marshall caught a glimpse of something shiny in the ditch while inspecting the worksite on January 24, 1848.

 

In his retelling of the discovery, Marshall stated, “It made my heart hump, for I was certain it was gold… then I saw another.” Although Marshall and Sutter attempted to keep their findings of gold quiet, word quickly spread, and the Gold Rush was soon in full swing. Coloma and other areas located along the American River were the first places where gold was discovered. As mass influxes of immigrants and migrants flooded the area, mining operations spread along other tributaries, such as the Sacramento River, San Joaquin River, and the Mokelumne River. It’s estimated that about 750,000 pounds of gold were found at the height of the Gold Rush between 1848 and 1855.

 

Mass Migration to California

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Gold miners using the hydraulic mining method to find gold in Nevada County by Lawrence & Houseworth, 1866, via Library of Congress, Washington DC

 

People who had already moved westward to California and nearby territories quickly caught wind of the discovery. However, it would take longer for people in the Midwest and eastern US to hear the news. Those who already lived in the area flocked to the sites where gold was likely to be found. Sutter’s workers and the travelers that once inhabited his fort deserted the area and headed for the gold fields. Since major modes of transportation on land had yet to be established, the best way to get news across the nation was by ship. People on the east coast wouldn’t hear about California’s gold until about six months later.

 

In the summer of 1848, a young Army officer named William Tecumseh Sherman urged California military governor Colonel Richard Barnes Mason to see the treasures that were being dug up across the land. Once Mason confirmed that the gold was real, he relayed the message to President Polk.

 

On December 5, 1848, President Polk delivered his State of the Union address to Congress and officially announced that gold had been discovered in California. President Polk detailed that, based upon preceding explorations for the mineral, it’s believed that the supply of gold was very large and extensive throughout the state. The announcement triggered mass migrations to the territory. It’s estimated that about 100,000 people made the quest to California in the first year, either traveling by ship or trekking across the Great Plains. The mass of people who arrived in California in 1849 with hopes of striking gold became known as the Forty-Niners.

 

Economic Impacts of the California Gold Rush

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Lithograph of the city of San Francisco during the Gold Rush by Isador Laurent Deroy, c. 1860, via Library of Congress, Washington DC

 

Prior to the California Gold Rush, major present-day cities in the state, like San Francisco, were small villages with a few hundred residents. San Francisco’s population ballooned from less than 400 residents in 1845 to about 56,000 by 1860. Forty-Niners who arrived by boat often came through the San Francisco harbor, which made it a major seaport that featured busy hotels and saloons. Mining cabins were built near tributaries so miners could continue mining gold in one area for a long period of time.

 

According to the Census of 1850, the largest occupational group was miners, with 57,797 individuals documented in the occupation. Other top occupational groups included merchants and traders. The number of merchants and traders combined equaled just one-tenth of the total number of miners in the state. Between 1850 and 1860, California’s population grew from 92,597 to 379,994. Populations in present-day Los Angeles, Sacramento, and San Francisco more than doubled.

 

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Illustration of a crowded gambling house in Sacramento by The Illustrated London News, 1852, via Library of Congress, Washington DC

 

The large influx of people pushed the US government to make California the 31st state on September 9, 1850. It was made a free state based on the acts detailed in the Compromise of 1850. Gold mining wasn’t the only big business in the state. Although many went to California to find gold, others saw the opportunity to provide resources and services to the miners. Large-scale farming became more common in the 1860s, along with the establishment of businesses. Striking gold was more unlikely for latecomers. The working conditions also deterred many people, as exposure to weather increased the risk of illness, and some people died due to poor diet or exhaustion.

 

The Gold Rush ultimately helped California grow into the state it is today by attracting tens to hundreds of thousands of people each decade after gold was discovered. What started as an attempt to satisfy gold fever ended in several major cities with thriving businesses and farms. After the expansion of the railroad system in the West, more opportunities arose as it allowed more Americans to move out West.

 

The Transcontinental Railroad and Immigration Laws

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Central Pacific and Union Pacific railway engines meeting at Transcontinental Railroad linkage point in Promontory Summit, Utah, 1869, via Linda Hall Library, Missouri

 

Construction of the Transcontinental Railroad, also called the Pacific Railroad, began in January 1863. By the end of its construction in 1869, the Pacific Railroad had linked with the Union Pacific Railroad in Promontory Summit, Utah. The joining of the two railroads immediately made access from the east to the west coast much more efficient. Immigrants traveling to California for the Gold Rush or hoping to find better opportunities in the US were hired by railroad companies to complete the work that native laborers were unwilling to do.

 

The majority of Chinese immigrants in the US were located in California in 1870, and at least 10,000 Chinese workers are estimated to have worked on the railroad at one time. Although the US posed itself as the land of opportunity for immigrants, many faced discrimination once they arrived. Immigrants were often willing to work for less pay, which allowed them to take on more jobs and led to increased tensions between immigrants and American workers.

 

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Chinese immigrants constructing a section of the Transcontinental Railroad by Alfred A. Hart Photographs, via Department of Special Collections, Stanford University Libraries

 

Immigration laws and regulations began to appear as a result of xenophobia. For example, California adopted a new legislature called the Foreign Miners License Law, which required foreign miners to pay a monthly tax. In 1875, the Supreme Court ruled in Chy Lung v. Freeman that the federal government was the only entity that had the authority to regulate immigration. The federal government began implementing laws prohibiting certain immigrants from entering the country, while other laws required some to pay a tax.

 

The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 was the first federal law that prohibited an ethnic group from entering the US for work or leisure unless under special circumstances. The law banned Chinese workers from coming to the US for ten years, and individuals considered qualified to enter the country had to obtain certification. Other immigration laws were later established, such as the Foran Act of 1885. Although immigrants were arriving in America on the east coast as well, the Chinese Exclusion Act was primarily influenced by the large influx of Chinese immigrants in the West in the 1850s.

 

Environmental Impacts of the Gold Rush

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Photograph showing the negative effects of hydraulic mining used by gold miners in Sacramento County, via California State Library

 

The bountiful lands and resources of California were quickly exhausted by harmful mining practices. The Gold Rush contributed to deforestation as trees were cut down for lumber to use as fuel for boilers in mines. Lumber was also needed to build housing to meet the demands of the large number of migrants and immigrants. Prior to more advanced mining techniques, gold seekers panned for gold by separating heavier pieces of gold from water and sand. Hydraulic mining was more advanced, but it required miners to construct dams to change the courses of rivers. Changing the course of rivers can deprive ecosystems of key water sources, which ultimately reduces the biodiversity of an area.

 

Sediment that washed down into the rivers made them more vulnerable to flooding and other debris that fell in polluted the water. Waterways and the organisms that lived in them were also contaminated by mercury. Gold miners mixed mercury with gold so it would stick together. The amalgam was then heated to vaporize the mercury, making it easier to extract the gold. One of the very first environmental pollution laws was established as a result of harmful mining practices. In 1884, California Judge Lorenzo Sawyer banned the practice of hydraulic mining due to its disastrous effects on the environment.

 

How the California Gold Rush Influenced the Future of the State

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Group of California gold miners, c. 1852, via California State Library

 

The California Gold Rush sped up the process for California to become the 31st state as the need for a civil government became evident due to the growing population, and residents sought statehood. It also pushed the Transcontinental Railroad agenda forward, as discussions for an extensive rail system in the West already took place in the 1840s. Due to the environmental impacts the Gold Rush had, the first areas of Yosemite National Park were established. President Abraham Lincoln signed the Yosemite Valley Grant Act in 1864 to preserve the land for public use because of its beauty.

 

The Gold Rush was short-lived for many people. Many residents already living in California at the time of discovery laid claim and dug up all of what they could find. By the 1880s, gold was no longer the central focus in California. People turned to other ways to make money by acquiring farmland and starting businesses to support their communities. Wheat and cattle ranching became successful industries. The discovery of gold encouraged people to move out West and settle in what are now some of the state’s major cities, such as Sacramento, San Francisco, and Los Angeles.

 

california gold rush
California gold miners at the Auburn Ravine, 1852, via California State Library

 

The history of the California Gold Rush still lingers in the state. The state’s motto, “Eureka,” was added to the state seal in 1849 to signify the discovery of gold. One of the first uses of the state’s nickname, “The Golden State,” appeared in 1856, when Eliza Farnham published her book entitled California, In-doors and Out; or, How We Farm, Mine, and Live Generally in the Golden State. The Golden State became California’s official nickname in 1968, highlighting the importance the Gold Rush had on the state and its economic and socio-cultural developments.

 

FAQs

What were the dangers of traveling to California during the Gold Rush?

Traveling to California during the Gold Rush was fraught with dangers, including harsh weather conditions, treacherous terrain, and the risk of disease. Many faced starvation, attacks by bandits, and conflicts with Native Americans, making the journey perilous for those seeking fortune.

 

How did the Gold Rush affect Native American populations?

The Gold Rush had devastating effects on Native American populations, leading to significant displacement, violence, and disease outbreaks. The influx of miners disrupted their way of life, depleted natural resources, and resulted in the loss of ancestral lands, causing immense suffering and population decline.

 

Did the Gold Rush lead to any technological advancements in mining?

The Gold Rush spurred technological advancements in mining, as the need to process larger quantities of earth and rock led to innovations. Hydraulic mining, which used high-pressure water jets, and the development of more efficient methods of crushing ore and extracting gold, such as the stamp mill, were significant advancements that increased gold recovery rates and influenced mining techniques worldwide.

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By Amy HayesBA History w/ English minorAmy is a contributing writer with a passion for historical research and the written word. She holds a BA in history from Old Dominion University with a concentration in English. Amy grew up in the historic state of Virginia and quickly became fascinated by the intricate details of how people, places, and things came to be. She specializes in topics on American history, Ancient and Medieval England, law, and the environment.