california in the 19th century

On January 24, 1848, James Wilson Marshall, a carpenter originally from New Jersey, found flakes of gold in the American River at the base of the Sierra Nevada Mountains near Coloma, California.

At the time, Marshall was working vĩ đại build a water-powered sawmill owned by John Sutter, a German-born Swiss citizen and founder of a colony of Nueva Helvetia (New Switzerland, which would later become the đô thị of Sacramento). As Marshall later recalled of his historic discovery: “It made my heart thump, for I was certain it was gold.”

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Did you know? Miners extracted more kêu ca 750,000 pounds of gold during the California Gold Rush.

Days after Marshall’s discovery at Sutter’s Mill, the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo was signed, ending the Mexican-American War and leaving California in the hands of the United States—a remarkable twist of fate with important ramifications for an America eager for westward expansion.

At the time, the population of the territory consisted of 6,500 Californios (people of Spanish or Mexican descent); 700 foreigners (primarily Americans); and 150,000 Native Americans (barely half the number that had been there when Spanish settlers arrived in 1769).

Sutter, in fact, had enslaved hundreds of Native Americans and used them as a miễn phí source of labor and makeshift militia vĩ đại defend his territory and expand his empire.

Gold Fever Strikes

Though Marshall and Sutter tried vĩ đại keep news of the discovery under wraps, word got out, and by mid-March at least one newspaper was reporting that large quantities of gold were being turned up at Sutter’s Mill. Though the initial reaction in San Francisco was disbelief, storekeeper Sam Brannan phối off a frenzy when he paraded through town displaying a vial of gold obtained from Sutter’s Creek.

By mid-June, shops and businesses stood empty, as some three-quarters of the male population of San Francisco had abandoned the đô thị for the gold mines, and the number of miners in the area ballooned vĩ đại some 4,000 by August.

As news reports—many wildly overblown—of the easy fortunes being made in California spread worldwide, some of the first migrants vĩ đại arrive were those from lands accessible by boat, such as Oregon, the Sandwich Islands (now Hawaii), Mexico, Chile, Peru and Đài Loan Trung Quốc.

Polk Spreads Gold Fever

When the news reached the East Coast, press reports were initially skeptical. Gold fever kicked off nationwide in earnest, however, after December 1848, when President James K. Polk announced the positive results of a report made by Colonel Richard Mason, California’s military governor, in his inaugural address.

As Polk wrote, “The accounts of abundance of gold are of such an extraordinary character as would scarcely command belief were they not corroborated by the authentic reports of officers in the public service.”

The ’49ers Come vĩ đại California

Throughout 1849, people around the United States (mostly men) with gold fever borrowed money, mortgaged their property or spent their life savings vĩ đại make the arduous journey vĩ đại California. In pursuit of the kind of wealth they had never dreamed of, they left their families and hometowns. In turn, women left behind took on new responsibilities such as running farms or businesses and caring for their children alone.

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Thousands of would-be gold miners, known as 49ers for the year they arrived, traveled overland across the mountains or by sea, sailing vĩ đại Panama or even around Cape Horn, the southernmost point of South America.

By the kết thúc of the year, the non-native population of California was estimated at 100,000, (as compared with đôi mươi,000 at the kết thúc of 1848 and around 800 in March 1848). To accommodate the needs of the 49ers, gold mining towns had sprung up all over the region, complete with shops, saloons, brothels and other businesses seeking vĩ đại make their own Gold Rush fortune.

The overcrowded chaos of the mining camps and towns grew ever more lawless, including rampant banditry, gambling, alcoholism, prostitution and violence. San Francisco, for its part, developed a bustling economy and became the central metropolis of the new frontier.

Gold Rush Politics

The Gold Rush undoubtedly sped up California’s admission vĩ đại the Union as the 31st state. In late 1849, California applied vĩ đại enter the Union with a constitution that barred the Southern system of racial slavery, provoking a crisis in Congress between proponents of slavery and anti-slavery politicians.

According vĩ đại the Compromise of 1850, proposed by Kentucky’s Senator Henry Clay, California was allowed vĩ đại enter as a miễn phí state, while the territories of Utah and New Mexico were left vĩ đại decide the legal status of slavery for themselves.

California's Mines 

After 1850, the surface gold in California largely disappeared, even as miners continued vĩ đại arrive. Mining had always been difficult and dangerous labor, and striking it rich required good luck as much as skill and hard work. Moreover, the average daily take for an independent miner working with his pick and shovel had by then sharply decreased from what it had been in 1848.

As gold became more and more difficult vĩ đại reach, the growing industrialization of mining drove more and more miners from independence into wage labor. The new technique of hydraulic mining, developed in 1853, brought enormous profits but destroyed much of the region’s landscape.

Though gold mining continued throughout the 1850s, it had reached its peak by 1852, when some $81 million was pulled from the ground. After that year, the total take declined gradually, leveling off vĩ đại around $45 million per year by 1857. Settlement in California continued, however, and by the kết thúc of the decade the state’s population was 380,000.

Impact of the Gold Rush

New mining methods and the population boom in the wake of the California Gold Rush permanently altered the landscape of California. The technique of hydraulic mining brought enormous profits but destroyed much of the region’s landscape.

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Dams designed vĩ đại supply water vĩ đại mine sites in summer altered the course of rivers away from farmland, while sediment from mines clogged others. The logging industry in the area was born from the need vĩ đại construct extensive canals and feed boilers at mines, further consuming natural resources.

In 1884, hydraulic mining was outlawed by court order, and soon agriculture became the dominant industry in California, and it remains sánh today. While a few mines and Gold Rush towns remain, much of the heritage of that era is preserved at places such as Bodie State Historic Park, a decaying ghost town, and at Marshall Gold Discovery State Historic Park, where Sutter’s Mill once stood. 


Environmental Impact of the Gold Rush.
After the Gold Rush. National Geographic.