California Golden Rush

California Golden Rush
     Shortly after the acquisition of California from Mexico a man by the name of

John Sutter arrived in East San Francisco Bay in 1839. Born in Germany he had to
leave because he was unable to pay his creditors. With plenty of charm and
letters from friends he convinced the Mexican governor of California to award
him a land grant of more than 50,000 acres. John Sutter built a stockade and a
fort and soon after became referred to as Captain Sutter, and his riverbank
establishment Sutters Fort. Sutter chose a location on the south fork of the

American River, 50 miles to the south of his fort, to build a sawmill. (Pic. 1)

A millrace was dug and wooden gates were opened periodically so that the current
would widen and deepen the channel. During his inspection on January 24, 1848

James W. Marshall found the first piece of gold at the end of the race. Over the
next decade his discovery would have a profound effect on the experiences of
hundreds of thousands of individuals, their families, their communities, and
ultimately the nation as a whole. By the winter of 1848, whispers of a gold
strike had drifted eastward across the country but few easterners believed it.

The gold discovery needed validation, and President Polk was just the one to
deliver it. In his opening address to Congress on December 5, 1848 Polk said
that at the time of the California acquisition it was known that "mines of
the precious metals exsisted to some extent. Recent discoveries render it
probable that these mines are more extensive and valuable than was anticipated.

The accounts of the abundance of gold in that territory are of such an
extraordinary character as would scarcely command belief were they not
corroborated by authentic reports." (Johnson, 38). With Polk's address
making headlines around the world Gold Fever had begun. The future forty-niners
now under the influence of Gold Fever had to overcome a cruel journey, miserable
living and working conditions, and coming home boom or bust. The trials and
tribulations they faced are many and forever carved into American history.

Polk's simple words, backing up the claim of gold in California, were a powerful
call to action. Farmers left their fields, merchants closed their shops,
soldiers left their posts, and all made plans for California. The departing gold
seekers faced an immediate problem. There was no railroad to take them there,
nor was there a river route. The journey proved to be a incredible test of
endurance. There were two ways to get to California either by land or by sea. By
land they faced a 2,000 mile trip across rugged landscape (Map 1). Almost
everyone going to California overland travelled with a group, which were
democratic in nature. Contracts were signed that spelled out rules of conduct,
especially with respect to participation and sharing of duties. The journey
across the plains varied in length and difficulty, and because it was so severe
a test it was one the gold seekers would never forget if they survived it. There
were tens of thousands of men and women on the trail and all they could think
about was gold as they crept along at two miles per hour on the dusty trail. At
first it was an adventure, but as they pushed farther westward their enthusiasm
turned to fear of the indians along the trail. The real danger of the overland
journey wasn't the indians, but the lack of water especially the last 200 miles
through the deserts of Nevada. Goods and food were cast aside along the trail to
lighten the load. "At the beginning of the final stage on the Humboldt

River, many 49ers left their wagons and proceeded on foot, using as pack animals
the stock horses they had brought for breeding." (Rohrbough, 65). The
journey by land was rough but so was the sea voyage. The sea route (Map 2)
around the tip of South America often took more than six months and seasickness
was rampant in the beginning. The accomodations were severely overcrowded
"men were accommodated in tiered berths, usually three men sleeping abreast
on platforms barely two feet apart, one above the other." (Johnson, 64).

Boredom soon took over and the men took to gambling from morning to night.
"Cards and gambling not only drew veteran players, but also rapidly seduced
those heretofore innocent of such vices." (Rohrbough, 59). The food was
often full of bugs, and the meat was often rotten. Water stored for months in
the ships holds took on a foul taste, and was often diluted with molasses or
vinegar so it could be kept down. The weather in the Cape passage was very
perilous. The sea was very rough and it was bitterly cold. At night the
passengers wore all their clothing and shivered in their bunks, praying they
would make it through the night. There was another route that was partly by sea
and partly by land. By sailing across the Atlantic Ocean to Panama the
forty-niners could then cross over the narrow land bridge between North America
and South America. Finally continuing their journey by sailing the Pacific Ocean
to California. This was not as easy as it sounded though for crossing the
jungles of Panama many travelers picked up aches and fevers including cholera
and malaria. For those who remained well and luck was on their side the journey
took about five days. The first leg of the crossing was by canoes, navigated by
the natives, on the Chagres River. After travelling as far as they could by
canoe they finished the trip on foot to Panama City. Waiting in Panama City for
passage to California could take several weeks and the numbers of gold seekers
piling up in Panama City was staggering. There were simply not enough ships to
handle the mass of people waiting to go to California. Many ships would take a
load of passengers to California and the crew would stay leaving the ship
abandoned in San Francisco Bay. By the mid 1850s more than 500 ships lay rotting
in the bay, many still full of cargo that no one had taken time to unload.

Regular steamer service between Panama and California helped relieve the
situation in Panama but never remedied it. After securing passage to California
the journey was over but few men had any idea of the hardships they were going
to face. Prior to the gold rush California had little community life on which to
build on. When thousands began flowing into California settlements sprang up
overnight in the mining fields. According to Paul, "The most common was the
camp: a straggling settle- ment that might vary in size from a few houses to a
small town. A more impressive place was the mining town, a community that was
larger in size than the camp, and usually had a few buildings that could make
some pretentions to substantiality." (California Gold, 72). In the
beginning nearly everyone was camping out, under shelter of a tree, a crude
tent, or a lean to made of canvas. By 1850 log cabins were being built in the
developing settlements. For the common miner construction costs were so high
that most buildings were made of wood frame with canvas stretched over it. Such
methods of construction produced communities that were wiped out by fires
several times. Miners set up a camp close to where they were digging, it could
be set up in a few hours and taken down in even less time. This was an important
part of their lifestyle since they were constantly on the move from one location
to another. If the daily living was rough the work was then severe. Work began
on the streams at daylight, and as the miners dressed and prepared them- selves
for a hard day of labor the cook made their breakfast. After breakfast the
miners made their way down to the streams with their picks, shovels, pans, and
buckets. After arriving at the claim the miners began the routine of digging,
shoveling, carrying, and washing until sunset. (Pic.2). This routine was carried
out at least six days a week and often seven. Often men would be removing the
sand knee deep in ice-cold water for hours on end. One miner summarized the
labors of mining in these terms: "Mining is the hardest work imaginable and
an occupation which very much endangers health. A weakly man might about as well
go to digging his grave as to dig gold."(Rohrbough, 138). Few forty-niners
were prepared for the incredibly hard work. Working fifty pans of dirt in a ten
hour day was a reasonable goal. But digging the dirt to fill those pans, sorting
it out, and panning for the gold became more work than most gold seekers had
anticipated. For a man who could endure hardships, could handle the incredible
amount of labor, and could handle the sorrows of dissapointment, there was never
a better opportunity in the world to make a fortune. There was a great number of
men who barely knew how to pick up a shovel including doctors, lawyers,
preachers, bookkeepers, and other white-collar workers, few of them prepared for
the hard life of mining. As much as a thousand dollars worth of gold could be
washed from a single pan, but few miners ever had that exhilar- ating
experience. A half an ounce of gold a day was generally recognized as the bare
minimum a miner must make to keep himself working due to the inflated prices in
the camps. Prices were so high in the camps that had the miners been making what
they did per day anywhere else in the world the majority of them would have
become rich. As it was though many miners barely made enough to get by on a day
to day basis. A tin pan that could be bought for fifteen cents anywhere in the

United States sold for eight dollars in the gold fields. Everything was sold at
unbelievable profits such as shovels for two dollars, frying pan for two
dollars, a mule for two hundred dollars, a box of sardines for sixteen dollars,
one pound of hard bread for two dollars, one pound of butter for six dollars, a
bottle of ale for eight dollars, a half pound of cheese for three dollars, flour
for fifty dollars a barrel, potatoes for three dollars a pound. Not just the
price of goods was high services were equally severely inflated, for example a
full time house servant would receive around one hundred dollars a month,
clothes washing could bring one hundred dollars per week, a cooked meal cost
around five dollars, women could receive more than one hundred and fifty dollars
a month for house cleaning. These high prices were paid for by the average miner
working day in and day out under miserable condit- ions and poor health. In the
late eighteen hundreds at the time of the gold rush men and women were
accustomed to hard physical labor, but the intense labor required by mining
eventually wore down even the most optimistic and the physically and mentally
tough. "Wealth was the dream; grinding toil was the reality that for many
made it into a nightmare." (Rohrbough, 192). In the face of such demanding
physical conditions, men aged rapidly in the mines. Their hair turned gray,
their teeth rotted, their aching backs cried out for relief from the daily labor
of digging and carrying. The faces of miners were lined by hard labor, hot sun,
and continuing exposure to the weather of all kinds. In addition to the dangers
associated with mining was the communal living and poor sanitation. Baths were
infrequent and the men did not have enough clothes to change on a regular basis.

Epi- demics of smallpox and dysentary afflicted the mines each season, and to
make things worse as prospects in the mines diminished cheap basic foods was all
the miners could afford. These cheap meals lacking in vegetables and fruits,
made the miners susceptible to scurvy. Even with all the hardships and miserable
conditions most of the miners made it through and now faced the most difficult
task of returning home. Few miners found more than enough gold to cover their
daily living expenses, and fewer still had any left over after gambling and
drinking. By the year of 1853 the big gold rush was at an end, the placer
deposits were virtually exhausted, earlier stakes had been worked over several
times, and now the miners had to face the reality of going home. How could the
forty-niner justify his long absence when he returned with no more than he left
with? For those that stayed to the end and had still not struck it rich, there
was the belief that they had done all they could to make their dreams come true.

If they had left after a couple of years they would have been forever looking
back and wondering if they had just missed the mother lode. In a way, coming
home was the coming to terms with failure. Many of the forty-niners who
disappeared into the countryside of California did so because they couldn't
return home empty-handed and face relatives and loved ones. How much gold would
a returning miner have to possess to measure up as a success? "Ten thousand
dollars was frequently mentioned as the standard in newspaper articles." (Rohrbough,

264). For many a few thousand dollars would be enough, and for others just being
able to square up accounts was enough. Many forty-niners did strike it rich as
is the case of John and Daniel Murphy who came to California in early 1848. By
the end of the year the brothers hade made one and a half million dollars. John
became a politician and Daniel ended up buying three million acres of land in

California. John Bidwell also came to California in 1848 and within six months
had made a fortune and became one of the richest and most respected men in

California. A man named Dye in less than two months mined more than seventy-six
thousand dollars worth of gold. Generally unless a miner found a lot of gold
quick and then left, he would eventually spend it all looking for more gold. The
men who did not make their fortunes in money did gain wealth in their memories
of taming the wild land called California. Captain Sutter prior to the gold rush
wanted nothing more than to start an empire in the new land in which he had
received two hundred and thirty square miles. His land turned out to be the gold
fields, but Sutter turned out to be careless about his business dealings. His
workers went after gold along with the miners and left his fields and cattle
unattended. Sutter tried mining but soon began drinking up all the gold he could
find. By the end of his life Captain Sutter had sold all the land he had
acquired and was a poor man. James Marshall, who found the first nugget, never
made anything off of the gold discovery. He actually lost his mill as
forty-niners overrun his land looking for gold. He tried panning for gold but
never had any success. James Marshall ended up dying penniless and bitter over
the way his life turned out. Of the nearly four hundred thousand men who crowded
into California in the decade after the find at Sutter's Mill the vast majority
neither prospered or starved. For them it was a grand adventure that they would
never forget. For many it didn't end in California when the diggings tapered
off. Many men loaded up their tools and moved on to new gold fields such as the

Black Hills, Montana, Oregon, and even as far as Australia. Still other men
simply packed up and went back home, for the most part looking back with
fondness on California and their experiences searching for gold. Many decided to
stay in California and take up trades staying close to the land they had grown
to love


Johnson, William Weber. The Forty-Niners. Ed. Hedley Donovan. Canada: Joan D.

Manly, 1974. Paul, Rodman W. The California Gold Discovery. Georgetown,

California: The Talisman Press, 1967. ---, California Gold. Lincoln, Nebraska:

University of Nebraska Press, 1947. Rohrbough, Malcolm J. Days of Gold: The

California Gold Rush and the American Nation. Berkeley and Los Angeles,

California: University of California Press, 1997.