Gold Rush in California


On January 24, 1848, James Marshall, who was building a sawmill for John Sutter (the same one who bought Fort Ross in 1841) on the American River (“American River”) in Coloma, California, discovered nuggets. He reported his find to Sutter, who tested Marshall’s samples and confirmed that it was almost pure gold.

John Sutter wanted to keep the find a secret, he realized that the discovery of gold would cause a stir and prevent him from developing the New Helvetia agricultural settlement he had founded in California. He did not prevent his workers from washing the gold, but he was in no hurry to inform the whole world about the discovery of the precious metal. But very soon the news spread, thanks in large part to Samuel Brennan, a San Francisco businessman, journalist and newspaper publisher. When one of Sutter’s employees paid with gold sand in Brennan’s store, the enterprising merchant went to the sawmill and learned of the find. According to legend, Samuel Brennan bought up all the shovels in the city, and on May 12, 1848, ran through the streets of San Francisco holding a vial of gold in his hand and shouting “Gold! Gold! Gold on the American River!

Thus began the gold rush in California. James Marshall lost his job (all the workers left the sawmill in pursuit of gold), he tried to mine the precious metal too, but failed and ended up poor. John Sutter also lost his investments (and later his land) because of the gold rush. But Samuel Brennan, who opened several stores for prospectors, became the first millionaire of the California gold rush and later a major landowner and California state senator.

Most of the residents of San Francisco, then a small (a few hundred residents) village abandoned their occupations and moved to the American River. Stores, warehouses, hotels closed, and the city emptied. From several ships (and even from warships), standing in the harbor of San Francisco, deserted sailors, “retrained” in gold prospectors.

On August 19, 1848, the discovery of gold in California was reported by the largest newspaper on the east coast of the United States at that time, the New York Herald, and in December of the same year the eleventh President of the United States, James Polk, officially confirmed the news in his address to the U.S. Congress.

Thousands of gold hunters rushed to California, but at that time it was not easy to get here. There were two ways to get to California – by sea and by land. Those treasure hunters who chose the sea route were called the Argonauts. They had to either circumnavigate South America (a journey that took five to eight months) or reach the Isthmus of Panama, cross it and wait for a ship of opportunity to sail north. By land, California could be reached via the California Trail, from Oregon, or through Mexico, but all of these roads were difficult and dangerous.

Among the prospectors (called “forty-niners”) who arrived in California in late 1848 and early 1849 were several thousand Americans who came from the northwestern United States, many Hispanics (including those from Mexico, Peru, and even Chile), people from Hawaii (then called the Sandwich Islands), and Chinese. Later, gold prospectors came to California from all over the world, including European countries, Asia, South America, and, of course, Americans. It is believed that by the end of 1849, about ninety thousand prospectors had come to California, and by 1855, more than three hundred thousand had arrived.

Only a few of the people who rushed to California in pursuit of gold actually became rich. Simple and relatively easy gold mining was only at the very beginning of the gold rush, when the precious metal could be mined even with pans and baskets (the so-called schlich method, when the gold-bearing soil is washed with water, you can even do it by hand). Back then, most prospectors produced so much gold that its value was ten to fifteen times the average worker’s earnings on the East Coast of the United States at the same time. But very quickly the income of gold miners declined sharply, even though several more “gold fields” were discovered in California.

Gradually, mining techniques became more complex, requiring expensive equipment to crush and wash the rock. By about the mid-fifties of the XIX century the time of single miners in California was over. Later, it was here that new methods of industrial gold mining were developed, which were successfully used all over the world (including during the gold rushes in Colorado, Montana and Alaska).

It is believed that many more people in California made fortunes during the gold rush by trading and supplying prospectors than by mining gold directly. Clothing, supplies, and lodging were very expensive. Laundry and mending services were in great demand, not to mention bars or brothels.

It was in California during the gold rush that jeans appeared, without which it is difficult to imagine the closet of a modern man.