The discovery of gold in California's waterways is one of the most consequential moments in United States history. Not only did it put the newly acquired territory on the fast track towards statehood, it also prompted a massive influx of immigrants, and provided new economic opportunities for women.
But the Gold Rush also proved devastating. Tune in this week as I dive into the Gold Rush. What happened? And what is its legacy?
“California as I Saw It: First Person Narratives of California’s Early Years, 1849-1900.” The Library of Congress. (LINK)
“Gold Mine Found.”The Californian. March 15, 1848. Via Wikipedia. (LINK)
“Gold Rush Overview,” California State Parks. (LINK)
Lindsay, Brendan C.,Murder State: California's Native American Genocide, 1846-1873. (Nebraska: University of Nebraska Press, 2012).
“Luzena Stanley Wilson.” PBS - American Experience. (LINK)
Polk, James,December 5, 1848: Fourth Annual Message to Congress. Courtesy of the Miller Center. (LINK)
“The California Gold Rush.” PBS - American Experience. (LINK)
“The California Gold Rush.” National Parks Service. February 24, 2020. (LINK)
“Gold Mine Found - In the newly made raceway of the Saw Mill recently erected by Captain Sutter, on the American fork, gold has been found in considerable quantities. One person brought thirty dollars worth to New Helvetia, gathered there in a short time. California, no doubt, is rich in mineral wealth; great chances here for scientific capitalists. Gold has been found in almost every part of the country.” B.R. Buckelew, The Californian. March 15, 1848.
“It was known that mines of the precious metals existed to a considerable extent in California at the time of its acquisition. 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 the authentic reports of officers in the public service who have visited the mineral district and derived the facts which they detail from personal observation.” James Polk, December December 5, 1848.
Welcome to Civics and Coffee. My name is Alycia and I am a self-professed history nerd. Each week, I am going to chat about a topic on U.S history and give you both the highlights and occasionally break down some of the complexities in history; and share stories you may not remember learning in high school. All in the time it takes to enjoy a cup of coffee.
Hey everyone, welcome back.
One of the most significant events in the nineteenth century, the Gold Rush is known for many things. It helped put the California territory on the fast track towards statehood, prompted thousands of individuals to flood the area in an effort to strike it rich, and forever altered the political and economic landscape of the area. But the Gold Rush also permanently scarred the surrounding environment, proved devastating for Native tribes, and prompted significant backlash against the Chinese immigrants who sought to make a living for themselves.
So this week, I am diving into the history of the Gold Rush. What was it? Who was involved? And what was its impact?
Grab your cup of coffee, peeps. Let’s do this.
Ahead of the discovery of gold in 1848, California’s population stood at about 157 thousand individuals - most of whom were indigenous Americans who had lived on and cultivated the land for generations. Rough estimates place indigenous Americans at 150,000 with the remaining numbers dispersed among American emigrants and Mexicans - then known as Californios.
Swedish immigrant John Sutter knew that any new transplants to the territory would require materials to build their homes and businesses and he set about building a sawmill - hiring James Marshall to complete the job. On January 24, 1848 - just days before the signing of the treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo on February 2nd that would move the territory from Mexico to the United States’ control - Marshall happened upon a discovery that would have significant consequences to both territory and country alike.
Part of the mill's construction required rerouting water to wash away loose dirt and gravel. On the morning of January 24th, James Marshall, making his rounds and confirming the work went as expected, noticed shining flecks sitting along the river bed. Upon further inspection, Marshall knew he had made the discovery of a lifetime - gold. He quickly shared the news with Sutter and though the two tried to keep it secret, word spread about the mineral’s discovery in the newly acquired territory.
Despite being unable to keep the news under wraps, the rumors of the newly uncovered mineral spread slowly - at least throughout the continental United States. Given the limitations of the time, information took about 7 months to reach the eastern seaboard of the United States. Without a telegraph or any other technology to aid in rapidly transmitting messages, word of the mineral’s discovery had to travel by sea - sailing around Cape Horn at the tip of South America before journeying towards the east coast. However, once reported, stories of the discovery were initially met with a bit of skepticism within the United States. Several papers on the east coast downplayed the discovery, sure the stories of gold sitting and waiting to be plucked from the water were just too good to be true.
However, other countries - such as Australia and China - received word much faster - in as little as three months. Less skeptical than their American counterparts, thousands of Chinese and Australian immigrants hopped on a ship and made the journey towards the California coast in search of gold - getting a jump on those living in the United States. The international immigrants who arrived ahead of american gold-seekers in 1849 came to be known as 48ers.
Any doubts or concerns about making the dangerous trek towards California in search of supposed riches was assuaged once President Polk confirmed the stories in an annual address to congress. Polk, who had received confirmation from the military about the claims, shared this news in his message - a portion of which I read at the top of the episode. Feeling more secure in the potential to strike it rich, many americans - predominantly young men - started preparing to move west.
So, as 1849 dawned, people from across the country decided their fortunes, their futures, rested solely within the waterways of the California territory. And for the most part - they were correct. The initial digs for the lucrative mineral proved relatively easy - with many simply extracting their riches by dipping shallow pans into the water and sifting the dirt and silt from the heavier mineral gold sitting among the river bed. In 1849 - the first year of massive extrapolation - miners pulled 10 million from the earth. This was followed by 41 million in 1850, 75 million in 1851, and 81 million in 1852.
Thousands of people entered the territory’s borders to extract their piece of the massive cash cow that was gold mining. As mentioned, men made up the majority of those who journeyed to the west coast. Nearly 140,000 individuals emigrated to the territory between 1849 and 1854. This number includes international migrants, as men from countries like Australia, China, and Hawaii also flooded in. And despite the undercurrent of anti-Chinese sentiment brewing, they were mildly tolerated, at least in the beginning, due to the sheer volume of resources available for extraction. What was in short supply? Women.
Initially making up only a small fraction of emigrants to California, women were in few and far between. In the 1850 census, only 8% of California’s population were of the quote unquote fairer sex. This created a bit of an opportunity for women - while they didn’t participate in the mining activities in large numbers, women were able to carve out a living for themselves by setting up their own businesses. They found they could command a significant sum of money for engaging in activities that were commonplace for them such as cooking, laundry, and even providing female companionship. A quick note for any younger listeners of the show - adult content ahead. Please skip about 10 seconds.
Because women were in such limited supply, those who turned to prostitution could charge a mighty price. Those who previously were unable to extract much payment in other cities suddenly found they could set their price and men had little choice but to pay. Gambling dens and brothels were common in the early California territory and women from all walks of life offered their services. Women also worked as singers, entertainers, cooks, sex workers, and borders which, given the relative dearth of women available to fulfill the societal roles, provided an opportunity for them to earn their own small fortunes outside of the mines.
Luzena Wilson is one such woman who managed to make a living out of turning societal expectations into a lucrative cash business. Without many women available to do things like cooking and cleaning, Wilson was able to demand significantly higher fees for her cooking services such as charging $10 for a freshly baked biscuit. Upon her arrival with her family in Sacramento, Wilson and her husband invested in a hotel where they enjoyed steady business, thanks in no small part to Wilson’s baking acumen. Unfortunately, early California was a series of booms and busts for many, and Wilson, like many other families, had to remake herself many times over as she experienced a loss of her hotel due to flooding, then to fire. And because women were so scarce, men had to learn and perform the often unpaid labor normally classified as “women's jobs” such as mending clothes and cleaning.
The discovery of gold also had a significant downside. First of which is the impact on the indigenous population so plentiful before Anglo-Saxon contact. Before the announcement and confirmation of gold in the California territory - first Americans outnumbered emigrants by a significant majority. Unfortunately, as new residents poured into the new territory, contact with indigenous Americans often proved disastrous. Between disease, starvation, and outright murder, the various California tribes - including the Modoc, Mojave, and pomo - were nearly wiped out. In his analysis of the period, historian Brendan C. Lindsay asserts the emigrants and governmental structure created in the new territory laid the groundwork for the eventual genocide of first Americans.
But Native Americans weren’t the only targets. As gold became harder to extract, white residents focused on Chinese immigrants and sought to undermine their ability to mine gold and to even enter the country. In 1850, the California legislature passed the Foreign Miners’ Tax which set up a $20 monthly fee to be paid by non-citizens looking to mine for gold. However, despite the fact that this tax was meant for all non-citizens, the law was mostly enforced against Chinese immigrants and many Europeans found they were able to skirt around making any payment. The tax proved to be so prohibitive it was repealed the next year, replaced with a more cost-effective, yet just as unreasonable, tax of $4 per month. The cost proved so overwhelming that Chinese immigrants decided to vacate the gold mining industry altogether. Many moved to San Francisco where they set up shop as businessmen and established the first known Chinatown in America.
Chinese immigrants would prove to be an ongoing issue among Americans. An exploited labor source, Chinese immigrants often took on the dangerous jobs required of gold mining and, eventually, laying track for the transcontinental railroad. These immigrants were often underpaid, if paid at all, and were deserted at the earliest signs of complaint. Their working conditions were deplorable as well, constantly being forced to risk their lives to do things like place dynamite along a mountain to make a clearing, or working in freezing temperatures without protective gear. Despite their horrific treatment, Chinese immigrants were seen as a threat to the American way of life and many white Americans sought to curb their immigration into California, successfully passing laws limiting their entrance.
And despite Marshall's original discovery of gold along the American river, several other places within California proved to be treasure troves of riches. The San Joaquin and Mokelumne Rivers were also rich with gold sediment as were the Trinity, Klamath, and Salmon rivers. This meant gold extraction was initially an easy operation allowing for a proliferation of self-made miners. But as thousands carved their piece of the pie and the mineral became harder and harder to find, the industry moved away from independent operations to another waged labor position. New technologies were needed to find and extract the gold, technologies that only major business owners could afford.
The evolution of technology and the devastation it wrecked on the surrounding environment also forever changed California. No longer a simple operation of sifting through water, gold seekers took to digging into mountains and blowing up the landscape to extract their millions. Entrepreneurs deployed things like hydraulic mining to extract gold hidden beneath the earth’s surface. While it was successful, the practice had downstream impacts including flooding local rivers with sediment, causing crops and farms to fail. Hydraulic mining only lasted a few short years before the practice was stopped as the result of court orders.
As mentioned in the intro to the episode, the discovery of gold also put the territory on the road towards statehood much faster than normal. Just under three years from the initial discovery, California joined the union and became the 31st state on September 9th, 1850. While mining for gold proved to be a blip in California’s history, the potential for striking it rich had much longer staying power, prompting thousands of emigrants to continue to funnel into the newly minted state’s borders. Immigration peaked in 1852 as 62,000 individuals - 20,000 of them Chinese - arrived to hopefully strike it rich and stake a claim on California gold.
The massive influx in immigration also helped put places like San Francisco on the map. Previously a sleepy coastal town known as Yerba Buena, the Gold Rush helped remake the area into one of the busiest ports on the west coast. The importance of San Francisco was confirmed as planners began mapping out the transcontinental railroad and marking the city as an end point. The population spurt also proved consequential in the development of other towns, including the current capital Sacramento. According to historian Malcolm J Rohrburg, this large influx of residents also served to americanize the territory which helped secure its rapid advancement towards statehood. For example Arizona, which was acquired at the same time as California, wouldn’t become a state until several decades later in 1912.
One of the most consequential moments in United States history, the Gold Rush has a nuanced legacy. While it prompted new industries and further economic growth opportunities for women, it also had devastating consequences for the surrounding landscapes, native americans, and Chinese immigrants.
All in the quest to become self-made millionaires.
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Thanks, peeps. I’ll see you next week.
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