"A frenzy seized my soul... piles of gold rose up before me...castles of marble...thousands of slaves bowing to my beck and call. In short I had a very violent attack of goldfever."- J.H. Carson, miner
"Gold fever" gripped the United States and the world in 1848 as opportunity in the West once again called men to discovery. The rush started on the land of John Sutter, along the American River in California. Sutter employed a man named James Marshall, who discovered gold in the river while building a sawmill on Sutter's land. They tried to keep it a secret but word spread and soon prospectors overran Sutter's farm. Sutter did not make money from the gold, and in fact petitioned the government to reimburse him for the losses that gold seekers caused.
In 1848, President James K. Polk supported rumors of gold in California in an address to congress by stating that officials of the government had verified its existence. By 1849, there was a mad rush to California. These gold seekers, who were generally young, single men, became known as forty-niners. People traveled by land and sea to reach California. A sea voyage from the eastern United States around Cape Horn to the west was approximately 15,000-17,000 miles and took six months. Some travelers sailed to Panama, crossed the isthmus on land and then sailed on to San Fransisco, a shorter but more disease-ridden route.
Those who chose the overland route followed the Oregon Trail until it crossed the California Trail on the Western side of the Rocky Mountains. Many travelers discovered that by lightening their wagon load they could improve their speed. Soon trails were littered with possessions that caused the trail to resemble a junkyard.
By 1850, tens of thousands of people flowed into the California gold camps. Among the diverse groups were many African Americans, American Indians, Europeans, Mexicans, Chinese, and South Americans. Many groups were resented by the forty-niners because of simple physical differences. The Chinese in particular were held in contempt because of their hard work ethics and the serious attitude they projected. By 1852 California had become a state and over 225,000 people had settled there.
Many entrepreneurs capitalized upon the frenzy. Suppliers of food, clothing, tools, and necessities charged inflated prices to the forty-niners. Levi Strauss developed and sold a work pant made of denim that was durable and wore well. Many miners ended up spending most of the gold they found on supplies.
From the gold rush sprung up towns of men, young and old alike, ready to make their fortunes. Dame Shirley of San Francisco wrote in 1852 that the wild miners "...parade the streets all night, howling, shouting, breaking into houses, taking wearied miners out of their beds..." Mining towns developed a notoriety for drunkenness, fighting, gambling, and prostitution. Rushes were not just confined to California. Colorado and Nevada, formerly part of the Utah territory, also had gold and silver strikes.
Gold was mined in a very time-consuming manner. The miners took a pan and scooped it into a running stream of water, swirling it until the light gravel was sloshed over the edge. This process of trying to remove the gravel was repeated until heavy gold dust, flakes, or nuggets appeared at the bottom of the pan. Various forms of troughs were also used by miners to sort river sediment and locate gold. However, the simplest was the pan method which was a one-man operation, accomplished at a rate of around fifty pans a day.
The gold rush ended in California but was supplanted by the other rushes in various parts of the West. As the gold and silver of an area became less abundant, many towns decayed into "ghost towns". The California gold rush was a period unique to American history and just one more way people sought the "American Dream."
Did You Know?
The Lewis and Clark expedition sent back animals to President Jefferson from Ft. Mandan. Four magpies, a prairie dog, and a sharptailed grouse were sent back with Corporal Warfington. Unfortunately, only the prairie dog and one magpie survived the arduous journey. Learn more about the journey here. More...