"I reached my hand down and picked it up; it made my heart thump, for I was certain it was gold." - James Marshall, 1848
At a time when restless Americans were already itching to go west, the discovery of gold in California in 1848 was like gasoline on a fire. Within a year of its discovery, emigrants using the California Trail were flooding into the Sierra Nevada Range by the thousands.
John Sutter was a Swiss immigrant who came to California in 1839 with a dream of building an agricultural empire. When he needed lumber in early 1848, he assigned the task to one of his men, James Marshall. Marshall decided to build a sawmill on the South Fork of the American river, about 40 miles from Sutter's home.
Marshall discovered a gold nugget on January 24, 1848, while at the sawmill. He and his men found more gold nearby. Both Marshall and Sutter tried to keep things quiet, but soon word leaked out. Gold fever quickly became an epidemic.
Many who already had arrived in California or Oregon immediately gravitated to the western Sierras. But it wasn't until December of 1848 that President James Polk confirmed the findings to Congress, which meant it was too late to start a trip for easterners. But by the spring of 1849, the largest migration (25,000 that year alone) in American history was already taking place.
Better-than-average conditions on the plains and in the desert that spring and summer helped soften the blow of the wave of emigrants. But conditions were harsh at best and many livestock were lost along the way. Grass and clean water became scarcer as the trip wore on, and diseases like cholera took their toll.
Indians in particular suffered from the "Forty-Niners" who streamed across the land. For centuries, Indians had lived in the West without outside competition for resources. But now the pioneers' lust for wealth was threatening to decimate the Indians through the consumption of foods, lands, water and space.
Many new routes were opened into California as a result of the Gold Rush. With an estimated 140,000 emigrants arriving in California via the California Trail between 1849 and 1854, routes were continually modified, tested or even abandoned.