The Gold Rushes of North America (1847-1900)

A Calliope Fact Sheet
Copyright Calliope Film Resources, Inc.

Part II. California

The Sunday before departing Boston harbor for San Francisco on the Edward Everett, the 150 men who would be on board attended a special service at which they heard the Reverend Mr. Kirk admonish them, "You are going to a strange country. Take the Bible in one hand and your New England civilization in the other and make your mark on the people and the country."

"Manifest destiny" was a freshly minted catchword at the time, having been coined in 1845 in the New York Morning News. To any American at the end of the 1840s, it could only mean a place called California a vast territory recently wrested from Mexican possession, largely unexplored and certainly unexploited everything that was meant by a "frontier."

California's Cultures

In 1848 before the discovery of gold, California had a population of some 12,000 Mexicans - including Californians of Mexican descent, called Californios - in addition to about 20,000 Native Americans and only 2,000 Yankee frontiersmen, soldiers, and settlers.

In the next two years, thousands upon thousands of Easterners who might never have thought about migrating to such a remote territory would pour into the region. By 1850, there were more than 100,000 immigrants.

Latin Americans

Some of the earliest migrants were coming from the south as well an estimated 7,000 Mexicans, mostly families, who had formed well-organized caravans "sometimes stretching for a mile across the horizon." "The whole state of Sonora is on the move, passing us in gangs daily," a U.S. Army officer wrote during December of 1848. Chileans and Peruvians, along with native Californians, joined the Mexicans' search for gold, which was localized a bit farther south, off the San Joaquin valley.

Among the first prospectors to strike it rich was a Mexican-born Los Angeles schoolteacher, Antonio Coronel. In the first summer of discovery, Coronel literally plucked his fortune from the surface of the ground. By mid-1849, there would be 8,000 Latin Americans digging and panning on the Stanislaus River.


In addition to those Yankee migrants who journeyed by ship to San Francisco, there were Chinese emigrants, mostly peasants in flight from a decade of crop failures and unemployment. Shipping agents in Hong Kong and Canton lured them with flyers describing California as Gum San, "Gold Mountain," and offered passage for as little as $40. In the first year of the gold rush one thousand crossed the Pacific; four years later there would be over twenty thousand arriving through San Francisco customs.

Asians working the gold fields were organized into companies by San Francisco's Chinese merchants, who provided supplies and transportation to the diggings. Working in bands of fifty or more, the miners dug "placer gold" loose flakes and pebbles (pronounced "plasser") from sites the Americans had played out.

Native Americans

The Maidu, Miwok, Yalesumni, and other Native Americans of the region, who had lived peaceably in centuries-old communal societies that precluded individual accumulation, were at first indifferent to men who dug in the ground not for food but for dust and rocks.

But as they understood the value of gold dust to the miners, whole families children as well as adults began digging and washing gold and men joined work teams organized by other Indians. They engaged in trade directly, exchanging their gold for blankets, food, and jewelry - for themselves or for their communal group. Although most were cheated at first, they adapted quickly to the commercial environment and learned the values of the gold system. They became consumers, able to bargain effectively with merchants and demand a reasonable rate of exchange or pay for their labor.

Opportunity for Women

The gold rush brought a life of exceptional challenge. For women, who mostly did not mine gold, it offered entrepreneurial opportunity as well.

Luzena Wilson arrived with the certain instinct that "the one who did not work in '49 went to the wall. It was a hand-to-hand fight with starvation at first." With her stove installed beneath a pine tree, Luzena set herself to the hospitality trade.

"I bought two boards from a precious pile belonging to a man who was building the second wooden house in town. With my own hands I chopped stakes, drove them into the ground, and set up my table. I bought provisions at a neighboring store, and when my husband came back at night he found, mid the weird light of the pine torches, twenty miners eating at my table. Each man as he rose put a dollar in my hand and said I might count him as a permanent customer. I called my hotel El Dorado. From the first day it was well patronized, and I shortly after took my husband into partnership."

1849-1859: Social and Environmental Crises

In the early months in the mining camps, the euphoria of having survived life-threatening journeys, combined with the camaraderie of a still-mysterious, shared adventure, gave rise to a certain communal spirit. Men were generous with one another, and with information -- exaggerated as it most often was. During the first year of working the mines, there was relative peace between Native Americans and whites as well. Good will flourished in a land of apparent plenty:

"The conviction was widespread that the mountains were a bank on which every man had a drawing account; if he came up short he need only seize his pick and pan and make a withdrawal.."

But the profile soon changed. The exaggerated rumors, and the increasing number of miners competing for space, sped the work pace. Miners raced through the short summer months of prime prospecting - winter brought impossible weather - spring brought flash floods, along with the next wave of migrant gold seekers. In the space of a season, the Forty-niners turned California "from an isolated island of tranquility to a raucous emporium of business and bedlam."

One diarist describes the skewed sense of time brought by the summer of '49: "The longest period of time ever thought of was a month. Money was loaned and houses were rented by the month. All engagements were made by the month . . . In the space of a month the whole city might be swept off by fire and a totally new one might be flourishing in its place."

Disease and Disorder

Rumors flashed from one hill to the next - $1500 could be washed in a day on the American River - a man below Placerville found $2,000 beneath a boulder - three Frenchmen removed a stump from the Coloma trail and dug out $5,000 - and towns sprang up instantly. An ex-slave from Viriginia named Jim Freeman and his Scottish partner, "Major" William Downie, built a log cabin on the site of fabulous diggings they discovered on the Yuba. Within four months, it was a boom town with fifteen hotels, five thousand residents, and a name - Downieville.

As towns came to life, the need for social order was overwhelming. Because everyone was too busy hunting gold to organize basic services, fires leveled towns repeatedly. Problems of water and sanitation were appalling - sickness was a constant. In one year, cholera killed 1500 in Sacramento alone.

Of the original Forty-niners who had followed the "California dream," an estimated 30 percent died of disease, accident, or violence. Uncounted Native Americans and other non-Anglos were casualties as well.

New arrivals had no idea how hard and unhealthy prospecting would be or how small would be their reward. The lessons of the departure sermons now resonated in the hearts of miners who were drained by one misery after another - cholera, pneumonia, wracking dysentery - exhaustion, homesickness, repeated hard luck in the claims. As the prospect of riches dimmed, suicides were reported. "It was heartrending to see stout-hearted men shedding tears over their horrible situation, not knowing what to do."

Some turned and went back where they had come from. Those with stronger constitutions kept on. Few would actually grow rich off their dream. And most of those who did were not to be found scrabbling in the hills, but in San Francisco, where they were swiftly recasting the dream within a distinctly urban framework.

Bayard Taylor was twenty-four years old, a poet and a celebrated travel writer when he sailed to San Francisco with intentions of writing a book about his trip to America's El Dorado. A gifted journalist, Taylor narrates in colorful detail the real estate explosion - the blizzard of businesses opening up - the transformation of San Francisco from a tent city into a metropolis of 15,000 in just four months. Speed was everything. No one knew how long the hills of gold would pay, but while they did, the merchant whose stock arrived first stood to profit even more handsomely than the prospector.

On first landing, Taylor recorded astonishing signs of California's distorted economy along the docks of San Francisco:

When the early surface gold had been taken and the hard reality of the prospecting life had been fully experienced, some Argonauts could see that fortune was not to be found in California and they struck out for home in disgust. But those who stayed -- what held them? More than the gold, it was their sense of being part of a once-in-a-lifetime adventure -- grand enough to pull people from the other side of the earth.

Present-day historian Kevin Starr describes the Gold Rush's mythic parallel:
"The Gold Rush was an Odyssey in that it was a wandering away from home, a saga of resourcefulness, a poem of sea, earth, loyalty, and return. It was an Iliad in that it was a cruel foreign war, a saga of communal ambition and a collective misbehavior, a poem of expatriation, hostile gods, and betrayal."

As the Gold Rush played itself out in California, opinions varied back East as to the meaning of the experience and the legacy it would leave. The transcendentalists, then entering their philosophical heyday, were divided. Henry David Thoreau saw proof of the moral bankruptcy of American culture: "Going to California. It is only three thousand miles nearer to hell." Ralph Waldo Emerson, in contrast, came to see it as a vindication of America's promise - "a real prosperity is rooted and grown."

Mining Technology in California

The vehicle of this prosperity and growth was mining technology itself, which began to develop during the California years. The miners' first equipment was a simple pan. Shortly more complex tools - the rocker, then the sluice - required increasing degrees of cooperation, impelling miners to form partnerships.

Men with picks and shovels in the stream beds began to give way to large-scale systems of dams involving hundreds of men. California miners used steam power to improve the speed of stamping mills, a rock-crushing technology used for centuries in Europe. And there was California's most original contribution to mining science: hydraulic mining, which used high-pressure hoses to wash away whole hillsides.

A Lawless Land

Social institutions, frail to begin with, similarly often crumbled under continuing pressure. Competition and the lack of organized legal or social structures very soon combined to foment an environment of lawlessness -- claim-jumping, theft, fraud and violence -- that has endured as the stereotyped wild West.

The miners were not bound by the laws of Mexico, nor as yet by those of any of the States. Almost from the first, miners had convened democratic meetings when it was necessary to settle claim disputes or work out simple mining codes, and these would eventually pave the way for more advanced forms of civic organization and cooperation. But now, vigilante committees were gathered to solve problems and dispatch justice expediently - the simplest form of law. The objective - partly because there were no jails to hold the accused, and largely because a man's time was easily worth between $16 and $100 a day - was to return men to their job in the claims with minimum time lost.

As increasing competition and decreasing resources brought worsened conditions and desperation,"law by Judge Lynch" became more frequent, and much vigilante activity focused on driving non-Anglos from valuable mining sites.

A vigilante "trial" of Indians in Coloma, near Sutter's original gold fields, brought a violent end to the multicultural coexistence that marked the first year of work in the California hills. William Perkins was one Coloma vigilante who felt remorse of conscience - and expressed it in terms of a clash of cultures. "We invade a land that is not our own, we arrogate a right through pretense of superior intelligence and the wants of civilization, and if the aborigines dispute our title we destroy them."

"Non-Americans" (arbitrarily defined) were subjected to high fees and taxes, then banished from claims. Native Americans, Chinese, and Latins - if not discouraged by these restrictions - were chased out by vigilante violence. Native Americans who had formerly worked in the employ of whites fled into the Sierras.

Antonio Coronel, who had enjoyed such good fortune earlier, was trying his luck further north when he came up against a posted notice ordering all non-citizens to leave within twenty-four hours and threatening violence to those who disobeyed. Coronel banded together with others to resist, but lasted only a few days before lynchings persuaded him to move on. He found the next camp no better. Marauding bands jumped the claims of Spanish-speaking miners or stole their supplies at will. "For me, gold mining is finished."

When Bayard Taylor surveyed the California hills, he was reminded of "a princess fallen into the hands of robbers, who cut off her fingers for the sake of the jewels she wears."

Environmental Disaster

A decade after the Forty-niners' arrival, the gold fields were largely "a wasteland of caved-in hillsides, heaped debris, and tree stumps." Hydraulic mining had carved up the land and washed mud and silt into the rivers, which ran brown with waste. Streams and rivers were dammed, drained, and rerouted. Fish died. Wildlife was driven out.

The altered environment affected Native American use of the land. Rivers that had been their waterways and fishing sites were cut off and spoiled, lands that had been hunting and gathering grounds were ruined. Of those not already driven off by violence, many more now either forsook their homelands for the higher hills or remained in poverty and deteriorating health.

For Kevin Starr and other historians, the Native American and European-American understandings of the land's resources starkly reflect the confrontation between ideals of progress and conservation. It was the tradition of the Pima and other peoples of the region to support themselves with renewable resources. Gold, in contrast, was the resource that fed the immigrants - fed their dream if not their bodies, and fed their progress, advanced the social system they were importing.

California After the Gold Rush

By 1852 California, having voted against slavery, was a state, and the California gold rush was over. The Forty-niners departed, but many veteran prospectors rushed almost immediately to Australia and New Zealand, Colorado, and British Columbia, motivated all over again by the irresistible news of rich discoveries of ore in new, even more remote wildernesses ─ "Eldorado."

At a heavy price, the California Gold Rush in only a few years brought accelerated development and unprecedented transformations that affected the life of the nation as a whole.

California's population soared from 14,000 to 265,000 and its social structure and culture were permanently altered. Tens of thousands of "Argonauts" stayed on as farmers. A social infrastructure, critically lacking at first, was now established. Fire companies, mills, brickyards and foundries, railroads and stage routes were developed rapidly, as were improved communications within the new state and coast to coast. San Francisco five times burned to the ground, five times rebuilt evolved a financial base and cultural sophistication that would soon rival the established cities of the East. At the same time, the myth of the California life freer, richer, and faster continued to attract immigrants.

Perhaps the gold rush's farthest-reaching social and industrial legacy was the modernization of technology, turning mining into a major industry supported by an evolving network of other industries and services. As Daniel Boorstin sums up: "By the time of the advance of mining from California into the Rocky Mountain area after 1858, the 'lone prospector' was no more than a myth. Prospecting had become a group enterprise."

And what became of the California gold itself?

Most of it was shipped out, circulating into the world money supply and providing a boost to speculation. A good deal went back East. Some of it nourished San Francisco trade and real estate.

Only a very few of the "Argonauts" had been made rich by their experience. Some Coronel, Audubon, Bruff and many others had been broken by it.

Others, like Louise Clappe, were deepened: California had been her Walden.

At the start, she had written back home: "no newspapers, no churches, lectures, concerts or theaters; no fresh books, no shopping or calling, no picnics, no promenades, no rides or drives, no vegetables but potatoes and onions, no milk, no eggs, no nothing." By the time she left, she was recommending everyone should go to California, "just to see how little it takes to make people comfortable."

A generation after returning to his Baltimore practice, a physician, Jacob Stillman, attempted to track down the Argonauts he had sailed with to the Eldorado of '49. He found that a fifth had died prospecting, a fifth had stayed on in California, and most had returned east. Uprooting himself once again, Stillman returned to settle in California, "cherishing the hopes that made radiant the morning of our lives."

Others had unhappier memories.. Franklin Langworthy was born in 1798 and died around 1855, the same year that his Gold Rush recollections were published. The full title of his book is Scenery of the plains, mountains and mines: or, A diary kept upon the overland route to California, by way of the Great Salt Lake travels in the cities, mines, and agricultural district - embracing the return by the Pacific Ocean and Central America, in the years 1850, '51, '52 and '53. Published at Ogdensburgh, N.Y., by J.C. Sprague, 1855

Langworthy wrote in this memoir that his experience had been "a pilgrimage in a strange land, a banishment from good society, a living death, and a punishment of the worst kind, and the time spent here ought to be considered as a blank period in existence, and accordingly struck from the record of one's days."

Major Gold Rushes, continued:

Part III. The Comstock

Part IV. The Klondike

Back to Part I and Student Permission

Gold Rushes Bibliography

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Updated Jan 1 2009