The California Gold Rush

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The Gold Rush is an integral part of the history both of California and the whole world. It lasted just a decade, but its impact was significant and long-term. Many men around the globe abandoned their families and property to make a fortune and have a better life. However, not all their dreams and aims were fulfilled.

The Beginning of the Gold Rush

The beginning of the Gold Rush is connected with carpenter James W. Marshall who found gold on January 24, 1848, while building a mill near Coloma in California. One morning, he came to the river flowing near the camp and saw a piece of metal shining in the water. He brought it to John Sutter, the owner of the mill, and they realized it was gold after checking it. John Sutter decided to keep the discovery in secret since he wanted to create an agricultural empire and was afraid of losing his land because of the quest for gold. However, one of his workers leaked information to Samuel Brannan, a merchant and publisher of the San Francisco newspaper. The ambitious man saw opportunities for making a profit on the Gold Rush. He bought all pans, picks, and shovels in California at extremely low prices because he knew they would be in demand among gold miners. Then, Samuel Brannan wrote an article about gold found at John Sutter's mill, but it created little stir as the majority of people did not believe it. Therefore, he walked around San Francisco displaying a bottle filled with gold dust and shouting about gold at Sutter's land ("The Gold Rush: California transformed," n.d.). The news about the discovery of gold spread quickly around town and by mid-June approximately three-quarters of the population had left San Francisco for gold mines. In August, the quantity of miners in California reached 4,000 people ("The Gold Rush of 1849," n.d.). In a few weeks, Samuel Brannan earned an enormous sum of money by selling the mining equipment he had bought before. Concerning John Sutter, as he had predicted, the large number of newcomers destroyed his property completely. His losses were never compensated.



People throughout the world heard rumors about fortunes being made in California, but they did not believe them and were reluctant to leave native cities. However, the situation changed in summer 1848 when the President of the United States, James K. Polk, dispatched a group of officers to investigate the land and bring him some samples of gold. On December 5, 1848, the President delivered the speech, which confirmed the rumors and declared that "the accounts of the abundance of gold in that territory are of such extraordinary character as would scarcely command belief were they not corroborated by authentic reports of officers in the public service" ("The Gold Rush of 1849," n.d.). As a result, thousands of men started migrating to California. The transportation was limited and there were few roads at that period; therefore, the first migrants were the ones who could reach the land by boats, for instance, from Mexico, Peru, Oregon, Chile, the Sandwich Islands, and China. The rest of Europe, Australia, and the US managed to arrive in California only in 1849; hence, they were called the "forty-niners" ("The California Gold Rush," n.d.). At that period, many men around the world were obsessed with the Gold Rush. The conversation about gold could be heard in every house. Men sold their property, borrowed money, or spent all their savings to go to California and become wealthy. They left their wives, children, and hometowns. Consequently, during that time the majority of women had to take on new responsibilities and run businesses as well as farms alone. Besides, they had to raise and care for children without any help ("The Gold Rush of 1849," n.d.).

Sea and Overland Routes

There were three routes for foreigners who wished to reach California from the East. The first one was to sail 18,000 miles around South America and up the Pacific coast. The second way was to travel by overland routes through the American territory and brave deep rivers, wide prairies, and high mountains. The journey of 2,000 miles took approximately three or four months. That route was the biggest challenge for foreigners as many of them died of diseases such as cholera, dysentery, scurvy, and typhoid fever. The last way was to sail the narrow Isthmus of Panama and then sail to California. The journey lasted 6 months and the only stop was in Rio de Janeiro to restore supplies of fresh food and water. As a rule, food was rotten and full of bugs by the time the ship reached the destination. Water stored for the journey was also impossible to drink. Consequently, due to such poor quality of food and water, many passengers became infected with cholera or malaria. Besides, some people had seasickness and suffered a lot. Moreover, during the trip foreigners died of boredom because there were no entertainments aboard. Lastly, sometimes passengers were stranded since ships in the Pacific were very rare, which is why they had to wait for several weeks or even months for a ferry to San Francisco ("The California Gold Rush," n.d.). Since journeys were extremely difficult, most migrants were young people.

The Mining Life

By the end of 1849, it was estimated that approximately 100,000 of "forty-niners" came to California ("The Gold Rush of 1849," n.d.). As a rule, they lived in camps that began as rows of tents along the river. Whenever gold was found, mining camps appeared immediately at that site almost overnight. Once the easy gold was gone, camps disappeared just as quickly. The mining life was rather harsh. It was a rare case when a worker found a lot of gold at once. In reality, he spent the whole day standing knee-deep in cold water and sifting through sand and mud to find small pieces of gold. Poor food and exhaustion were commonplace at that time. Mining required much physical strength. Due to the hard labor, men aged rapidly. Their health began to fail very soon. Their backs ached, teeth rotted, and hair turned gray. Besides, living conditions were extremely terrible. Men did not have an opportunity to take a bath and change clothes regularly. Furthermore, each season the epidemics of dysentery and smallpox spread throughout the camps. Moreover, many miners suffered from scurvy as they did not consume enough fruit and vegetables. One more problem for miners was the lack of money. Few miners managed to make a fortune. Others could hardly cover their daily expenses. Besides, sometimes con artists and gamblers came to camps to swindle workers of their money ("The California Gold Rush," n.d.).

Overcrowding in mining camps and the desire to find more gold led to lawlessness. Violence, prostitution, gambling, and banditry reached their peak at that time. Moreover, foreigners had little respect for the Californian laws. The American military governors and officials took no action to establish order within the mining territory. Consequently, miners took some measures. They formed self-governing mining districts. An elected recorder, also called a chairman or arbitrator, was in charge of every district. His duties were to record all claims in the district and "settle disputes over contested claims" ("The Gold Rush: California transformed," n.d.). Although mining districts were democratic, they commonly encroached on rights of Asians, African Americans, and Latinos. Besides, miners gathered together to administer vigilante justice and punish those whom they suspected of committing a crime ("The Gold Rush: California transformed," n.d.).

Ethnic Conflicts and the Foreign Miners Tax

The Gold Rush in California was also marked by ethnic conflicts. As the quantity of gold decreased, hatred towards migrants grew. The Chinese were considered to be the most patient miners as they were used to hard labor in their homeland. They took over sites that other workers had left as the easy gold was mined. The steady and hard work of that nation made the sites bring profits. However, the Chinese encountered animosity from other miners. Observing their successes, American miners grew angry and started to force them, as well as the Native Americans and Mexicans out of the land. Driven away from the mines, the Chinese found jobs as cooks, restaurateurs, farmers, and cigar makers. Some of them grew crops and became significant contributors to the agricultural boom. Moreover, they opened cafes, laundries, and shops. There was such a large number of the Chinese who owned businesses that their neighborhood was called Chinatown ("The Gold Rush: California transformed," n.d.). In addition to ethnic conflicts, in 1850 the government introduced the Foreign Miners Tax. Migrants were obliged to pay 20 dollars per month. The tax was aimed at "protecting" American workers from foreign competition. The new law caused indignation among foreigners as they could not afford to pay such sum of money (Stolyarov, 2014). Consequently, many of them refused to pay the tax and left the country.

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Methods of Extracting Gold

At the beginning, pieces of gold were easy to find. They lied on the ground or in the river and miners picked them without any equipment. Every day, gold yielded thousands of dollars. Since the supply of gold dwindled, California underwent some changes. By the early 1850s, a single miner could no longer work alone as he needed some equipment and help to extract more gold. Therefore, miners began working together to dam rivers and reroute water. Such technology made gold more visible. Miners used many other methods to extract gold. The simplest one was panning. Miners squatted by the side of a river using shallow metal pans and mixing soil from the riverbed. Circular motions with the pan made lighter soil wash away leaving only gold ("The Gold Rush: California transformed," n.d.). Besides, workers lined their pan with mercury that created the magnet for gold. Unfortunately, miners were unaware of consequences of using that metal. Mercury polluted rivers and did harm to all creatures living in the water. As the easy gold was gone, miners had to find more complex ways of extracting gold below the surface. One of the most popular new methods was hydraulicking. Miners dug deep tunnels into the earth and "used the destructive power of high-pressure water to wash away banks and hills, uncovering gold-bearing gravel far beneath the surface" ("The Gold Rush: California transformed," n.d.). However, the technology left the earth deeply scarred.

Business during the Gold Rush

During that period, many local people opened shops, brothels, saloons, and other businesses to meet the migrants' needs and become rich due to the Gold Rush. Before the discovery of gold, many lands of California had been used for cattle ranches. Owing to the demand for food, agriculture developed significantly. Many farmers used rich soil and favorable climate of California to grow crops, fruit, and vegetables and make profits by selling them. Food prices were extremely high and miners had to pay large sums of money not to die of hunger. It was estimated that by 1880 agriculture yielded more profit than gold mines ("The Gold Rush: California transformed," n.d.).

The history has many examples of people who became renowned throughout the world due to the California Gold Rush. Some of them were Levi Strauss, John M. Studebaker, and Philip Danforth Armour. The first one was a Bavarian merchant who came to California in 1853 with canvas, which he intended to sell to miners as tents. However, soon he had a better idea of using his canvas and made pants for gold miners. Later, Levi Strauss became the creator of famous trousers currently known around the world as "Levi's". Concerning John M. Studebaker, he built and sold wheelbarrows for miners. After a few years, his brothers and he became leaders in the production of buggies and wagons. Moreover, they began building automobiles and from 1902 until 1963 many Americans possessed cars known as Studebakers ("The Gold Rush: California transformed," n.d.). One more merchant that made a fortune due to the Gold Rush was Philip Danforth Armour. He was a butcher from New York who started his career in a small gold-rush town of Placerville. Later, he and his family returned to Chicago where they became multi-millionaires owning the largest meat-packing business in the world ("The Gold Rush: California transformed," n.d.).

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The Impact of the Gold Rush

At the beginning of the year 1850, the Gold Rush in California started to decline and by 1852 it ended ("The California Gold Rush," n.d.). The Gold Rush made a tremendous impact on California and changed it greatly. Approximately 250,000 people arrived in California during that time ("The California Gold Rush," n.d.). As a result, such massive migration caused the economic growth of the state. San Francisco became a leading center of banking, shipping, manufacturing, and trade ("The Gold Rush: California transformed," n.d.). Moreover, as the city supplied food to miners, it became home for many rich people involved in gold extraction. Consequently, many businesses boomed as individuals wanted to cater to the public demand (Maranzani, 2013). The population of San Francisco grew from around 400 in 1845 to 35,000 in 1850 ("The California Gold Rush," n.d.). Furthermore, the government allocated funds for building new railroads and steamship lines (Rawls & Orsi, 1999). Besides, during the Gold Rush agriculture took the leading position as the demand for food increased. Therefore, many people became dairy farmers, fruit growers, and cattle raisers (Rawls & Orsi, 1999). The most important impact the Gold Rush had was the one on the political situation. Due to the increase in population, California applied for statehood. Skipping the territorial stage, California was admitted to the Union and became a free state in 1850. The constitution of the Union outlawed slavery and,consequently, many African Americans transported to California as slaves were freed ("The Gold Rush: California transformed," n.d.).

However, the Gold Rush had some negative impacts on California and caused many troubles to its residents. Migrants respected neither their traditions nor legal rights. In many cases, foreigners seized all their property and brought many diseases to the land ("The California Gold Rush," n.d.). Besides, technologies of gold extraction were rather destructive and damaged the environment. As a result, Native Americans suffered from starvation as the technologies killed fish and destroyed habitats. Moreover, construction of camps and settlements resulted in deforestation and destruction of grasslands and, consequently, many animals were in danger of extinction (Rawls & Orsi, 1999). Due to the lack of game, Native Americans often made raids and stole food and cattle from the whites, arousing hostility towards them.

To sum up, the Gold Rush was a momentous event in the history of California that attracted thousands of people embarking on the dangerous adventure to become wealthy. Unfortunately, their dreams did not come true and the majority of them returned home with no money. Concerning California, the discovery of gold had a tremendous impact on its political and social development. Besides, the economic boom occurred in almost every city as new industries appeared to meet the migrants' needs.

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