The Gold Rush of California

The Gold Rush of California

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In the United States, there would be a new overhaul to its identity. By 1848,

businesses would eventually see a new and prosperous way to make money. The U.S.

also began to see a few cultures begin to spark and the attitudes of people would change,

especially their views about taking risks. This overhaul is known as the Gold Rush of

California. The Gold Rush made an impact on American society through diversity and

people.

     The traditional beginning of the Gold Rush was the story of James Marshall.

Marshall was instructed by John Sutter, a business man, to find an area to build a

sawmill. Marshall, traveled with a few workers, it took him a while to find the right spot

because: "nothing but a mule could climb the hills; and when I would find a spot where

the hills were not steep, there was no timber to be had" (Holliday 56). Marshall had

finally found an area where he could build a sawmill, and managed to get his team

through the steep hills of California. One morning he came upon an area of the camp to

check the status of the camp. When he was observing the water flow, he noticed

something really shiny. Marshall picked up the gold pieces, assuming that this was a

fluke, but as the day grew older, he found a few more pieces of gold. Then there was that

famous quote that people tend to still say today: "Boys, by God I believe I have found a

gold mine. (Holliday 58)”

     This story was taken in to account as the first story to hit the globe about gold

being found in California. Actually, there is another story. This one is about a Mexican,

who found gold in the hills of California, long before news had spread about gold being

found by James Marshall. His name was Francisco Lopez. He was traveling in the San



Fernando Valley, in 1842, during the time California was still a territory. Lopez was

taking a rest, when he found a few pieces of gold, as he continued to dig, he found more

gold. Ironically enough, the gold mines that Lopez had discovered were in the south of

California towards Los Angeles and the gold that was found by Marshall was in the north

towards present-day San Francisco. Also the mines that were used to dig up the gold

found by Lopez were rarely used during the great Gold Rush in the north, despite a rush

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The Gold Rush of California Essay

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by the Sonorans for his mines from the finding up until the Marshall discovery. March

15, 1848 was the date that would change the lives of so many people. This was the day

that a local newspaper in California, The Californian, published the article about James

Marshall's finding of gold (Holliday, 53).

     By the time the news of the Gold Rush started heading east, there was a

problem. People were very reluctant about heading west. This was a time where people

did not believe in rumors and admired government officials. It finally took the speech

from the President of the United States to tell them that it was alright. The President at

the time was James K. Polk and he stated: "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" (Holliday, 66).

In other words, Polk was explaining that the people who were telling him about the gold

in California were believable and the gold in the hills of California are based on fact not

rumor. The people in the Eastern part of the United States did hear this and started to give

up their lives, and set out on an adventure that awaited them for greatness or back to

where they came from with not even a slight hint of gold dust. It was rather evident that



by early 1849, Gold Fever hit the nation, and the newspapers were really pushing the idea

of Gold Fever. For example, a newspaper in Indiana printed an ad, explaining about a

man selling salve. These little bottles sold for $2.50-$5.00. What one was supposed to

do with it was to rub the salve all over a body in California and roll down a hill and once

a person is down the hill, a person would have so much gold dust, that it would allow that

person to live happily ever after (Holliday 72). Because of the media, discussions about

the Gold Rush were part of an everyday conversation at the dinner table. Young men had

so many dreams of gold that they left their family "for a year of pain in return for a

lifetime of riches” (Holliday 62).

      One question that goes through a researcher’s mind is how did people

travel in the first place? There were very few roads and transportation was limited at the

time. During the Gold Rush, people who lived on the east coast of the United States

would actually board steamers and sailboats. There were a few problems however, people

had to wait and be patient. The ships had to travel from the east coast of the U.S. past the

Cape Horn in South America to California, This would be cause for concern because this

trip would take six months. Seasickness was rampant and the only stop between the East

Coast would be in Rio de Janeiro for supplies, but eventually the food would be full of

bugs and not worth eating by the time they get to Cape Horn. The water that would be

stored for the journey would eventually be impossible to drink, because it is stored in the

ships and sometimes it would go bad. This was all highlighted by the boredom and all

people could do was wait and have visions of gold float in their heads. The Panama Canal

was not known to exist at the time of the Gold Rush, but soon thereafter, people would



talk about how ships did not have to circle South America, and could use the Panama

Canal. The trip would be a little bit shorter than before, but there was a great risk to cut

through the canal. The risk of malaria and cholera was evident when passengers got sick

through the food and water that was provided. Also, there were times when passengers

were stranded because ferries in the Pacific were very rare, so they had to wait for weeks,

even months, for a ferry up to San Francisco (Upham, 110). The other route to the west,

the California-Oregon Trail, was taken by those who lived in the Midwest of the United

States. Most of the travelers who traveled along the California-Oregon Trail were

greenhorns which meant those who traveled were city folk and were just beginning to do

things like fire a gun, follow a plow and even ride a horse. The greenhorns may have

learned how to do these simple tasks but they were not interested in doing the objective.

During their travels, all the greenhorns were thinking about was the gold. Most of the fear

people had about riding the Oregon-California Trail was about running into Native

Americans. However after the primary contact with Native Americans, the fear usually

turned into friendliness. The true fear among the travelers was trying to keep hydrated,

especially during the last leg of the trip. There would be long stretches of land without

water and resulted in severe thirst. When people who were already in California learned

of the thirst problem, they started filling barrels of water and began selling it for at least a

dollar per spoonful. There were times where a person would charge one hundred dollars

for a glass of water. Those without the money to pay for the water would die of thirst, and

those that managed to survive by paying for the water had a hard time starting out in the

mines, because most of their money went towards a few cups of water.



     The gold of California was probably the most accessible in the world. The

reason that this is so is because California had just become a part of the United States

a few days after Marshall’s discovery. So the gold was lying there with no government or

police to watch over it, just the carefree forty-niner who was able to get his hands

on it first. But soon there was an opportunity to make money and not through

panning. It was made primarily through business. At one point, a man could pay a

dollar for dinner if he was on the east coast, but in San Francisco during the Gold Rush,

the cost of dinner would be twenty-five dollars (Holliday 81). This was due to the

economic status of the area. Everyone had so much gold. The forty-niners were not

willing to give up the gold, so they went elsewhere to look for food that was free. The

only food that was readily available was John Sutter’s, own garden, which was supposed

to be for his colony, but the forty-niners kept raiding his garden as well as take building

material to build homes. This would eventually cause Sutter’s empire to collapse. Sutter

did not have “Gold Fever’ and he was unfortunantly in the way of those that had the

entrepreneurial spirit of the new Californians. He just wanted an agricultural empire, and

refused to alter his vision. It is ironic that the man who had a part in the first discovery of

gold would not take advantage of the situation. Sutter left California disillusioned and

dejected (Holliday, 215).

     In the wake of Sutter’s departure, a new breed of entrepreneurism entered the

state. It all started with a man who did not want the gold, but only wanted the money. As

soon as the news of gold filtered, there was a young man named Sam Brannan, who

wanted to somewhat take advantage of the Gold Rush. He turned out to be a rather



wealthy man. He did not earn his riches by being one of the first men to enter the mines

of northern California, but by being a smart businessman. He took a tube of gold dust that

he had picked up and was running around the streets of San Francisco, telling the people

that there is gold in the hills. He bought a load of pick axes and shovels, which before the

rush were a quarter each. However, by the time the Gold Rush started, Brannan was

selling those items for fifteen dollars with people believing that the fifteen dollars was a

meager expense compared to the riches they were going to be acquiring. Brannan was

definitely rich and accumulated $36,000 in nine weeks (PBS, par 10).

     It was very common to meet business people that would soon be famous for

their products today. A regular day in San Francisco, you would meet people like Levi

Strauss (Levi jeans), who owned a dry-goods store, Phillip Armour (Armour hot dogs),

who ran a butcher shop, Henry Wells and William Fargo (Wells Fargo Bank), ran the

post office and the bank, and the newspaper, The Call, was run by Brett Harte (a western

writer) and Samuel Clemens (Mark Twain, the great American author). During the time

of the Gold Rush, talent was needed in different areas of California, especially from

women. The men who traveled from the East Coast did not know how to do most

domestic chores, such as keeping a house clean, sewing, cooking, etc., so women would

take advantage of the opportunity by selling their skills in exchange for money. There

were so many men out there who did not know how to do most things and/or simply did

not want to do the task, that women in California would make at least a $1000 dollars a

week. There was also the fact that there were very few women around and the men were

actually getting desperate. The men who would actually get married would charge five



dollars for a man to attend his wedding just to see the woman (Holliday 95) (Levy, 113).

During that time period of 1848-1849, not everybody but most were making money and

leading a prosperous life.

     The California Gold Rush was not just a migration for the Americans, but

an event in time that many people from around the world would take advantage of.

Many foreigners also worked the mines. Among the foreigners that came to California,

most were Chilean, Chinese, Irish, Mexican, German and Turkish. Like most of the

Americans that were in California, the foreigners had no intention of staying at all after

becoming rich. But there was a difficult situation and that was how were they going to

get the gold home? This was a question asked by many because bandits preyed on the

foreigners. The Chinese had a rather unique solution. The Chinese would get the gold that

they had mined and melted the gold. The melted gold would turn into cookware, woks,

etc. When it was time to go home, the items would be really dusty that no one ever

noticed that the cookware was actually made of gold (Quaife 79). As soon as the gold had

reached China, the miners would melt the gold again and cash it in.

     There was also resentment towards the foreigners, especially when there was no

gold in the area. This became rather evident when the California legislature passed

legislation called the Foreign Miners Tax in 1850, which was a twenty-dollar per month

payment for the use of the land (Quaife, 100). The only effect this had on the land was

more resentment between ethnicities. Despite some people refusing to pay the tax and

leaving the country, most of the people decided to stay and continued mining or opened

up a business. They started to thrive despite small skirmishes in the streets of San



Francisco. There was one ethnicity, however, that did not do as well as other Americans.

The Native Americans were all rounded-up and taken to a desolate area with very few

resources. Before this ordeal happened, there were about 300,000 Native Americans. By

the time the Gold Rush ended, there were only 50,000 left. The African Americans did

surprisingly well with the resentment that was going on. The Southerners, who bought

their slaves to help in the digging, found out that some forty-niners were quite upset, not

because they were against slavery, but because they were doing it for someone who was

not willing to do the work. Also, the forty-niners felt as if they had been degraded to the

position of a slave because they were doing the same labor as the African American.

There was more resentment towards the slave master during the Gold Rush than with the

slave. In 1850, California was admitted as a free state, but there were few in the state that

would care about freedom, all they would care about was the money and it was becoming

more difficult to find it (Lapp, 49).

     There was an opportunity for every man to make money through business, but

that would not last for long. By mid 1849, the miner population was growing at a fast

rate, but the gold was disappearing at an even quicker rate. There were miners going to

work every day to find the means to find more gold, but every day the gold would

become less. As panning became less effective the miners would use other sources of

technology to dig the gold. But it became apparent that there was too little gold for a

thriving population. What was once a friendly camaraderie, became a pit of despair and

frustration. The miners turned to really desperate activities such as gambling, drinking,

and adultery. Most of these men were faithful husbands who had children and promised



to come back with wagons filled with gold yet the men were filled with despair and

anguish and turned to evils that would supposedly ease the pain . Gambling and drinking

would eventually lead to one common theme- crime. Jails became full and hangings were

at an all-time high. Most miners would leave California empty-handed. Some would stay

to see if they could get that last bit of gold. There were those that had gotten lucky in

the 1850's, but this would only be a new hope for miners to continue to press on and find

new areas of gold, which were very few and far between. All hope would eventually be
lost and most miners would not return home because of embarrassment or death
(Holliday, 175).

     While all this was going on, there was a growth in the land and that is

the city of San Francisco. It started out as a tiny village of a few hundred people in the

1840’s, but the discovery of gold would eventually give the city an unimaginable growth.

The city had grown so much that it averaged thirty new houses and two murders per day.

A plot of land in San Francisco would cost sixteen dollars in the pre-Gold Rush era

however, during the Gold Rush it would cost $45,000 (PBS, par. 12). This would happen

despite the city burning to the ground twice, because there was always money to rebuild

and people willing to continue to buy. There was nearly 500,000,00 dollars that was

exchanged in the 1850’s alone and everybody wanted a share of the pot. Newly rich

miners would come down from the hills because they were rich and they were hungry for

fun, and thousands of merchants were willing to help them do that, but for a price,

especially Sam Brannan. By the 1850’s, Brannan had owned half of downtown San

Francisco. When Brannan made his first $36,000 the money did not stop there (Holliday,

110). It came pouring in, because by 1856, his income was at nearly a half-million dollars



and he even had his own currency. Brannan became the richest man in California and he

represented the boldness, the opportunism and entrepreneurism that had become

California.

     Gold evidently became a magnet that bought people from all over the world.

The mix of diversity and ethnicity quickly turned San Francisco into a major cultural

center through theatre, opera and also newspaper companies that outnumber the amount

of newspaper companies in London. The city had become the envy of the world, and

thanks to the ethnicities and diversity that collided together because of a discovery at a

sawmill, the culture had become the greatest strength in San Francisco. Although the gold

had eventually run out, the impact of the Gold Rush lives on. California was shaped by

those who came, those that sought adventure, to form the idealistic view of what

California is today and that is a place that accepts and nurtures the risk takers of the

world. John Sutter never saw the opportunity for the gold because he couldn’t alter his

vision, and he left the state. But as Sutter and others left the state, more new Californians

came in. These new people could deal with the fact that risks need to be taken and are

willing to change their lives. The impact on America was evident through the Gold Rush,

from the discoveries made by Lopez, Sutter and Marshall to the ethnically rich cultures

that surround California, and Sam Brannan, who defined what business is today, making

San Francisco into a booming business center. Through his entrepreneurial skill Brannan

set a key example in what America would look like today through business. But what

would Brannan have if Marshall did not find that gold? What about Lopez, what if there

was a rush for his gold? I leave with saying, “The rest is history.”


Works Cited

The Gold Rush. 1 May. 1997. Wells Fargo, PBS. 20 Oct. 2000



Holliday, J.S. Rush for Riches: Gold Fever and the Making of California. Berkeley: U of
     
California P, 1999.

Lapp, Rudolph. Blacks in Gold Rush California. New Haven: Yale U P, 1977.

Levy, Jo Ann. They Saw the Elephant: Women in the California Gold Rush. Hamden:
     
SSP, 1990.

Quaife, Milo Milton, ed. Pictures of Gold Rush California. New York: Citadel, 1967.

Upham, Samuel. Notes of a Voyage to California via Cape Horn. Ed. Ray Billington.
     
New York: Arno, 1973.

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