January 24, 1848: James W. Marshall looks into the American River while working at Sutter’s Mill in Coloma, California and sees something shining in the water. Upon investigation, it proves to be gold. Charles H. Bennett, a carpenter at the mill disputes Marshall’s claim to discovery, stating that he found the gold instead. Either way, John Sutter, owner of the mill, tried to keep the news quiet. He felt that digging for gold would ruin his chance to develop an agricultural community. He was correct.
News leaked out and in March was published in the San Francisco paper without immediate result. A local merchant, paid in gold dust, running through the streets yelling that gold was found in the mountains did much more than the newspapers. By August 19, the New York Herald, the first East Coast paper to carry the news, stated gold was found in the West. By December 5, President Polk confirmed the news to Congress. The move was on.
There were three ways to get from the East Coast to the West. First was steamship around South America. A trip that took 5-8 months to cover the 18,000 nautical miles. The second was to sail to Panama, use mules and canoes to cross through the jungles, and then catch another ship north. The third was to cross over land via the Oregon-California Trail. All three held danger. Shipwrecks, typhoid fever, cholera, ill-prepared crossing of the desert, heat, thirst, even death. San Francisco was a small town of about 1,000 residents in 1848 and by 1850 boasted a population of 25,000.
Eventually 300,000 people came west. Many were miners, but also there were the many folks needed to support the new boom economy. Roads were built, as were churches and schools. New town cropped up. The steamships steamed, the railroads chugged, and the agriculture grew to keep the new economy going. California became a state in 1850. Growth came at a cost. Native Americans were pushed aside. The area was disturbed environmentally. Many of the new miners lived in tent cities or shanty towns. The Gold Rush changed the face of the west.
“The parallel people often use is the California gold rush. People got rich selling picks and shovels.” – Charles Wagner
“It’s much like the gold rush. It starts off with quite a few honest, hardworking prospectors who strike it rich now and again. And then you get the hangers on, the camp followers, the hookers, all the rest of the garbage that comes along because they think the streets are lined with gold.” – Frank Griffin
“There is a gold rush going on out there like the one in 1849 and everyone is afraid of not being part of it. No one wants to say that they took an extended vacation then.” – Tom Dyal
“The California Gold Rush left us a tragic legacy. We appreciate state parks’ willingness to take action to end Empire’s toxic legacy of contaminating our watershed.” – Carrie McNeil