The great “Gold Rush of 1849” caused California to be named “The Golden State.” Even today, gold mining continues on a large scale. Gold ranks 3rd in California’s mineral production. The state has produced over 150 million ounces of gold, most of which comes from “The Mother Lode” placer mining areas.
The California Gold Rush was sparked by the discovery of gold nuggets in the Sacramento Valley in early 1848 and was arguably one of the most significant events to shape American history during the first half of the 19th century. As news spread of the discovery, thousands of prospective gold miners traveled by sea or over land to San Francisco and the surrounding area; by the end of 1849, the non-native population of the California territory was some 100,000 (compared with the pre-1848 figure of less than 1,000). A total of $2 billion worth of precious metal was extracted from the area during the Gold Rush, which peaked in 1852.
On January 24, 1848, James Wilson Marshall, a carpenter originally from New Jersey, found flakes of gold in the American River at the base of the Sierra Nevada Mountains near Coloma, California.
At the time, Marshall was working to build a water-powered sawmill owned by John Sutter, a German-born Swiss citizen and founder of a colony of Nueva Helvetia (New Switzerland, which would later become the city of Sacramento). As Marshall later recalled of his historic discovery: “It made my heart thump, for I was certain it was gold.”
The ’49ers Come to California
Throughout 1849, people around the United States (mostly men) with gold fever borrowed money, mortgaged their property or spent their life savings to make the arduous journey to California. In pursuit of the kind of wealth they had never dreamed of, they left their families and hometowns. In turn, women left behind took on new responsibilities such as running farms or businesses and caring for their children alone.
Thousands of would-be gold miners, known as 49ers for the year they arrived, traveled overland across the mountains or by sea, sailing to Panama or even around Cape Horn, the southernmost point of South America.
By the end of the year, the non-native population of California was estimated at 100,000, (as compared with 20,000 at the end of 1848 and around 800 in March 1848). To accommodate the needs of the 49ers, gold mining towns had sprung up all over the region, complete with shops, saloons, brothels and other businesses seeking to make their own Gold Rush fortune.
The overcrowded chaos of the mining camps and towns grew ever more lawless, including rampant banditry, gambling, alcoholism, prostitution and violence. San Francisco, for its part, developed a bustling economy and became the central metropolis of the new frontier.