California Gold Rush

A special stamp was issued in 1999, marking 150 years since the California Gold Rush
A special stamp was issued in 1999, marking 150 years since the California Gold Rush

by Ray Setterfield


January 24, 1848 — James Wilson Marshall checked on this day that the watercourse of the mill he was in charge of was clear of silt and debris. He peered through the clear water, saw something shining up at him, and later recalled: “It made my heart thump, for I was certain it was gold.”

It was. And Marshall’s discovery led to the famous frantic California Gold Rush when thousands of get-rich-quick hopeful prospectors from all over the world engulfed the area.

Marshall was born in 1810 in New Jersey and like his father he became a carpenter and wheelwright. When he was 18 he decided to head west and spent several unsettled years in Kansas, Indiana and Illinois. Then in 1844 he joined a wagon train going to California.

It arrived in July, 1845 at a Sacramento River settlement run by John Sutter. He was a German-born Swiss citizen and founder of the colony of Nueva Helvetia (New Switzerland, which would later become the city of Sacramento).

Sutter at first hired Marshall as a carpenter but later they went into partnership to build a sawmill along the American River at Coloma. Marshall agreed to operate it in return for a portion of the lumber.

Then came the gold discovery. The partners tried to keep it a secret but word got out and newspapers were soon reporting that large quantities of the precious metal had been found at Sutter’s Mill.

An early trickle of get-rich-quick hopeful prospectors turned into a flood and by August of 1848 an estimated 4,000 of them had converged on the area. It was said that about three-quarters of the male population of San Francisco had left home to join the hunt for gold.

The influx was to turn into a frenzy in December after President James Knox Polk publicly announced that Colonel Richard Mason, California’s military governor, had issued a positive report on the gold discovery. Polk said: “The accounts of abundance of gold are of such an extraordinary character as would scarcely command belief were they not corroborated by the authentic reports of officers in the public service.”

These comments by the President served as a launch button for the gold rush in 1849. Men all over the United States left their families after borrowing money, mortgaging their homes or using life savings so that they could get to California.

They were known as the Forty-Niners and were joined by hopeful speculators from around the world including Mexico, Chile, Peru and even China. By the end of 1849, the non-native population of California was estimated at 100,000, as compared to about 800 in March of the previous year.

Mining camps and new towns sprang up everywhere, bringing with them general stores, saloons and brothels. Gambling, prostitution, violence and general lawlessness in the overcrowded settlements was rampant.

So the men who came out of them were tough and determined. But striking it rich with a pick and shovel was not only hard work, it called for a lot of luck. And it is fair to say that luck for the prospectors pretty well ran out in 1853 when the new technique of hydraulic mining was introduced. The growing industrialisation of mining meant that gold became more and more difficult to reach for independent miners and their daily take sharply decreased.

Mining had reached its peak in 1852 when the California earth yielded gold worth about $81 million. It then started to decline, the take levelling off to around $45 million a year by 1857. The gold rush is considered to have ended in 1858.

As for James Marshall, the man who started it all, his sawmill failed after the men working for him all abandoned their jobs to look for gold. And Marshall failed to win legal recognition of his own gold claims. Resentful, he wandered around California for a few years until settling in a small cabin where he died in 1885.

Published: January 13, 2021


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