The California Gold Rush

John Sutter

Before Gold Was Discovered:
Prior to the gold discovery in 1848, California was not a state. The land belonged to Mexico. However, the Mexican government had very little involvement in the area as it was so far north. California was fairly isolated as it was difficult to travel there from the United States and Europe. Therefore, the majority of people who lived in Northern California prior to 1849 were Mexican and Native American. Sprinkled among them were a few Europeans who found California to be a good escape from whatever they left behind. John Sutter was one of those who found Northern California to be a haven from his family and debts that he left behind in Switzerland.

James Marshall Gold Discovery—A Chance Encounter:
Initially, there was no thought of finding gold in California, no one was looking. Rather, farming, ranching, and trading were the businesses of the day. After building his fort in what is now Sacramento, John Sutter planned on developing the nearby land along the confluence of the Sacramento and American rivers and creating a new town called New Helvetia. In order to build it he needed wood. After depleting the lumber in the immediate area of New Helvetia, he sent James Marshall up the American River to look for a new source of timber that could easily be transported by raft back to the waterfront.

Marshall with his workmen began building a saw mill in Coloma upriver from New Helvetia’s waterfront. On January 24, 1848 while Marshall was inspecting his mill, he discovered gold in the water. He was uncertain whether it was truly gold. After undergoing several tests, it was determined to indeed be gold and was sent to President Polk in Washington DC.

Word Got Out:

News of the gold discovery travelled fast. Not only did locals hear about it, but so did Mexicans, Americans, Europeans, Australians, Asians, and people from even further reaches around the world. The idea of getting rich quick convinced people to leave their families and homes, attempt a difficult passage over land and sea, and try their luck. Those who came were doctors, lawyers, farmers, teachers, businessmen, the poor, and anyone else who had gold fever. These people did not have experience in gold mining. In fact, many of them had no experience with manual labor.

gold panner Success and Failure:
The earliest miners to arrive were the most successful. As the easy to find gold along the rivers was depleted, Gold miners had to devise new ways of finding it. When panning was no longer profitable, miners turned to dry digging or digging in the soil. Some mined into hillsides where they found granite which sometimes holds streaks of gold. Later, the miners resorted to hydraulic mining which entailed spraying high powered water at hillsides to wash away the gold hidden inside.

Finding gold was generally due to luck. Some made fortunes and some didn’t. Many spent their gold as fast as they found it on food and booze. It was the rare miner who returned home with their treasure.

Business men far and away had the most long term success. By selling equipment, lodging, or drink to the miners, entrepreneurs made huge profits with little risk. Sam Brannan is the most famous of those early salesmen because of his shrewd tactics. He announced the gold find, printed his own paper about it, and then sold picks and shovels to the arriving hopeful gold seekers.

Location of Gold Mines:

There were three regions in California: Northern, Middle, and Southern. El Dorado County is in the Middle region. Because the easiest to find gold was in rivers that had eroded the gold out of the rocks, mining towns were located along rivers. When a strike was made, boom towns would pop up around the site. However, as quickly as they were built, they were deserted as miners moved on to a new mining area.

Some of the local boomtowns that still exist in El Dorado County today are Placerville (also known as Old Dry Diggings and Hangtown), Coloma, Georgetown, Cool, and Fairplay. Placerville boasts the Gold Bug Mine which can still be explored today.

Life of a 49er:

The miners who rushed into California are typically referred to as 49ers because they arrived in 1849. A day in the life of a miner was very difficult. It was dirty, wet, cold or hot, and exhausting. When a strike was made, the miner worked from sun up to sun down. He wore the same muddy clothes every day, and had few choices for food. Some slept in tents, a few had cabins, and many used a tree as shelter for the night. During the rainy and snow seasons, the miners could not work and were forced to stay inside for long dreary days. Due to exhaustion, over exposure to the weather, and a poor diet, many got sick or died. Being a miner was an awful life, but for many the chance of making a fortune was worth it.

Women in the Mines:

Although the majority of people who flooded California during the gold rush were men, there were also women to be found. Many were business women who operated hotels, restaurants, brothels, and laundries. Some were wives and mothers. California offered an opportunity for adventure, independence, and entrepreneurship that weren’t available to women elsewhere. California had few rules and fewer laws. As long as you didn’t steal or murder, you were generally left alone without concern of moral or social expectations.

Inventions of the Gold Rush:
Necessity is the mother of invention, and as gold became more difficult to find, miners found new ways and tools to seek it. The use of mercury, also known as quicksilver, attached to fine gold powder and provided a loss free method. The “Long Tom” was an improvement on the age old method of using a pan and rocker. A large new undertaking was the engineering of dams and flumes to reroute rivers. Levis were invented in San Francisco to provide miners with heavy duty pants. The California stamp mills were designed in order to crush gold veined quartz rock. High powered water hoses, nozzles, and pumps called “monitors” were created for hydraulic mining.

Famous Names:

  • John A. Sutter: A Swiss entrepreneur who built Sutter’s Fort and planned the city of New Helvetia where Sacramento now stands. It was his mill on the American River was James Marshall found gold.
  • John A. Sutter Jr.: He founded Sacramento which was the gateway to the El Dorado County gold mines.
  • John Marshall: He worked for Sutter building a saw mill in Coloma. He found the first gold on January 24, 1848.
  • Sam Brannan: He published his own newspaper the California Star to promote the gold discovery and sell equipment and supplies to miners.