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Gold Found at Sutter’s Mill

On January 24, 1848, James Wilson Marshall, a carpenter who was originally from New Jersey, discovered flakes of gold. Marshall found these gold flakes in the American River, near the base of the Sierra Nevada Mountains in Northern California. Marshall later said of his discovery: “It made my heart thump, for I was certain it was gold.”

Sutter’s Mill: Home of the California Gold Rush

Only a few days after Marshall found the gold flakes, the treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo had been signed. This treaty put an end to the war between Mexico and the United States, and it put California in the hands of the U.S. At the time of the treaty, California’s population was made up of 6,500 Californios (people of Spanish or Mexican decent); 700 foreigners (primarily Americans); and 150,000 Native Americans.

News of the Gold Find Spreads like Wildfire

Although Marshall tried to keep his discovery under wraps, word of the finding soon got out. By the middle of March, at least one local newspaper was reporting that large amounts of gold had been found in Sutter’s Mill. In nearby San Francisco, shopkeeper Sam Brennan paraded through town with a vial of gold in his hands. By mid-June stores and houses were left empty as some three quarters of the male population had left for the gold mines. By August, the number of gold miners had reached 4,000.

Soon, the news spread of the gold rush outside of California bringing migrants to the territory. The first people to come looking for gold came by boat. They came from Oregon, Hawaii (the known as the Sandwich Islands), Mexico, Chile, Peru, and even China. In December 1848, President James Polk announced the positive results of a report by California’s Military Governor, Richard Mason. As Polk wrote, “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.”

The ‘49ers Flock to California

Although word of the gold rush spread slowly to the East Coast of the U.S., when news did arrive, people headed for California in search of gold. By 1849, people all over the U.S. were borrowing money or taking out their life savings so that they could join the gold rush. Thousands of would-be gold miners left their wives and children behind in search of gold. They travelled by land across the United States, or by sea, sailing to Panama or even around Cape Horn, the southernmost point of South America. These people became known as ‘49ers.

A poster promising riches in California.

By the end of the year, the non-native population of California was estimated to be 100,000. This was a sharp increase from the population of 20,000 at the end of 1848. To help accommodate the ‘49ers, gold mining towns sprang up all over the area. These towns had everything a gold miner would need, including shops, saloons, brothels and other businesses seeking to make their own Gold Rush fortune. These towns were over-crowded and mostly lawless, teeming with rampant banditry, gambling, prostitution and violence.

The End of the Gold Rush Nears

By 1850, the surface gold in California almost completely disappeared, even as more miners continued to arrive.  The search for gold soon moved below the ground and with this change, miners that had been independent now became wage laborers. Though gold mining continued throughout the 1850s, it had reached its peak by 1852, when some $81 million was pulled from the ground. After that year, the total take declined gradually, leveling off to around $45 million per year by 1857.

California Gold Rush Fun Facts

  • California did not have America’s first gold rush. That honor belongs to North Carolina, where gold had been discovered 50 years earlier
  • The gold rush was the largest mass migration in U.S. history
  • Early sections of San Francisco were built of ships abandoned by prospectors
  • The gold rush was dominated by men. 92% of the people mining for gold were male.