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California Gold Rush | Precious Metals in History

California gold rush map
The California gold fields outlined on a map.

The California Gold Rush of 1848-49 began with the discovery of a mother lode that stretched several hundred miles in the Sierra Nevada Mountains.  Tectonic activity brought the region’s gold-bearing rocks nearer to the Earth’s surface.

 

John Sutter portrait
John Sutter, owner of the property where gold was found in 1848–igniting the California Gold Rush. Photo from sfmuseum.org

After the discovery of gold at Sutter’s Mill in 1848, some 300,000 people flocked to the region from all over the world, propelled by rumors that gold was as “common as clay.”

 

Prospectors came from across country.  Doctors, lawyers, bakers, blacksmiths, government officials, and laborers flocked to the goldfields.  Army records indicate that over half the soldiers stationed in California deserted their posts.  Entire crews deserted their ships.  Churches closed as their congregations dwindled.  

California forty niner
A man panning for gold in California during the Gold Rush.

 

The Oregon Spectator noted, “Almost the entire male population had gone gold digging in California.”  The early prospectors were called “forty-niners” for the year most of them arrived in California, and they were also known as “Argonauts after Jason who set sail in the Argo to bring home the legendary Golden Fleece.

crystal saloon in the Gold Rush
California miners in the Crystal Saloon.

 

Although other gold rushes took place in British Columbia, Nevada, Colorado, South Dakota, and the Klondike, the California Gold Rush captured popular imagination.  Americans romanticize the early days of the “wild west,” but in reality, life was difficult and very few realized their dreams of great wealth.  

 

miners weighing their gold
Miners weighing their gold. Photo from sfmuseum.org

To counteract rampant lawlessness and corruption, small mining towns and camps became mini-empires, enacting their own laws and regulations.  Arrest, trial, and punishment could be meted out in the course of a few hours.  There was no place to hold the accused and time meant money.  Verdicts were decided by a judge, a jury, or by popular vote and punishment ranged from banishment, to cutting off ears, branding, flogging, and hanging.

 

San Francisco Harbor during the gold rush
The San Francisco Harbor overcome with mining camps in April 1850.

Of chief concern were the rules for establishing miners’ claims.  The size of a claim was generally determined by the amount of land the miner could work by himself.  A miner was not permitted to sublet a claim or employ slaves to do the work.  To maintain a claim, a miner was required to spend at least one day a week working it.  When he was not on site, his claim was held if he left his tools on site.  

 

California clipper ships
Many prospective miners reached the California mining towns via sailing on a clipper.

Nevertheless, claim “jumping,” the colloquial term for stealing another’s site, was common practice.  Disputes were settled by a claims officer who was paid by the miners to patrol the mines and oversee the buying and selling of claims.  His presence also helped to discourage the practice of “salting,” where unprofitable claims were sold to unsuspecting buyers for thousands of dollars after gold was sprinkled in the dirt.

 

The California Gold Rush had a tremendous impact on the social and economic development of the American West.  California became a state, San Francisco grew from a small town to a major commercial center, and the steamship and railroad became key modes of modern transportation.

 

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