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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. .
Discovery at Sutter’s Mill
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.”
Days after Marshall’s discovery at Sutter’s Mill, the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo was signed, ending the Mexican-American War and leaving California in the hands of the United States. At the time, the population of the territory consisted of 6,500 Californios (people of Spanish or Mexican descent); 700 foreigners (primarily Americans); and 150,000 Native Americans (barely half the number that had been there when Spanish settlers arrived in 1769). In fact, Sutter had enslaved hundreds of Native Americans and used them as a free source of labor and makeshift militia to defend his territory and expand his empire.
Effects of the California Gold Rush: Gold Fever
Though Marshall and Sutter tried to keep news of the discovery under wraps, word got out, and by mid-March at least one newspaper was reporting that large quantities of gold were being turned up at Sutter’s Mill. Though the initial reaction in San Francisco was disbelief, storekeeper Sam Brannan set off a frenzy when he paraded through town displaying a vial of gold obtained from Sutter’s Creek. By mid-June, some three-quarters of the male population of San Francisco had left town for the gold mines, and the number of miners in the area reached 4,000 by August.
As news spread of the fortunes being made in California, some of the first migrants to arrive were those from lands accessible by boat, such as Oregon, the Sandwich Islands (now Hawaii), Mexico, Chile, Peru and even China. When the news reached the East Coast, press reports were initially skeptical. Gold fever kicked off there in earnest, however, after December 1848, when President James K. Polk announced the positive results of a report made by Colonel Richard Mason, California’s military governor, in his inaugural address. 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 Come to California
Throughout 1849, people around the United States (mostly men) 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, 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, prostitution and violence. San Francisco, for its part, developed a bustling economy and became the central metropolis of the new frontier.
The Gold Rush undoubtedly sped up California’s admission to the Union as the 31st state. In late 1849, California applied to enter the Union with a constitution that barred the Southern system of racial slavery, provoking a crisis in Congress between proponents of slavery and anti-slavery politicians. According to the Compromise of 1850, proposed by Kentucky’s Senator Henry Clay, California was allowed to enter as a free state, while the territories of Utah and New Mexico were left open to decide the question for themselves.
California's Mines After the Gold Rush
After 1850, the surface gold in California largely disappeared, even as miners continued to arrive. Mining had always been difficult and dangerous labor, and striking it rich required good luck as much as skill and hard work. Moreover, the average daily take for an independent miner working with his pick and shovel had by then sharply decreased from what it had been in 1848. As gold became more and more difficult to reach, the growing industrialization of mining drove more and more miners from independence into wage labor. The new technique of hydraulic mining, developed in 1853, brought enormous profits but destroyed much of the region’s landscape.
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. Settlement in California continued, however, and by the end of the decade the state’s population was 380,000.
Environmental Impact of the Gold Rush
New mining methods and the population boom in the wake of the California Gold Rush permanently altered the landscape of California. The technique of hydraulic mining, developed in 1853, brought enormous profits but destroyed much of the region’s landscape. Dams designed to supply water to mine sites in summer altered the course of rivers away from farmland, while sediment from mines clogged others. The logging industry was born from the need to construct extensive canals and feed boilers at mines, further consuming natural resources.
Environmental Impact of the Gold Rush. Calisphere.org.
After the Gold Rush. National Geographic.
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The Gold Rush of 1849 - Facts, Summary and Video - HISTORY
In the first test of California&rsquos Fugitive Slave Law , three formerly enslaved black men who had built a lucrative mining supply business were stripped of their freedom and deported back to Mississippi.
California Fugitive Slave Act of 1852: In 1852, pro-slavery forces in California pushed a law through the legislature that put many blacks at risk of being forcibly deported back to slaveholding states in the south – and to lives of brutal indentured servitude. There was already a federal law that gave slaveholders the right to reclaim enslaved men, women and children who fled the horrors of southern plantations to free states. It further required government officials to actively assist in their recapture whenever a slave “owner” filed a claim. California passed its own companion law. It decreed that any black person who arrived pre- official statehood as a slave (prior to September 1850 ) would be considered a slave in the eyes of the law. This even though the California constitution banned slavery and the state had come into the Union as a supposed “free state” under the Compromise of 1850. Many of the 2,000 black people living in California at that time had arrived as slaves during the Gold Rush from 1848-1850, which meant that their lives were in jeopardy. Slaveholders had one year to reclaim their “property” and leave the state. Any slave who ran away was treated as a criminal by the legal system, subject to be hunted down and returned to the slaveholder. The law, which had a sunset clause, was renewed until 1855, when it finally expired. It wasn&rsquot just slaves who could be rounded up under these inhumane laws. Free blacks were also illegally kidnapped. When that happened, they had no way of defending themselves in court because there were laws that prohibited blacks from testifying against whites. It&rsquos unknown how many free black people were illegally arrested and deported based on false accusations.
In 1849, Charles Perkins, a white Mississippian, set out for California to mine gold with an enslaved man named Carter Perkins. They were soon joined by two other male slaves from the Perkins plantation, Robert Perkins and Sandy Jones, who had been forced to migrate West, leaving their wives and children behind. The three men went to work for Charles Perkins mining gold.
ALVIN COFFEY (1822-1902)
Gold mine earnings were a ticket to freedom for some formerly enslaved black men. In 1849, Alvin Coffey, 27, was brought to California by a white slaveholder from Missouri named Dr. William Bassett. Near Redding Springs, CA, Coffey mined for gold, earning $5,000 for Bassett and more than $1,000 for himself. Bassett, who was ill, decided to return to Missouri. Coffey nursed him all the way home. Once Bassett was safely delivered to his wife, he took Coffey’s hard-earned money and sold him away from his family. Coffey convinced Nelson Tindle, the second slaveholder, to let him return to California to mine for gold. Tindle agreed to free Coffey if he brought him back $1,500 – the purchase price Tindle set for Coffey. Coffey earned several thousand dollars in the mines and returned to Missouri to purchase his freedom and his family’s. The Coffeys returned to California and settled in Red Bluff, CA. Alvin Coffey later founded the first institution to provide care for elderly African American people. He is the only black person ever inducted into the Society of California Pioneers, whose membership includes direct descendants of California pioneers who settled in the state before January 1st, 1850.
Alvin Coffey&rsquos manumission papers, 1856 Gift of Michele A. Thompson, Society of California Pioneers.
Charles Perkins decided to return to the South and left his slaves in the care of a friend. He agreed to release them on the condition that they work for six months longer. Set free in November 1851, the industrious trio—Carter Perkins, Robert Perkins and Sandy Jones—launched a business transporting mining supplies in the gold fields near Ophir. They earned the equivalent of $100,000 in today&rsquos dollars. But in 1852, California lawmakers passed a law that decreed that any black person who had entered California as a slave before statehood was the legal property of the slaveholder who brought them. Shortly after the law&rsquos passage, Charles Perkins filed a legal action in California, demanding the return of his human “property.” He wrote to a cousin who contacted the Placer County Sheriff, whose men seized Carter Perkins, Robert Perkins and Sandy Jones from their cabin in a midnight raid. A justice of the peace ordered the men deported to Mississippi. The black community mobilized, raising funds to fight for the men&rsquos release. They hired Cornelius Cole, a prominent anti-slavery attorney, who argued before the state Supreme Court that since California&rsquos Constitution banned slavery, the Fugitive Slave Law was unconstitutional. However, pro-slavery justices dominated the court and ordered the men deported. They were quickly forced onto a steamboat with Charles Perkins&rsquos representatives. One unconfirmed news report claimed they escaped from their captors while the ship was docked in Panama, but their fate is unknown.
California Book of Statutes, 1852, Chapter 33: Respecting Fugitives from Labor, and Slaves brought to this State prior to her admission into the Union: “When a person held to labor in any State or Territory of the United States under the laws thereof, shall escape into this state, the person to whom such labor or service may be due, his agent or attorney, is hereby empowered to seize or arrest such fugitive from labor, or shall have the right to obtain a warrant of arrest for such fugitive.
Read statuteRead full statute
Court Ruling: The State of California has certainly not entered into any contract with free negroes, fugitives, or slaves, by providing in the constitution that neither slavery nor involuntary servitude shall exist in this State, which would prevent her, upon proper occasion, from removing all or any one of these classes from her borders.
Read full court ruling
Photo: Black miner during Gold Rush era
Credit: Courtesy of the California History Room, California State Library, Sacramento, California
Photo: Advertisement for black slave, originally published in San Francisco Herald
Credit: Sacramento Union, Volume 211, Number 44, 14 December 1919,
Courtesy of the California Digital Newspaper Collection, Center for Bibliographic Studies and Research, University of California, Riverside
California Gold Rush
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California Gold Rush, rapid influx of fortune seekers in California that began after gold was found at Sutter’s Mill in early 1848 and reached its peak in 1852. According to estimates, more than 300,000 people came to the territory during the Gold Rush.
In 1848 John Sutter was having a water-powered sawmill built along the American River in Coloma, California, approximately 50 miles (80 km) east of present-day Sacramento. On January 24 his carpenter, James W. Marshall, found flakes of gold in a streambed. Sutter and Marshall agreed to become partners and tried to keep their find a secret. News of the discovery, however, soon spread, and they were besieged by thousands of fortune seekers. (With his property overrun and his goods and livestock stolen or destroyed, Sutter was bankrupt by 1852.) From the East, prospectors sailed around Cape Horn or risked disease hiking across the Isthmus of Panama. The hardiest took the 2,000-mile (3,220-km) overland route, on which cholera proved a far greater killer than the Native Americans. By August 1848, 4,000 gold miners were in the area, and within a year about 80,000 “forty-niners” (as the fortune seekers of 1849 were called) had arrived at the California goldfields. By 1853 their numbers had grown to 250,000. Although it was estimated that some $2 billion in gold was extracted, few of the prospectors struck it rich. The work was hard, prices were high, and living conditions were primitive.
Brief History of the Gold Rush
For all its significance, the onset of the Gold Rush originated from a seemingly innocuous event. In January 1848, James Marshall, a carpenter, was building a sawmill for Swiss immigrant and pioneer John Sutter at Sutter&rsquos Fort, a trade and agricultural colony, when he spotted something shiny in the American River. Not sure of what he had found, he collected the apparent gold flecks and ran some rudimentary tests on them&mdashincluding biting them and hitting them with a hammer. When their appearance did not change, Marshall confirmed they were genuine gold and quickly notified John Sutter. Sensing that the discovery would negatively impact the building of his sawmill and bring a large number of squatters to his land, Sutter swore all his employees to secrecy. However, news of the discovery quickly got out and spread across the region, including nearby San Francisco (known as Yerba Buena at the time). Soon, gold seekers from across the region swarmed Sutter&rsquos Fort, and just as Sutter had feared, his employees all left to look for gold. By many accounts, once news of the discovery reached San Francisco, the city quickly emptied, with workers deserting their workplaces, stores and ships to look for gold.
Within a few months, news of the gold discovery expanded beyond the region, with the Baltimore Sun becoming the first American newspaper to report on it in late summer. In the fall, the New York Herald ran a subsequent story on the gold discovery and by December, President Polk announced to Congress that significant amounts of gold were being discovered in California. The year 1849 prompted a massive migration to California from many parts of the country as well as places as far as China, Chile and France. The migrants, dubbed the &ldquoforty-niners&rdquo for the year of their trip, flocked to cities such as San Francisco and present-day Sacramento, which were experiencing unprecedented development. The population of San Francisco, for example, exploded from 500 in 1847 to more than 150,000 in 1852.
8 Weird but True Facts About the Gold Rush
In January 1848, James Marshall discovered gold in the American River northeast of Sacramento. By the end of the year, thousands of prospectors were dropping everything to bolt west. The gold rush peaked in 1852, when $80 million worth was mined, and ended with the discovery of silver in Nevada in 1859. Though most found only fool’s gold, the rush essentially minted the new state of California. Here are some amazing facts from the period.
1. It was one of the largest migrations in American history.
The Californian announced the discovery of gold in 1848 (via Wikimedia)
In early 1848, only about 1,000 non-Native Americans lived in California. Less than two years later, there were 100,000. People came from all 31 states and at least 25 countries, especially China. Historical newspapers on Ancestry are filled with breathless reports of land “richly impregnated with gold” (Gettysburg, PA) and men “nearly crazy with the riches suddenly forced into their pockets” (Prairie Du Chien, WI).
Ads touted wares for the traveling prospectors, as in the Bangor, Maine, paper above. Though the United States had only acquired the territory in 1848, its rapid growth accelerated its incorporation into the Union. California became the 31st state in just two years.
2. Two brothers mined $1.5 million worth of gold in a single year.
John and Daniel Murphy arrived in the Sierra Nevada in 1848 and struck gold within days. In a year, they mined $1.5 million worth of the precious metal, about $40 million today. (The town of Murphys, California, is named for them today.) Another legendary miner found $17,000 in gold in a week. But most didn’t have anywhere near that kind of luck.
3. At the start of the gold rush, California had no banks.
Due to American banking crises in the 1830s and 1840s, California passed a provisional constitution in 1849 that prohibited the creation of state or commercial banks. This left banking to private individuals, who operated without any government regulations. These private bankers became extremely powerful and could even change gold into currency. A government mint opened in 1854.
4. There were hardly any women.
In 1850, only 3 percent of California’s nonnative population was female. Saloons and theaters put the few women around on display. There were the so-called “model artists,” otherwise known as strippers, and “fancy ladies” who poured drinks and provided companionship at gambling halls. Gradually, wives and family members of the miners arrived, bringing a semblance of civilization to the rowdy West. By 1860, nonnative women made up 19 percent of the state’s population.
5. In a decade, it created the new metropolis of San Francisco.
At the start of the gold rush, San Francisco was a scrappy frontier outpost. In 1848, the population was 1,000 in 1850, it was 20,000. By 1861, San Francisco had over 56,000 people and was a bustling metropolis with soaring property values. The city directory from that year (above), viewable on Ancestry, describes the transformation with awe. In the previous year, it says, there were 1,455 wood and brick buildings, including hotels and theaters, constructed within the city limits. “It is easy to see that the accommodations for the multitudes have been vastly increased,” the directory said, “and living in San Francisco rendered more pleasant and inviting to the immigration that has given impetus to the rapid development.”
6. The city was built on top of gold rush ships.
Not all ers came to California by covered wagon. Others arrived on ships, which passengers and crew quickly abandoned in their hunt for gold. With San Francisco growing rapidly, these boats were repurposed as shops or hotels, or torn apart for lumber. Others were left to rot and sink in the harbor, and the city was eventually built on top of them. Construction projects taking place as recently as 2001 have revealed ship remains buried underground.
7. Merchants, not miners, were the ones who really got rich.
San Francisco in 1851. (Courtesy of Library of Congress)
With thousands of prospectors flooding the frontier, cities and towns had to be built from scratch. That led to businesses to feed, clothe, supply, and entertain prospectors. Entrepreneurs who made a killing during the rush included Levi Strauss. A Bavarian tailor, he came to San Francisco in 1850 intending to manufacture tents and wagon covers. Instead, he made pants sturdy enough for the miners out of the durable material he brought with him. He eventually turned them into blue jeans.
8. If you struck gold, you ordered a Hangtown Fry.
An unusual delicacy emerged out of the gold rush: an omelette cooked in bacon fat and topped with fried oysters. This is supposedly what one lucky miner ordered when he sauntered into an eatery and realized he could order absolutely anything on the menu. The name came from its town of origin, known for its frontier-style justice. You can still find the dish at restaurants in San Francisco.
10 Great Facts about the Gold Rush
Listed below are ten of interesting facts about the gold rush…
- In all of American history, this was one of the largest migrations. Only about 1,000 non-native Americans lived in California in early 1848. However, in a short time of only two years, there were approximately 100,000 men, coming from around 31 states and at least 25 different countries. Newspapers at the time were filled with reports of this ‘rich in gold’ land.
- Around $1.5 million worth of gold was mined by the two brothers, John and Daniel Murphy, in a single year. This $1.5 million is worth around $40 million today, and the town of Murphys in California was named after them. Another miner found around $17,000 in a single week, however, most of the miners were nowhere near that lucky.
- An omelette cooked in bacon fat, which was topped with fried oysters, was an unusual delicacy that emerged from the gold rush. It is believed that one lucky miner ordered this when he stumbled into an eatery and realised, he could order anything from the menu. This dish can still be found at some restaurants in San Francisco.
- You would think that the Golden Gate Bridge of San Francisco was named after the gold rush. However, the strait was coincidentally named this just two years before the gold rush.
- Massive sequoia trees which were located in the forests of California were transported to major cities to show proof that they existed since photography had not been developed at that time.
- After traveling to California and coming back empty-handed, an English gold prospector discovered five specks of gold in New South Wales’ Lewis Pond Creek and started the Australian gold rush.
- California was the only place that women earned more than men for equal work, during the gold rush. It is believed that men would pay women to work alongside them for their company, or to do household chores that were deemed as ‘women’s work’. One woman had reported having made $18,000 just baking pies!
- Although James Marshall was credited with the first discovery of gold in Sutton’s Mill, he never profited from it.
- While some ers arrived at California in wagons, others came in ships. However, these ships were abandoned by the crew for the gold hunt. These boats were repurposed as either hotels or shops or torn apart for lumber. As recently as 2001, construction projects have revealed remains of ships underground.
- With thousands and thousands of miners flooding the frontier, businesses prospered as they had to entertain, supply and feed the prospectors. In 1850, a tailor who visited San Francisco had intended to sell wagon covers and tents. However, he decided to make sturdy pants for miners instead. It was made with durable material that he had brought with him, and Levi’s jeans are still going strong today!
Do you know any fun facts about the gold rush? Share them in the comments below!
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The 1849 Gold Rush
In 1848 gold was discovered in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada mountain range in California. California is on the west coast of the USA, just beyond Oregon. News of this discovery spread rapidly throughout the country, and it became the greatest ‘pull’ factor attracting migrants to the west.
In 1848 gold was discovered in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada mountain range in California. California is on the west coast of the USA, just beyond Oregon. News of this discovery spread rapidly throughout the country, and it became the greatest ‘pull’ factor attracting migrants to the west.
In 1849, thousands of migrants rushed to California to try and find their fortune. The population of California grew rapidly from just 15,000 in 1848 to 300,000 by 1855! Though some lucky prospectors did become very rich, the vast majority failed to find any gold and either returned home or settled permanently in California as farmers.
The Gold Rush had several important consequences for California. The new prospectors needed somewhere to buy food, drink, equipment and entertainment. This provided a great opportunity for Californians to become shopkeepers and tradesmen. This type of settlement was exactly what the US government had hoped for and Californian became the perfect advertisement for western settlement.
However, there were some negative consequences of the gold rush. The huge population boom led to problems of law and order with many resorting to taking the law into their own hands. There was also a lot of racial tension as white miners clashed with Hispanics, Californian Indians, free African Americans and the Chinese.
California Gold Rush
When James Wilson Marshall saw something golden shining in the tailrace at Sutter's Mill, he not only set off a worldwide rush to California but also touched off the greatest writing and artistic frenzy in our nation's history.
Newspapers, guidebooks, government reports, sermons, diaries, and letters written home all spread the word about a land where golden dreams could be realized. Artists through sketches, paintings, prints, pictorial letter sheets, birds-eye views, and illustrations for books likewise gave visual meaning to this new El Dorado. The California State Library got its start during the height of the Gold Rush. Many libraries and archives across the country from Yale University to the Henry E. Huntington Library preserve formidable collections of Gold Rush material, but the State Library's direct relationship to Marshall's earthshaking discovery gives it a unique role. Without the mad scramble to our golden shore, California would not have been admitted into the Union so quickly and the institution of the State Library would not have come into being as it is presently constituted.
The goal of the exhibit is many fold: provide an overview of the Gold Rush, emphasize the strength of the Library's collection, and incorporate items that will simultaneously delight, surprise, and inform. In creating this exhibit, the varieties and richness of the material proved to be both a joy and challenge. Literally, Hundreds of items were scrutinized and various themes explored. Unavoidably, because of space limitations, many choice documents and topics were grudgingly set aside. It is no accident that so much documentation exists about the run for gold. In fact, it could be argued that the California Gold Rush stands as the best documented event in our state's history. There are many reasons for this. Most importantly, though, the Gold Rush took place when people commonly kept diaries and wrote detailed letters. Fortunately for us, many Argonauts possessed exceptional powers of description, the ability to express philosophical thoughts, and the gift to record what they saw with drama, emotion, and on occasion with humor. Because the Gold Rush represented the adventure of a lifetime, participants, through letters and diaries, eagerly shared their experiences with friends and relatives and made sure that their writings would be preserved for future generations.
A Collection of Gold Rush Materials
The exhibit features many examples drawn for the California History Section's extensive manuscript collections. Scores of Gold Rush manuscript collections holding thousands of letters were examined. Included are such treasures as Marshall's own map showing where he discovered gold, pioneer preacher Joseph A. Benton's journals of his voyage to California and his first years in Sacramento looking for souls instead of gold, and letters to his mother by Sacramento's first historian, Dr. John F. Morse. Letters by those less well known, however, vividly tell us of the travel to California by land and sea and then the cold reality of the diggings and its hardships, loneliness, lawlessness, and disappointments. Printed books, pamphlets, periodicals, and newspapers, of course, form a major component of any Gold Rush exhibition. These printed sources, more than any single medium, spread the news and influenced would-be gold seekers.
Bayard Taylor's El Dorado, the best seller of the Gold Rush Dame Shirley's celebrated letters from Rich Bar which appeared in California's first periodical, The Pioneer, and the Journal of the Hartford Union Mining Company, actually printed on board a California bound ship in 1849, serve as a solid foundation of early eyewitness accounts. An array of rare guidebooks, foreign language works, and printed pamphlets issued by mining companies supplement these seminal publications. The very first issue of the Panama Star, an American newspaper printed in Panama, records the importance of that narrow isthmus as a link between the United States and its new mineral-rich territory.
The gold discovery and its immediate aftermath took place when the visual means of mass communication was making great strides. Lithographs and wood engravings gave visual credence to the incredible news that poured out of California. Artists were not immune to gold fever and some real talent came to California first to hunt for gold, and then finding this to be hard and unproductive work, turned back to their God-given natural abilities. Charles Christian Nahl, Harrison Eastman, John David Borthwick, and George Holbrook Baker, to name just a few, produced memorable images that publishers even to this day reproduce over and over. The result of all of this made the Gold Rush one of the first important episodes in our history recorded visually and systematically by its participants. Consequently, pencil sketches, pictorial letter sheets, illustrations found in books and newspapers, and birds-eye views of cities and towns form an essential component of this collection.
One other form of visual documentation emerged, photography namely in the form of the daguerreotype. The Gold Rush represented the first important event in our nation's past to be captured by photography. Those one-of-a-kind, silvery, mirror-like images held together in beautiful, protective leather cases provide a breathtaking, crystal clear view of life during that rambunctious era. Certainly a highlight of California As We Saw It are the exquisite open air daguerreotypes of mining operations near Georgetown and Nevada City attributed to J. B. Starkweather. Daguerreian portraits of men and women put a human face on that golden era.
Some Themes Explored
Several topics apart from the discovery and long journey to California and the diggings have been developed. The title of J. S. Holliday's brilliant book, The World Rushed In, provided inspiration for some of this exhibit. Accounts and guidebooks published in England, France, Australia, and Germany are featured. Another section focuses on the experiences of women, African Americans, and Chinese. One remarkable manuscript consists of a bill of sale whereby a slave imported by his Southern master to hunt for gold buys his freedom for $1,000. Within a couple years after the discovery miners extracted gold from the earth by working in teams and then by forming companies. Turning rivers with dams, delivering water by flumes to wash away the hillsides in search of gold, and setting up stamp mills to crush the ore was not a simple, individual endeavor.
This mechanization of mining and the need to raise capital is documented by manuscripts and printed by-laws, articles of incorporation, mining claims, and bills of sale. A selection of beautifully engraved early stock certificates provides visual evidence of the financing needed to work the mines. The need to supply the mines gave rise to instant cities and mining camps. While San Francisco emerged as El Dorado's most important port and city, Sacramento also experienced unbelievable growth. This exhibit contains a sampling of books, letters, and sketches documenting Sacramento's transformation from the citadel of Captain Sutter's New Helvetia empire to a vital port to the northern mines. Highlights include the first Sacramento directory by Horace Culver, a broadside proclamation concerning the formation of city government in 1849, and one of the earliest known sketches of its famed embarcadero by George Holbrook Baker. Not all was seriousness when it came to looking for gold. The gold mania spawned a series of satirical prints and books by the likes of Alfred Crowquill (Alfred Henry Forrester), Jeremiah Saddlebags, and Old Block (also known as Alonzo Delano). A centerpiece is a beautiful hand-colored lithograph entitled the "Independent Gold Hunter on His Way to California." Crowned with a pot, the bespectacled gold hunter is loaded down with every conceivable appliance and weapon including a set of gold scales from which hangs a strong of sausage, dried fish, and a tea kettle. A rare series of hand-colored lithographs by two Cuban artists gives a light-hearted look at a group of miners who evidently had made their pile and enjoyed the fruits of their labor.
It is hoped that this compilation will provide a permanent record of a truly remarkable grouping of primary source material. As demonstrated by this exhibit, James Marshall's discovery produced not only treasure in the form of yellow metal but also the foundation for the Library's great California history collection.
The Gold Rush of 1849 - Facts, Summary and Video - HISTORY
I n January 1848, James Wilson Marshall discovered gold while constructing a saw mill along the American River northeast of present-day Sacramento. The discovery was reported in the San Francisco newspapers in March but caused little stir as most did not believe the account.
The spark that ignited the gold rush occurred in May 1848 when Sam Brannan, a storekeeper in Sutter's Creek, brandished a bottle filled with gold dust around San Francisco shouting 'Gold! Gold! Gold from American River!' The residents of the city now had proof of the discovery and the stampede to the gold fields was on. San Francisco's harbor was soon cluttered with derelict ships deserted by their crews. Workers abandoned their jobs - San Francisco's two newspapers were forced to close their doors as their staffs were struck by gold fever. The populations of many of the coastal towns were depleted as prospective prospectors headed to the gold fields.
The New York Herald printed news of the discovery in August 1848 and the rush for gold accelerated into a stampede. Gold seekers traveled overland across the mountains to California (30,000 assembled at launch points along the plains in the spring of 1849) or took the round-about sea routes: either to Panama or around Cape Horn and then up the Pacific coast to San Francisco. A census of San Francisco (then called Yerba Buena) in April 1847 reported the town consisted of 79 buildings including shanties, frames houses and adobes. By December 1849 the population had mushroomed to an estimated 100,000. The massive influx of fortune seekers Americanized the once Mexican province and assured its inclusion as a state in the union.
S. Shufelt was one of those gold-seekers. All that we know about Mr. Shufelt is contained in a letter he wrote from the gold fields to his cousin in March 1850. We don't know if he struck it rich or whether he ever returned to his wife and home - we don't even know his first name. On May 11, 1849 he boarded the steamer Panama in New York City along with about 200 fellow fortune hunters risking all on a gamble in California. Behind him he left a wife and child in Windham, NY near the Catskills.
Mr. Shufelt reveals his motivation when he tells his cousin that: "I have left those that I love as my own life behind and risked everything and endured many hardships to get here. I want to make enough to live easier and do some good with, before I return." These same thoughts no doubt inspired the majority of those who made the trek to the gold fields - they were not intending to stay, but planned to make some money and return to their origins.
Mr. Shufelt's letter was discovered at an auction in 1924 and is now part of the collection of the Library of Congress.
On May 11, 1849 Shufelt sailed out of New York harbor headed for the Isthmus of Panama (at the time a part of Columbia). Although he experienced a few days of sea sickness, he describes the voyage as enjoyable. We pick up his story as he makes his way across the isthmus to the Pacific Ocean hoping to find passage on a ship bound for San Francisco:
"(We) proceeded up the river in canoes rowed by the natives, and enjoyed the scenery & howling of the monkeys & chattering of Parrots very much. We pitched our tents at Gorgona & most of our party stayed there several weeks. S. Miller & myself went on to Panama to look out for a chance to get up to San Francisco. Of our ill success you have probably been informed & consequently of our long stay there, & of the deaths in our party. Yes, here Mr. Crooker, J. Miller & L. Alden yielded up their breath to God who gave it.
After many delays & vexations, we at length took passage on a German ship & set sail again on our journey to the Eldorado of the west. We went south nearly to the Equator, then turned west, the weather was warm, the winds light & contrary for our course. Our ship was a slow sailer & consequently our passage was long & tedious. One of the sailors fell from the rigging into the water & it was known that he could not swim, so the excitement was great. Ropes, planks and every thing that could be got hold of was thrown to him. He caught a plank & got on it, a boat was lowered & soon they had him on board again. He was much frightened, but not much hurt. We had one heavy squall of wind & rain, that tore the sails & broke some of the yards in pieces, & gave us a quick step motion to keep upon our feet, but soon all was right again & we were ploughing through the gentle Pacific at the rate of ten knots pr hour.
|Sutter's Mill, where gold|
Mishap on the way to Sacramento
"We took passage on a small schooner, crossed the bay with a gentle breeze & soon were winding our way up the crooked Sacramento. We soon entered Soosoon bay & our Capt. not being acquainted with the channel we ran on the ground at high tide & a stiff breeze, so that we were fast in reality. As the tide fell our little schooner fell also on her side & filled with water. We clung to the upper side, but were so thick that as night drew on the Capt. thought some of us had better go on shore. Some of our party went, myself among the rest. We came very near getting swamped on the water.
"We hired an ox team to carry our baggage & started for this place then called Hangtown, from the fact that three persons had been hung here for stealing & attempting to murder. Ten miles from the river we passed Sutters fort, an old looking heap of buildings surrounded by an high wall of unburnt brick, & situated in the midst of a pleasant fertile plain, covered with grass and a few scattering oaks, with numerous tame cattle & mules. We walked by the wagon & at night cooked our suppers, rolled our blankets around us & lay down to rest on the ground, with nothing but the broad canopy of the heavens over us & slept soundly without fear or molestation. After leaving the plains we passed over some hills that looked dry & barren being burnt up by the sun & the long droughts that we have here. We reached this place at night on the fourth day, & in the morning found ourselves in the midst of the diggings, being surrounded by holes dug.
"It is found along the banks of the streams & in the beds of the same, & in almost every little ravine putting into the streams. And often from 10 to 50 ft. from the beds up the bank. We sometimes have to dig several feet deep before we find any, in other places all the dirt & clay will pay to wash, but generally the clay pays best. If there is no clay, then it is found down on the rock. All the lumps are found on the rock--& most of the fine gold. We tell when it will pay by trying the dirt with a pan. This is called prospecting here. If it will pay from six to 12 1/2 pr pan full, then we go to work. Some wash with cradles some with what is called a tom & various other fixings. But I like the tom best of any thing that I have seen.
Life in Camp: "There is a good deal of sin and wickedness going on here"
Shufelt lived in a cabin with six other miners. The cabin had windows, a fireplace and an oven. The miners' diet was poor with the result that many suffered from disease, particularly scurvy. Shufelt himself fell seriously ill, became deranged and was not expected to live but recovered in a week's time. He describes life in camp:
"Many, very many, that come here meet with bad success & thousands will leave their bones here. Others will lose their health, contract diseases that they will carry to their graves with them. Some will have to beg their way home, & probably one half that come here will never make enough to carry them back. But this does not alter the fact about the gold being plenty here, but shows what a poor frail being man is, how liable to disappointments, disease & death.
Mr. Shufelt's letter is part of the collection of the Library of Congress A letter from a gold miner, Placerville, California, March, 1850 Holliday, J.S. Rush for Riches: Gold Fever and the Making of California (1999).
How To Cite This Article:
"The California Gold Rush, 1849" EyeWitness to History, www.eyewitnesstohistory.com (2003).
Post Script: Filling in the Blanks:
Since publishing this eyewitness account we have heard from a descendant of Mr. Shufelt who provided some additional information. His first name was Sheldon and he was born in 1818. He married his wife Margaret in 1844 and they had a son in 1847.
Returning home from the goldfields, Sheldon was captured by Spanish bandits while crossing the Panama isthmus. He was confined and held for ransom. He managed to escape and make his way home but he had contracted a tropical disease from which he died in 1852 at age 34. His wife, Margaret, died in 1861 at age 42.