Study Guide

California Gold Rush Introduction

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California Gold Rush Introduction

Fields of Gold

Let's be real. If word got out that gold nuggets were washing up on Californian riverbanks and all you needed was a pick, a shovel, and a ticket to get there, the weight of the U.S. population crowded in the Golden State might just tip it into the Pacific like a seesaw.

In 1848, a fellow named James Marshall discovered gold at Sutter's Mill, in present-day Coloma, California near Sacramento. His lips weren't sealed, so the secret got out. With the help of a boisterous and growing media crew, newspapers advertised the country's newfound gold like crazy.

The California Gold Rush was a mad dash of hundreds of thousands of fortune-seekers who came to prospect in the Sierra foothills following that discovery. 

Until the Gold Rush, in the early nineteenth century, Americans were living in a largely rural society. The American Dream at that time was the chance to live free.

But not to live as if everything were free.

Rather than enterprise and speculation, industriousness, prudence, and frugality were the former keys to a man's success, "competency," maintaining that competency, and passing it on to his children.

But wouldn't personal freedom go great with some moolah, too? 

Heck. Yes.

When word got out that with a lucky smack at a rock, you could instantly uncover more wealth than you'd ever had, the idea of the American Dream underwent a makeover. 

What is California Gold Rush About and Why Should I Care?

All Gold Everything

Imagine the stories of striking it rich just by plunking a sifter into a river, jiggling the dirt, and discovering a few delicious gold nuggets.

Most Americans before 1849 dreamed not of opulence, but merely of holding enough land to maintain their families' independence from the need to work for wages. The very definition of the American Dream transformed overnight into the possibility of changing your destiny.

The lure of instant riches proved irresistible. Why spend a lifetime plowing the fields when a lucky strike could set up a man for life?

But despite the hype, California was quickly drained of its gold and the wealth dried up. To bypass the pot-of-gold-luck mentality, hydraulic mining was invented, which yielded an insane $100 million worth of gold (that's $7.5 billion today, FYI). But hydraulic mining meant shooting water at rocky landscapes to get it moving before running that water-sediment slurry through sifting devices.

That meant serious erosion and tons of water/gravel/sand streams clogging up and confusing Cali's water systems. 

Sound familiar? Californian's still have a fraught relationship with water. 

But Is It So Bad to Be a Gold-Digger?

Today, the 49-ers (not the football-playing kind) get a lot of judgment for their Earth-destructing methods, saloon-infested towns, and wife-and-children-ditching decisions.

But we can't say we wouldn't have done the same thing. The spirit of the 49-ers lives on today—like the possibility of winning the Powerball or a clutch IPO on the stock exchange, the possibility of coming up lucky was enough to make any crazy frontiersman just a little bit crazier.

No wonder the concept of getting rich quick is alive and sorta-well in the West today.

While most settlers didn't profit off the Gold Rush, it did solidify America's presence in the new state of California and gave more fuel to its desire for global domination—er, manifest destiny.

And while there were plenty of young, white males digging for gold, the Gold Rush enabled the growth of diversity in the population of California, especially compared to other parts of the country.

Don't get too excited because diversity was absolutely a package deal with discord.

But nonetheless, free Blacks migrated to the booming Golden State for work, thousands of Chinese immigrated between 1849 and 1854, and Mexicans joined in the hopes of striking it rich. Even European immigrants extended their trek to the West, including German-Jewish immigrant Levi Strauss, who got his start selling sturdy jeans to miners. 

Gold Rush fever became the new American Dream. Who among us wouldn't heed the siren call of "Gold! Gold! Gold from the American River?"

California Gold Rush Resources


Will Bagley, Scoundrel's Tale (1999)
Will Bagley's Scoundrel's Tale is an exhaustive collection of primary sources related to the life of one of the Gold Rush's most famous characters, Mormon leader turned buccaneering businessman Sam Brannan. If Brannan's story weren't true, you wouldn't believe it.

H.W. Brands, The Age of Gold: The California Gold Rush and the New American Dream (2002)
Perhaps the single best book now available on the California Gold Rush is H.W. Brands' The Age of Gold, which offers a lively narrative of Gold Rush events within a compelling analytical framework that the discovery of "free" gold in the Sierra foothills forever transformed the American Dream.

Kenneth N. Owens, Gold Rush Saints (2004)
In Gold Rush Saints, Kenneth Owens recalls the fascinating and little-known role of Mormon settlers in settling California and promoting the Gold Rush. Mormons, who emerged as a dissident religious movement in the early nineteenth century and faced extreme persecution in the eastern United States, decided at mid-century to lead an exodus to a new holy land. While the Mormons' new capital eventually became Salt Lake City, the first choice was actually San Francisco. In 1846 a ship full of Mormons arrived and quickly comprised a majority of the city's population. The Mormons' hopes of complete separation from American society ended with the discovery of gold, which allowed some Mormon leaders to become fabulously wealthy but reopened age-old dilemmas about the proper relationship between God and Mammon.

Mark Twain, Roughing It (1871)
Mark Twain missed the height of Gold Rush fever, traveling to California for the first time in 1861, more than a decade after the madness of 1849. Still, Twain's hilarious, semi-autobiographical travelogue Roughing It remains an invaluable, and entertaining, window into the rambunctious culture created through the Gold Rush.


Various Artists, The Music of the Wild West (2007)
Originally conceived of as an accompaniment for the 1993 television documentary on the Wild West, this disc features a wide array of nineteenth-century cowboy classics recorded by contemporary country stars like Lyle Lovett, Crystal Gayle, and Marty Stuart.

Off to California, Hard Times in the Promised Land (2006)
Sift through these aural nuggets from California's most transformative era. This collection reflects the spirit of discovery as well as the sense of despair that prospectors, laborers, entrepreneurs, and immigrants experienced during the Gold Rush.

Dean Shostak, Davy Crockett's Fiddle (2002)
Musician Dean Shostak performs American classical compositions from the antebellum era using a fiddle that belonged to the nineteenth-century frontiersman Davy Crockett.

Various Artists, The West (1996)
The official soundtrack to director Ken Burns' documentary film, this disc offers old-time American favorites such as "Git Along, Little Doggies" and "Amazing Grace," as well as a number of traditional Native American chants and prayers used to bring to life the world of the Wild West.


Ships to California!
Handbill advertising steamship travel to California, 1849.

Hydraulic Mining: Environmental Disaster
Effects of hydraulic mining in Nevada County, California.

"The Slickens"
Deposits from Gold Rush-era hydraulic mining—"the slickens"—remain visible today in NASA satellite images taken of the Yuba River goldfields.

From China to Gold Mountain
A Chinese miner in California.

No Crew Available
Masts of abandoned ships line San Francisco harbor, 1849. Ships could not leave the port because all sailors rushed to the gold fields.

Movies & TV

Neighborhoods: The Hidden Cities of San Francisco – The Mission (1994)
Check out this carefully-documented film about San Francisco's oldest, most colorful, and most diverse neighborhood, from its days as a Native American village to recent cultural, economic, and architectural developments.

The Firebrand (1962)
Valentin de Vargas stars as Joaquin Murieta, a Mexican outlaw who resists the invasion of gold rush prospectors who pour into the West and flagrantly disrupt the lives of locals.

How The West Was Won (1962)
This Oscar-winning saga traces American westward expansion during the Gold Rush using the experiences of two migrant families. Henry Fonda and Carroll Baker star as members of the Prescott and Rawlings clans who venture west to find fortune and ultimately settle in California.

California (1946)
The Gold Rush brings out the worst in folks, or at least that's the story here in this film starring Ray Milland, Barry Fitzgerald, and Barbara Stanwyck as "Wicked" Lily Bishop.

The Gold Rush (1925)
Silent film comedian Charlie Chaplin stars as the Lone Prospector who ventures to Alaska in search of gold but finds love instead. Check out this enchanting and hilarious romantic comedy directed by Chaplin himself. It's one of the greatest films of the silent era.


PBS's Gold Rush
PBS's always-impressive American Experience documentary series created a fine website to accompany its 2006 episode, The Gold Rush. The website is loaded with primary sources and archival images, and includes a full transcript of the television program, which features interviews with several of America's best practicing historians.

150 Years Later
As part of the 1998 sesquicentennial celebration of the discovery at Sutter's Mill, the Oakland Museum of California created a major online exhibit. Don't miss the very strong emphasis on the art of the Gold Rush.

State Library Primary Sources
The California State Library hosts the online exhibition, "California As We Saw It": Exploring the California Gold Rush. As we might expect from the state's leading historical archive, the exhibit is comprised almost entirely of primary sources. Potentially a great first stop for writing an original paper on the Gold Rush.

Historical Documents

Commandments for Miners
"The Miner's Ten Commandments," published in a Placerville newspaper in 1853

And Commandments from Their Wives
"Commandment's From the Miner's Wife," published in a Cleveland newspaper in 1849

Official Report on California Gold
First official U.S. government report on the California gold mines, 1848

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