Study Guide

California Gold Rush Analysis

  • Race

    Mother Lode as Melting Pot

    The Gold Rush migration into California was remarkably diverse—yep, more diverse than you'd think for the U.S.

    Somewhere between one-third to half of the 300,000 people who poured into the state in the decade following the discovery at Sutter's Mill were not white American citizens. A visitor to the diggings at the peak of the Gold Rush might have encountered Indians, Californios, African Americans (both slave and free), Chinese, Mexicans, South Americans, Australians, and Europeans working the mines cheek-by-jowl with Anglo migrants from the United States.

    At first, all worked their claims in relative equality. But, you know, every good thing must come to an end.

    As the placer gold began to pan out, white Americans sought to limit foreigners' ability to compete for increasingly scarce gold. In 1850 the new California legislature passed a heavy Foreign Miners Tax, demanding that non-citizens pay a prohibitive fee of $20 per month for the right to work their own claims. When the victims of the tax, mainly citizens of Mexico and Chile, refused to pay, Americans organized vigilante mobs to drive them out of the goldfields.

    Welp, that's why we can't have gold and nice things.

    Can't We All Just Get Along?

    At the same time that white Americans were using legal discrimination and extra-legal violence to consolidate their control over the Sierra gold country, California's Indians were suffering a fearful holocaust.

    In 1846, the still-Mexican province of Alta California's population was estimated to include 150,000 Indians, 7,000 Californios, and fewer than 900 foreigners. Mostly Americans. 

    The influx of hundreds of thousands of fortune-seekers resulted in the collapse of California's Indian population, in circumstances historian Richard White has described as "very close to genocide."

    We'll go ahead and call it that for good measure. Starvation, disease, and violence combined to reduce California's Indian population by 80% between 1848 and 1860.

    All in all, the Gold Rush was a multicultural affair, generating unprecedented economic opportunities for enterprising miners from around the world, all while white American Forty-Niners sought to mobilize the privileges of citizenship to monopolize those opportunities for themselves.

    So, the Gold Rush epitomized, in many ways, the fraught history of race in America. Sharing's tough when it comes to gold.

  • Culture

    Gold Fever and the Penny Press

    Sutter's Mill wasn't the first discovery of gold in American history. But it was the first discovery to induce "gold fever" on a national scale.

    The scale of Forty-Niner migration was of a magnitude greater than the largest previous gold rush, which occurred in the Cherokee lands of Georgia in 1829.

    Besides that the secret was not well-kept (tsk, tsk), profound cultural and social changes in America between 1830 and 1849 made the California Gold Rush possible. 

    First, the intensification of the market revolution created a large body of dissatisfied workers who might jump at the chance to escape a life of wage labor. Second, the evolution of the penny press in the 1830s and 1840s created, for the first time, a true mass media accessible to a majority of the American population. Articles in the penny press trumpeting California gold were able to mobilize a mass migration of prospectors in a fraction of the time it would have taken the information to disseminate through traditional kinship news networks that relied on word of mouth.

    Once in California, the miners found themselves in a bizarre social universe—almost entirely male, multiethnic and polyglot—where they created their own distinctly boisterous, ribald cultural traditions.

    The culture of the Gold Rush may be best encountered today in the works of Mark Twain, who arrived in California long after the Forty-Niner era but learned its cultural forms from famed Gold Rush-era writers Bret Harte and Dan De Quille.

  • Economy

    Dolla Dolla Billz

    Take it from us: just bask in California's golden rays. 'Cause gettin' that gold is like finding a needle in a haystack.

    That's right. Few of the prospectors who flooded into California in the years after the discovery at Sutter's Mill fulfilled their most extravagant dreams by finding instant wealth sparkling in the bottom of a pan.

    While a few miners—mostly early arrivals—did indeed strike it rich, most found more modest, but still substantial, returns in the Sierra diggings. In 1849, miners were able to average $20 a day, an amount unlikely to mint many millionaires but still many times the national average wage. By 1853, when much of the placer gold had already been carted off, miners' average yield had fallen by more than two-thirds, to less than $6 a day.

    After 1853, placer mining became mostly unviable, so many independent miners actually lost money or signed on as wage laborers in industrial mines. While large quantities of gold continued to be excavated from the Sierra foothills through the 1850s, the profits after 1853 accrued almost entirely to the holders of capital who invested in large-scale mining enterprises.

    Yeah, so, Americans hoping to gain financial freedom from the corporate behemoths...ultimately got pushed out by them. 

    Mining the Miners

    A lot of the greatest beneficiaries of the Gold Rush weren't miners at all, but rather the super-savvy entrepreneurs who went into business providing the miners with services and supplies.

    California's first millionaire was Sam Brannan, an ex-Mormon who hyped the Gold Rush in his newspaper, the California Star, then profited from it by supplying miners—at extravagant prices, of course—through his general stores in San Francisco and Sacramento. 

    For a time, Brannan's sales topped 5,000 buckaroos per day—the equivalent of $125,000 in today's dollars. Others made their fortunes by supplying miners with vital goods (food, liquor, clothing, shelter, hardware) and services (transportation, assay, laundry, entertainment, and uh, sex).

    Notable among those in the business of "mining the miners" were Levi Strauss, whose miners' trousers—tailored of heavy cotton cloth, with riveted pockets to hold heavy ore without tearing—have since become the quintessential American fashion item, and "The Big Four" Sacramento merchants—Charles Crocker, Mark Hopkins, Collis P. Huntington, and Leland Stanford—who parlayed the capital accumulated in their grocery and hardware stores into a transcontinental railroad empire.

    All in all, the California Gold Rush contributed about $465 million to the national economy. The influx of gold from California, and the intensification of investment to unearth, process, and transport it, provided another impetus to the ongoing process that was already transforming an agrarian republic into an industrial colossus.

    Large-scale ventures rooted in the California experience—particularly the railroad organized by the Big Four—would play a central role in the development of modern corporate capitalism later in the century.

  • Politics

    Triumph and Tragedy

    Mo' money, problems, arewerite?

    The discovery of California gold capped the most dramatic period of expansion in American history.

    Under James K. Polk's "Manifest Destiny" presidency, the United States nearly doubled its size by annexing the Oregon Territory south of the 49th Parallel and capturing the northern half of Mexico in the Mexican War. 

    The Gold Rush, by inducing rapid settlement of the farthest reaches of those new American lands, consolidated Polk's territorial gains and made the United States into a true transcontinental empire.

    California's application for statehood in 1850, however, revealed just how fragile the political structure holding that empire together really was. The promise of future westward expansion had allowed the partisans of the slave South and free North to hold off on the sectional settlement question ever since the ratification of the Constitution. Each side daydreamed about the future settlement of the West, of course with the slavery question bending in their favor.

    California's application to join the U.S. of A as a free state, despite its southerly latitude, threatened to upset the delicate sectional balance in the Senate, and proslavery politicians demanded certain concessions from their Northern colleagues in order to go along with California's statehood.

    The result, the Compromise of 1850, created a free California (woo!) but imposed a Fugitive Slave Law (boo!) that inflamed antislavery opinion in the North. All it did was make way for the decade-long descent from sectional crisis to a full-blown Civil War.

  • Religion

    Mormon Utopia or Gold Rush Boomtown?

    In 1846, Samuel Brannan sailed to San Francisco—then a tiny Mexican village called Yerba Buena—as the leader of a Mormon exodus. Brannan and his two hundred followers hoped to build in San Francisco a refuge from the anti-Mormon persecution that had followed them through the eastern United States.

    They traveled with the blessing of church leader Brigham Young, who planned to lead an overland contingent of Mormon pioneers to join them later. Brigham Young's party only made it half way. Salt Lake City, not San Francisco, would become the Mormons' new capital.

    But Sam Brannan stayed in California, using the church's printing press to publish the California Star, San Francisco's first newspaper, while also founding a number of businesses, including general stores in San Francisco and at Sutter's Fort near the Sierra foothills.

    In early 1848, Brannan observed customers at the Sutter's Fort store paying for their whiskey with gold dust. Sensing an opportunity, Brannan began buying up all the picks, pans, and provisions he could lay his hands on.

    Then he returned to San Francisco, where he ran through the streets waving a quinine bottle packed with gold dust, shouting, "Gold! Gold! Gold from the American River!

    The Gold Rush was on. 

    Within days, nearly every man in San Francisco decamped for the mines—and nearly every one stopped at Brannan's store for supplies. Pans Brannan had bought weeks earlier for 20¢ sold for $15 each. In just over two months, Brannan made $36,000—the equivalent of about $750,000 today.

    Brannan printed up two thousand copies of a special edition of the California Star touting "immensely rich" gold deposits in the Sierra, then packed them on a mule train headed east. By the end of 1848, due in large part to Brannan's promotional efforts, gold fever struck the major cities of the eastern United States, and tens of thousands of prospectors joined ships and wagon trains bound for California—where they, too, would become Brannan's customers. Throughout much of 1849, Brannan's store did more than $150,000 of business a month.

    Brannan was rakin' in the dough so fast that Brigham Young sent a messenger out from Utah to demand a tithe for the "Lord's treasury." Brannan refused, famously declaring, "You go back and tell Brigham that I'll give up the Lord's money when he sends me a receipt signed by the Lord." 

    Hoo, boy.

    He was uh, unsurprisingly excommunicated from the Mormon Church.

  • Environment

    One of Too Many Reasons We Now Have Earth Day

    The first techniques of placer mining—essentially using the natural hydraulic energy of moving streams to sift gravel through pans and sluices—were not by themselves especially destructive. But the mere arrival of hundreds of thousands of prospectors in the previously sparsely inhabited Sierra foothills quickly resulted in large-scale deforestation and the dispersal of all wildlife.

    Later, after the easy gold had been collected and mining required more intensive methods, the environmental costs rose steeply. Entire streams were diverted into massive sluices in order to filter ore, while larger rivers were dammed to store water for sluicing in the dry summer months.

    When even these techniques proved ineffectual, miners developed a new technology: hydraulic mining. Miners blasted water from high-pressure hoses against ore-bearing hillsides, eroding away massive amounts of earth to uncover the gold hiding within. 

    If it sounds sketchy, you're right. It is. 

    This technique proved disastrous in years of heavy snowpack, when the spring runoff would carry vast quantities of silt and sediment downstream, where it buried the fertile farmland in the valleys below. The farmers called the muck unloosened by hydraulic mining "the slickens," and on at least one occasion a veritable flood of the stuff completely buried a farmhouse—eighteen feet deep. 

    Despite the environmental chaos being wrought by the slickens, hydraulic mining remained the technology of choice in the Sierra foothills for nearly twenty years, irreparably destroying countless mountain watersheds and thousands of acres of farmland in the Sacramento valley.

    Even today, more than 150 years later, the serpentine gray sediment left behind by the slickens in California's Yuba River Valley remains visible from space.

    Good going, guys...