Podcast #34: California Gold Rush of 1849


The California Gold Rush began on January 24, 1848, when gold was found by James W. Marshall at Sutter's Mill in Coloma, California. The news of gold brought approximately 300,000 people to California from the rest of the United States and abroad.

19 minutes of recordings.

Fun fact - The Gold Rush was the largest mass migration in U.S. history. We will get into the numbers later on!

Earlier discoveries

Gold was discovered in California as early as March 9, 1842, at Rancho San Francisco, in the mountains north of present-day Los Angeles. A Californian native, Francisco Lopez was searching for stray horses and happened to find a small nugget of gold. He looked further and found more gold. I'm sure we could all imagine his surprise when he found out how much it was worth.

Other Minor finds of gold in California were also made by Mission Indians prior to 1848. The friars instructed them to keep its location secret to avoid a gold rush.

Marshall's discovery

January 24, 1848, James W. Marshall found shiny metal in the lumber mill he was building for Sacramento pioneer John Sutter—known as Sutter's Mill, near Coloma on the American River Marshall brought what he found to Sutter, and the two privately tested the metal. After the tests showed that it was gold, Sutter hoped to keep the news quiet because knew the frenzy this would cause.

Having sworn all concerned at the mill to secrecy, in February 1848, Sutter sent Charles Bennett to Monterey to meet with Colonel Mason, the chief U.S. official in California, in the hopes of securing mineral rights of the land where the mill stood. He was worse than 2 year old, he told a number of people and Sutter didn’t get the land rights he hoped for. Stories of the gold spread further, stories were printed in newspapers, even papers on the East coast. Que the people selling mining supplies. Those who rushed to mine the area became known as the “forty-niners”. Poor Mr. Sutter, just as he had feared, his business plans destroyed, his workers left in search of gold, and to add insult to injury, squatters took over his land and stole his crops and cattle.

The population of San Francisco grew rapidly from about 1,000 in 1848 to 25,000 full-time residents by 1850. Living conditions were hard. You have people living in tents or even the deck cabins that had been removed from abandoned ships. As the population grew, so did the demand for supplies. Alot of the crew members aboard the merchant ships deserted and left to go seize their chance to strike it rich. The ships couldn’t sail back crewless, so the ships were taken apart to make lodgings.

Once Gold was found in California, people had to figure out how to get there.

There was no easy way to get to California; many died along the way.

At first, most Argonauts, as they were also known, traveled by sea. One could expect a 4-5 month voyage around the tip of South America to get from the East Coast.What did most people do with all that time? Many times, they gambled.
Another option was to go through Panama which required canoes and a journey through the jungle. Asian immigrants traveled across the Pacific, and sailed into the port of San Francisco.

Impact on Native Americans

By 1850, most of the easily accessible gold had been collected and in order to extract the gold from more difficult locations; it required heavy machinery and loans from wealthy Eastern financiers.

Such a large influx of people in such a short amount of time, pushed Native Americans off of what was their traditional lands. Many Native American groups fought back to protect their homes and livelihood. This provoked counter-attacks on native villages. It’s another example of Guns, Germs and Steel. Outweaponed, diseases, massacres and starvation all heavily impacted Native American tribes.

WHo were the Forty-niners

They were the first miners to rush the mines. They were comprised of native Californians, settlers from the Oregon territory,immigrants from Mexico and other Latin American countries, who traveled with their families. Each person within the family was expected to do their part. Women and children would even work alongside their husbands and fathers. Some early arrivals were able to earn the equivalent of 6 years’ worth of wages in a few months. Not everyone would be as lucky. Others made a lot of money building supply businesses, boarding houses or taverns. Later, we see the arrival of Chinese, Australian, New Zealand and European immigrants all hoping to try their luck at the mines. They truly believed that the street were paved with gold. Not all miners were treated the same. Chinese immigrants were especially treated harshly and earned much less pay than their white counterparts. (the name "forty-niner" was derived from the year 1849).

Conditions within the mines were dangerous and many women and children became widows and orphans. We often think of those images of people panning in water for gold, there was some of that, but it required tunnels being dug, water diverted from rivers. Some extraction methods put a variety of pollutants into water supplies that still impact the area today. I looked up some of these processes and found a very cool youtube video that both showed and explained the process. We will put this link into both the podcast description as well as on our website.

More men than women made up the population of California. Lawlessness Land was free for the taking and land disputes were common and violent.

In the large absence of women, some migrant young men reorganized their social and sexual practices. Cross-dressing became common practice for some and a social fluidity that was not common practice for the time in other areas of the country shaped the roots or beginnings of the LGBTQ+ history that San Francisco is so widely known for today.


Merchants made far more money than miners during the Gold Rush. The wealthiest man in California during the early years of the rush was Samuel Brannan,a tireless self-promoter, shopkeeper and newspaper publisher. Most late arrivals ended up losing money. AS boom town turned to coast towns those who had set up businesses went bust. One businessman who went on to great success was Levi Strauss, who first began selling denim overalls in San Francisco in 1853. Brothels also brought in large profits, especially when combined with saloons and gaming houses.

By 1855, the economic climate had changed dramatically. Gold could be retrieved profitably from the goldfields only by medium to large groups of workers, either in partnerships or as employees. By the mid-1850s, it was the owners of these gold-mining companies who made the money. Also, the population and economy of California had become large and diverse enough that money could be made in a wide variety of conventional businesses.

Where did the gold go?

For some lucky miners, they used it for purchases ranging from the practical like food, supplies, a place to live to the impractical like booze, prostitutes and gambling. Afterall, they were in the wild wild west. Many of those supplies came from merchants from all around the world. For those who traveled to California from various countries in Asia and Europe, they sent gold back home. It is believed 80 million of California Gold went to France. A good majority of the gold went back to New York City’s brokerage houses.

Now, if you listened to our previous podcast on the history of money in the US, you will recall some of the next few items!

As the Gold Rush progressed, local banks and gold dealers issued "banknotes" or "drafts"—locally accepted paper currency—in exchange for gold, and private mints created private gold coins. With the building of the San Francisco Mint in 1854, gold bullion was turned into official United States gold coins for circulation. The gold was also later sent by California banks to U.S. national banks in exchange for national paper currency to be used in the booming California economy.

Without the California Gold Rush, California would have never become a state as quickly as it did. With that one event, you see tremendous population growth, the chartering of towns, cities, schools, the building of roads, the need for better transportation and communication to better connect the economies of the Eastern and Western United States. One story i find interesting is the story of the ill fated S.S. Central America, the ship sank in a hurricane off the coast of the Carolinas in 1857, with approximately three tons of California gold aboard.

Now, many of you might be wondering...was this ship ever recovered?
Yes -
On 11 September 1988, the wreck was finally located at a depth of 7,200 feet (2,200m), about 160 miles (257km) off the coast of South Carolina by Nemo, a vessel operated by Thompson's Columbus-America Discovery Group.
Your next question should be...did they salvage the gold? Yes,
Over 7,000 gold coins were recovered from the S.S. Central America during the shipwreck's discovery in 1988, exactly 131 years after its last voyage.
And by the way - I also looked up how much gold may be still “at sea” in ship wrecks - and I found 60bn dollars to be the estimate.

With all of the positives the Gold Rush brought, we would be remiss if we didn’t talk about the negative impact this event had on Native Americans. It ended their way of life. Big game animals had been killed off, pollution destroyed habitats, rising populations saw traditional hunting grounds taken over or destroyed. Then you also have the violent conflicts between settlers and Native American tribes. Acts of violence towards settlers often led to large scale retribution against tribes.

Historian Benjamin Madley recorded the numbers of killings of California Indians between 1846 and 1873 and estimated that during this period at least 9,400 to 16,000 California Indians were killed by non-Indians, mostly occurring in more than 370 massacres (defined as the "intentional killing of five or more disarmed combatants or largely unarmed noncombatants, including women, children, and prisoners, whether in the context of a battle or otherwise").

How does the Gold Rush still impact us today?

California has been a hub of success for a number of different industries, farmers, oil drillers, movie makers, airplane builders, computer and microchip makers, and "dot-com" entrepreneurs Today it’s big tech companies like Facebook, Google and others!

California’s state motto is “Eureka” which means “I Have found it”. Its nickname is the Golden State and the signs along state highways in California are in the shape of a miner’s spade.

If you live in California or have traveled along the aptly named Route 49, you may have noticed that it travels through a number of towns built during the Gold Rush era and many historic buildings have been preserved.

Thousands of Gold Rush prospectors got rich—but John Sutter wasn’t one of them. John Sutter, the man had hoped to build a mill on the land that would become synonymous with the California Gold Rush, was a Swiss immigrant who came to the US in hopes of a better life, left Switzerland and his debts behind. He received the land grant from the Gov. of California when it still belonged to Mexico. The Spanish-American War and the discovery of gold on his land, would change his fate and not for the better. Most of his workers had abandoned him to search for gold themselves, while thousands of other prospectors destroyed much of his land and equipment. He wouldn’t have the same good fortune as some other people. He left California, moved to Pennsylvania and died while in Washington, DC petitioning the US Government to be reimbursed for the loss of his land.

California's name became indelibly connected with the Gold Rush, and fast success in a new world became known as the "California Dream." California was perceived as a place of new beginnings, where great wealth could reward hard work and good luck.

Historian H. W. Brands noted that in the years after the Gold Rush, the California Dream spread across the nation:

The old American Dream ... was the dream of the Puritans, of Benjamin Franklin's "Poor Richard"... of men and women content to accumulate their modest fortunes a little at a time, year by year by year. The new dream was the dream of instant wealth, won in a twinkling by audacity and good luck. [This] golden dream ... became a prominent part of the American psyche only after Sutter's Mill.

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