Before the gold rush started in California, there were always suspicions that the region could have mineral wealth just like the rest of Mexico. The Spanish had already occupied California at the end of the 18th century; but this occupation was entirely for strategic reasons as they sought to exploit mineral wealth in the New World. A cowboy by the name Francisco Lopez had in 1842 brought gold nuggets with him and presented them to Mexican authorities in Los Angeles (Monroe 2002), generating interest in the prospect of striking large deposits of the precious metal in the area.
When the governor of California, Juan Bautista Alvarado, sent samples of gold mined from the Placerita canyon requesting the government to send scientists to prospect for gold in California, the Mexican interior minister replied to the effect that the mineral wealth in Mexico was enough and that any gold that could be found in California would not amount to much. He was so wrong; seven years later, California would be home to the largest gold strike in the history of gold mining (Goff & Anderson 2006).
The California Gold Rush started when James Marshall discovered gold at a saw mill he was working on the 28th of January 1848 (Monroe 2002). He, together with his partner John Sutter, tried to keep the discovery secret but word quickly spread out. Marshall’s discovery was briefly covered in a newspaper from San Francisco and by May of 1848, people were abandoning their jobs or any other thing they were doing and pitching camp in the mountains as the search for gold hit a fever pitch. At the end of 1848, the news of gold in California had spread to the entire world.
When President James Polk confirmed that gold had officially been discovered in California, a large wave of immigration ensued as people from all over the world came to California with the aim of making a fortune. These people came to be referred to as the 49ers in reference to the year 1849 (Goff & Anderson 2006). Sutter was ruined as squatters took over his lands, stole his livestock and crops and his workers left work to take part in the gold rush. This historical event changed California for ever.
Before the California Gold Rush, San Francisco was rather a small settlement. After the discovery of gold, it was initially deserted as ships and businesses were abandoned in the frenzy that was the gold rush. It however sprung to life as merchants in the thousands as well as new people arrived. From around 1000 people, the population of San Francisco had risen to over 25000 permanent residents in the two-year period between 1848 and 1850 (Monroe 2002). This surge in population greatly strained the infrastructure of San Francisco and other towns around the goldfields.
Living conditions deteriorated as people started living in tents, abandoned ships and debilitated wooden shanties (Goff & Anderson 2006). Diseases became prevalent, and many men and women died. The journey to California itself was not as easy; immigrants faced very many hardships and some died on the way as sailing around the tip of South America was dangerous. The California Gold Rush also had long term effects. Before the rush began, California was still a part of Mexican territory albeit under the occupation of U. S. forces as a result of the Mexican-American war (Goff & Anderson 2006).
The land had no rules and was not characterized by much life, but the rush brought new people with initiative and incentive. Towns and cities were soon planned. A constitutional convention was organized which resulted in a constitution for California as governance and commerce became more organized. Representatives were soon sent to Washington to lobby for the admission of California as a state, and with the wealth that had been brought by the gold, California had the bargaining power. It was granted statehood on the 9th of September 1850.
The population of California had risen to over 150,000 by 1870, and infrastructure developed significantly, including the construction of the Panama Railway (Monroe 2002). Among the demographic effects was the disruption of the lives of Native Americans who were primarily hunters and gatherers. Silt and toxic chemicals destroyed the environment and drove away the game which these people relied on for food (Monroe 2002). Many natives starved, some even to death. More land was taken away from them, and later when plantation farming caught up, native people were captured and used as slaves.
Human trafficking increased as more and more native people were bonded in labor. The California Gold Rush became a unique identifier of California up to today and gave it the acronym “golden state” (Goff & Anderson 2006). When I think of the gold rush, the picture that comes to my mind is the transformation of a virgin landscape into gravel as people dug out for gold. This was largely the case as sprawling settlements sprouted all over the place as people dug, some successfully, others in vain.
Definitely when passing this history to future generations, mention should be made of how the discovery of gold made California what it is. How people suffered under diseases and the hardships of establishing a modern society should also be a theme, not forgetting the profound effect the California Gold Rush had on the demographic composition of the state. References Goff, E. H. & Anderson, D. (2006). The California Gold Rush. New York, NY: Gareth Stevens. Monroe, J. (2002). The California Gold Rush. Mankato, MN: Capstone Press.