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Before the Gold Rush of 1849, California was a sparsely populated, unimportant territory of the United States mostly inhabited by the people of Mexico. However, that all changed when on January 24, 1848; carpenter and small time sawmill operator James W. Marshall discovered a gold nugget in the American River that would forever change the history of California and America1. Not only did the Gold Rush lead to California’s admittance into the Union in 1850, it also rekindled the idea of the American Dream.
Hundred’s of thousands of people poured into the state by the lure of quick and infinite riches.
As a result of the Gold Rush, California eventually became an advanced technologic, and agrarian state, which would help pave the roads to urban development and a very capitalistic economy. The California Gold Rush jump-started the development of California as a state, and ignited the belief of the American Dream once again. In a year’s time of the discovery of gold in the American River, the provincial Gold Rush of 1848 transformed into the global Gold Rush of 1849 making national headlines across the world.
Historian Hubert Howe Bancroft best described the Gold Rush as; “a rapid, monstrous maturity” which propelled the population so progressively that on September 9th, 1850 California became the thirty-first state admitted into the Union2. By the year 1851, over 255,000 people had immigrated to the Golden State spurred on by the hopes of finding gold and achieving the American Dream3. From these hundreds of thousands of aliens that flocked to California during the Gold Rush most were young men eager to risk their lives venturing to the Mother Lode in hopes of becoming miners and starting a new life.
These men, called the “49ers”, would play a vital role in the transformation of the state, as they would soon become the pillar for the powerful mining economy in California4. In addition, the ban of slavery in California opened up a window of opportunity to those from other continents. Soon ships from Asia, Australia, Europe and South America were left stranded in the San Francisco Bay as everyone sought to achieve their own version of the American Dream in the Gold Rush as well. In the early stages of California’s state hood, gold mining was the keystone of the Californian economy.
Originally, many gold miners who came to California were apart of larger mining companies that at first brought organization to the gold fields5. Nonetheless, as the pressure to find gold mounted each day with the number of people coming to California increasing, it soon became every man for himself; and as a result many of these organizations failed. However, the mining process was complex, required lots of man power, and as gold was becoming harder and harder to find; the introduction to certain technological advances revitalized the Gold Rush and California as a state.
The introduction of Hydraulic mining by French Canadian, Anton Chabot in 1850 and later perfected by Edward Matteson a 49er from Connecticut, had everlasting effects on the mining industry as well as the environment6. By damming river and streams miners were now able to use the newly created waterbeds for their industrial hoses, which would spray water furiously onto the riverbanks eroding the ground until gold was spotted7. As a result of Hydraulic mining, mining organizations became powerful again and a sense of unity and prosperity was restored to the gold fields.
The Gold Rush also started a new market for technology as now more people stopped mining, and thought of other ways they could make a living. Worker unions began to form, as mining companies needed laborers to maintain and manufacture new machines as wells as divert and dam rivers8. However, not everyone made their fortune in the mining industry. In 1853 Levi Strauss, a German immigrant came to California with aspirations of striking it rich in the gold fields.
After a year of no luck, Levi and his family decided to open a general goods store in San Francisco that would sell dry goods and clothing to the miners. His store was a hit, as miners poured in to buy tents and other necessities for mining. One item in particular, denim pants known today as “jeans” sold like wild fire amongst the 49ers, as they were durable and did not rip. By the end of the Gold Rush, nearly 594 $ million in gold ingots (estimated around 10 $ billion in 2001 dollars) would be shipped out from California towards the east coast alone9.
Not only did the Gold Rush create a prosperous mining climate, it also indirectly lead to an even more booming agrarian economy; that in 1869 surpassed mining in employment and then later in 1879 became the leading element to the California economy10. By the late 1870’s, there was nearly 600,000 thousand people living in the Golden State11. In order to feed so many mouths so quick, many people that could not make it as a miner or in the now blooming cities decided to settle on plots of land and become farmers.
Most preferred the farming lifestyle opposed to a miner’s life because it was safer. In addition, due to California’s vast natural resources, fertile abundant land and great weather, growing food and raising livestock was easy compared to the eastern United States and other parts of the world. The Gold Rush also permitted the cattle industry to once again flourish in the west as a cattle boom from the north was guided to California for sale to the miners12. Soon afterwards, cattle ranches were set up in Southern California and provided an economic boost to the rest of the state13.
In addition to the cattle industry doing well, by 1880 great wheat ranches had expanded throughout Colusa County and produced nearly half a mission bushels of wheat a year14. As a result of the wheat industry expanding, in the 1880’s and 1890’s irrigation districts had been introduced to California along with newly refrigerated railroad cars, which perhaps did the most to advance California towards becoming an agrarian powerhouse in the United States15. With a lucrative economy that was producing food and money, the urbanization of California happened much earlier than intended.
With the mass migrations of workers pouring into mining towns and cities, the ones with the best strategic position ended up becoming the most successful. As a result, San Francisco, Sacramento and Las Angeles became the most powerful cities on the west coast because of the Gold Rush16. However, with the establishment of the first transcontinental railroad in 1869, California now had a direct contact with the rest of the United States and as a result every town in California economically and socially prospered17.
With the advanced development of technology, an interstate road system was built which helped distribute the urbanization of California more thoroughly18. In addition to roads, the technology that was invented in the Gold Rush now could be applied to the development of the advancement of irrigation. In 1900, San Francisco and Los Angeles built a system of dams and aqueducts that would bring running water to their respective cities19. The result of this project would for years to come stabilize the infrastructure of these two cities20.
Soon, markets, architecture and literature would flourish in cities across the state as California transformed from a rural state, to one of the most powerful states in America. As time progressed, cities in California were now looking to export their goods to the rest of the world. Banks had already been established in California during the 1850’s as a place for miners to store their gold and by 1855 Wells Fargo Bank controlled about ninety percent of the transporting of gold in the state21.
California possessed a highly successful banking system, but now with the help of the transcontinental railroad and the port cities, the Californian economy was now turning towards capitalism22. With a well-organized society and economy in California, industries were booming. Cities like San Francisco led the way with the exportation of goods to other countries and the eastern part of the United States23. California soon started to enter trade relationships with Asia, Europe and other continents as it exported gold, fine goods and food at a rapid rate24.
As trade blossomed, so did education and literature. Soon, schools, churches, universities and newspaper companies were sprouting up all along California. This all in term led to California becoming a melting pot of different cultures just like other great states in the U. S. The Gold Rush of 1849 directly led to California’s admittance and prestige as the thirty-first state admitted into the Union. Not only did the Gold Rush bring hundreds of thousands of people to the Golden State, it also kept them there.
With advancements through technology, the mining industry in California would become the strongest in the world at its time25. Also, as the mining economy grew strong, the agricultural economy grew even stronger because of the Gold Rush. With these advancements, people were able to build permanent empires through the urban development of California. As cities prospered at the benefit of the Gold Rush, California was able to grow stronger and smarter as a state through capitalism and trade with foreign countries.
The Gold Rush of 1849 jump started the development of California as a state and achieved people’s goals of the American Dream.
Gibbs, William. “California Gold Rush (1848–1858). ” Open Collections Program: Immigration to the US, California Gold Rush, 1848-1858. N. p. , n. d.
Web. 20 May 2013. Ketchum, Liza. The Gold Rush. Boston: Little, Brown, 1996. Print. Lloyd, J. D.
The Gold Rush. San Diego: Greenhaven, 2002. Print. Martinez, Lionel.
“The Gold Rushes. ” The Gold Rushes. N. p. , n. d. Web. 20 May 2013. Starr, Kevin. California: A History. New York: Modern Library, 2005. Print.
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