The California Gold Rush

One of the most famous moments in US history: The California Gold Rush. This historic event has spawned many fictional novels and is a favorite of many.

The time of the California Gold Rush wasn’t the first-time gold was struck in the U.S. The first gold strike in America was in North Carolina in 1799. Here and there, people found gold; but these can be compared to the calm before the storm.

The blast that shook the world that started the Gold Rush was fired by accident in 1848. It all started with John Sutter who was trying to build a saw mill. One of Sutter’s employees, James Marshal, discovered flakes of gold in the river near the mill. He looked into it, and sure enough, it was gold. That was on January 24 1848. The two men made an effort to keep the news secret, but the story got out and was eventually announced by the President (which, of course, exacerbated things).

The Gold Rush emptied towns as people rushed to stake claims. News finally reached the East coast in 1849, at which point those people rushed as well (these people are called the “Forty-niners”). Even Asians immigrated to try their hand as gold seekers. The population of California at the end of 1849 (this excludes the Indian population), sprang from 800 (in 1848) to an estimated 100, 000 (in 1849)!

Despite the mass immigration to California, the trip was actually very expensive and quite dangerous. There were three ways to California from the East Coast:

  1. By sea around Cape horn (at the bottom of South America) – a 6 months journey
  2. By sea until you crossed Panama, and then sea again – 1 month (Unfortunately, this passage was not widely used until near the end of the Gold Rush)
  3. Across the land – 4-6 months

However, though it was dangerous, as time went on, travel became easier. This helped to encourage Americans to populate the West and the Gold Rush was quite influential in expediting the process of annexing California as a state (California had been Mexican territory but California applied for annexation in 1849, and by 1850 it was granted).

Through the first few years into 1852, 81 million dollars’ worth of gold was extracted! Adjusted for inflation, this totals at almost 2 ½ billion! Incredibly, for a few years, the amount of gold extracted continued to rise.

However, in 1857, the number “only” amounted to 45 million and the amount continued to decrease from there.

Although the gold rush did some good things for the U.S., it also brought on some unfortunate sanctions, such as the following:

  1. Men left their families in hopes to strike it rich. Few struck it really rich. Many fathers and sons died traveling. Others, after the expensive commute, found that they were broke and could not make it back, thus separating them from their families forever. This led many of these men to drunkenness and thievery in their depression.
  2. Many Americans at this time believed in an ideology known as “Manifest Destiny.” This belief essentially states that Americans had the right to settle anywhere they chose. This led many disillusioned Americans to force the Indians out of California, or even shoot them if they resisted.
  3. Many of the Asian (mostly Chinese) gold seekers were often discriminated against.

On a rather ironic note, neither of the two men who originally discovered the California gold (John Sutter and James Marshall) struck it rich. Sutter never even got to start his saw mill because of the major change in the California landscape.

It’s strange that nobody remembers them anymore.

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