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An essay on the California Gold Rush.
Author's Note: This was an essay I wrote in early 2005 for my English class.

The California Gold Rush
By Robert Watson

In the early 1840’s, California was relatively small in population; San Francisco had only a few hundred settlers living there at the time (“Gold Rush: Discovery”). California was still governed by Mexico (Viola 397), but Americans were slowly arriving by wagons and ships (“Gold Rush: Discovery”). When gold was discovered a few years later, California and the prospect of becoming rich were on everyone’s mind. Thousands of people traveled westward for a year of hardship in return for a lifetime of luxury (“Gold Rush: Fever”). Although many people were successful in the mining business, most others were lucky just to make enough money to provide for their basic needs to survive (“Life”). The California Gold Rush had a great impact on the United States in the 1840’s, and it completely changed the majority of everybody’s way of living.

Before gold was ever discovered, John Sutter, a wealthy Swiss immigrant, traveled to California in 1839 to build his own fort (“Gold Rush: Discovery”) where today the city of Sacramento is located (Viola 398). Within years, he had acquired 12,000 head of cattle and employed several hundred workers. In late 1847, he sent James Marshall and two dozen men to the American River to build a sawmill. By January 24th, 1848, the construction was almost complete when a glint of something caught James Marshall’s eye (“Gold Rush: Discovery”). He bent down in the icy river and was astonished to realize he was holding a tiny piece of gold (“Days”). “I reached my hand down and picked it up; it made my heart thump, for I was certain it was gold. The piece was about half the size and shape of a pea. Then I saw another.” (“Gold Rush: Discovery”). This chunk is now on a display at a museum in Coloma, California, although it is not worth much more than $1.50 in terms of gold (“Days”).

Upon telling John Sutter of his finding, James Marshall and John Sutter both agreed that it was gold. They decided to keep this a secret in order to prevent gold diggers from coming to the sawmill. Stories of gold still managed to float around California, but most people did not believe the news (“Gold Rush: Discovery”). By the winter of 1848, the stories had reached the east side of the United States, but again they were regarded as rumors (“Gold Rush: Fever”).

The minds of the Americans quickly changed, however. Knowing this was a great opportunity to make a fortune of money, a San Francisco merchant, Sam Brannan, ran through the streets of the city while shouting and holding up a bottle of gold dust as proof. Brannan made $36,000 in nine weeks, but not because he mined for gold. Instead, he bought and resold shovels, pans, and pick axes. Pans that sold for twenty cents rose to over fifteen dollars in only a matter of days (“Gold Rush: Discovery”).

Although Sam Brannan had begun to spark people’s interest in California, it took President James Polk’s confirmation for men to abandon their families and homes. Farmers, merchants, and even soldiers left their jobs behind because they thought they could become prosperous. These determined people were dubbed the “forty-niners” because most of them left in 1849 (“Gold Rush: Fever”). However, not just Americans were involved in the gold rush; people from all over the world embarked to California. French, Hawaiians, Australians, Irish, Germans, Italians, Mexicans, and even African Americans attempted the journey. Most of the African Americans were free, but a small number of them were enslaved. By the year 1852, California had the wealthiest African American population in the United States (Viola 398).

The excursion to get to California was perhaps more challenging than the gold digging itself. For the forty-niners living in the east, there were no railroads or rivers to take them to California, so they had two options: they could either take the half year sea trip around South America, or they could walk 2,000 miles across land. Common problems that the seafarers faced were seasickness, food full of insects, water that was almost impossible to drink, and extreme boredom. Eventually, a speedier route was taken across the Panama, but diseases such as cholera and malaria were frequent. The travelers who did survive the trip overseas were usually stuck in coastal towns for weeks or months before a ferry arrived to take them to San Francisco. The travelers who chose to journey over the land often died from the lack of water, especially in the last few hundred miles. A single glass of water could cost one hundred dollars, and the people who were broke were sometimes left to die (“Gold Rush: Journey”).

The gold in California was different than most. The majority of the world’s gold is hidden deep underground and enclosed by hard rock. Gold in California was easy to obtain if the digger had the necessary tools (“Gold Rush: Gold Country”). In the beginning, it was normal for a man to earn $2,000 in gold per day, although the average was about ten dollars (“Life”). A miner would often spend everything he earned just for food and other necessary items in order to survive. Unfortunately, the rapid growth rate of California and the abundance of gold meant there was too much money and a scarcity of everything else (“Gold Rush: Gold Country”). After 1852, panning for gold was no longer profitable (“Life”).

The living conditions for gold miners were not that terrific. Many of them lived in tents and cooked over campfires, and their meals typically consisted of beans, bacon, or game meat. Fires were not unusual, and many towns were destroyed; some of them burnt down numerous times. As pastimes, the men usually played cards and gambled to help cure their homesickness. During the winter, there was a great deal of rain and snow. As a result, the miners spent these months in San Francisco or other mining towns. A miner’s health was poor because of these irregular living environments. Colds were not rare, the food was not nutritious, scurvy was common, and miners were seldom ever clean (“Life”).

California became a state days before Marshall’s discovery, so the government did not have time to take control before thousands of people rushed in. The gold was free for everybody to seize because there was no order, military, taxes, or judicial system (“Gold Rush: Gold Country”). Instead of setting up a government, Congress was too preoccupied debating whether or not California should become a slave state or a free state. With the lack of a judicial system, and the miners too busy to want to deal with crimes, punishment was quick. Miners were exhausted from the long journey to get to California, and some killed over their claims or stole from other miners. In early 1848, the crime rate was low because everybody figured there was enough gold to be spread amongst them all. By 1851, the California Legislature passed a law stating that stolen property worth over one hundred dollars could result in the death sentence (Hage).

The first and most well known hangings during the gold rush were done in Placerville, California. A group of people was rounded up to hold the trials, and they immediately announced the punishment. The penalty was usually a whipping or a hanging. Often, the judges of the trials were intoxicated with alcohol. Over time, a working judicial system was finally instated into California by the government (Hage).

After Sam Brannan’s success, people began to realize that there were plenty of other ways to make money other than digging for gold. A steamboat operator could earn $40,000 in a month, and a chicken farmer could sell a single egg for fifty cents. Women were rare during the gold rush, and the women that followed their husbands provided many services. One woman made $18,000 from a Dutch oven, and a great deal of money could also be obtained by washing clothes, cooking meals, or by running a boarding house. Levi Strauss supposedly stitched a pair of pants out of canvas in 1853, but he was known during the gold rush for his dry good business. Philip Armour, a New York butcher, walked to California and built a meat processing plant. Henry Wells and William Fargo introduced the Wells Fargo Company and providing banking, transportation, and mail delivery. Samuel Clemens, more renowned as Mark Twain, made money during the gold rush writing for the San Francisco “Call” (“Days”). The Frémont family was one of the few families that were triumphant during the gold rush era; they became millionaires after finding gold on their ranch (Viola 398). Many cities that were founded and businesses that were formed are still operating to this day (“Days”).

Perhaps the biggest failure during the gold rush was John Sutter’s aspirations. Since fresh food was hard to locate, gardens were striped of all their vegetables, including Sutter’s. His fort was demolished to be used for building materials. By late 1849, his dream had collapsed. He did not have the gold fever; instead, he wanted to create an agricultural empire. He eventually left California for good (“Gold Rush: Gold Country”).

In conclusion, the gold rush changed America in significant ways. Thousands of people journeyed to California from all over the world. Miners suffered for years with high hopes that they would be successful. Their health was poor, their makeshift homes were tents, and they endured many hardships. Some returned to their families brokenhearted while others had their pockets full of money. Cities were founded, businesses were created, and inventions were made. If the gold rush had not happened, the United States would be quite different than it is today.


“Days of Gold.” Weekly Reader-5. 27 February 1998. 22 February 2005
“The Gold Rush: Discovery.” PBS. 7 February 2005
“The Gold Rush: Fever.” PBS. 7 February 2005 http://www.pbs.org/goldrush/fever.html
“The Gold Rush: Gold Country.” PBS. 7 February 2005
“The Gold Rush: Journey.” PBS. 7 February 2005
Hage, Patrick. “Justice Wasn’t Pretty - But It Was Quick.” The Sacramento Bee. 18
         January 1998. 25 February 2005 http://www.calgoldrush.com/part2/02justice.html
“Life of a Forty-Niner.” Kidport Reference Library. 8 February 2005
Viola, Herman. Why We Remember: United States History Through Reconstruction. Glenview,
         Illinois: Addison-Wesley Educational Publishers, Inc., 1998.
© Copyright 2005 Robert Watson (jsbulldog89 at Writing.Com). All rights reserved.
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