In early 1848, gold was discovered in Northern California, ultimately setting off the largest mass migration in human history. The chain of events can be traced back to a single January day—a single moment in fact—at a mill on the American River, about 35 miles northeast of Sacramento. Today, on student trips to California, visitors can get a taste of the excitement, the hope, and the dangers of that dizzying period known as the California Gold Rush.
1. The discovery
On Monday, January 24, 1848, a carpenter named James W. Marshall was working at a mill owned by Sacramento pioneer James Sutter. That morning, Marshall found some bits of shiny metal in the water near the mill’s water wheel. He brought the pieces inside to Sutter, and the men tested it by boiling it in a lye solution and hammering away to check its malleability. The tests confirmed their assumption: the metal was gold.
2. Rumors confirmed
Sutter was actually upset about the discovery, because he’d been hoping to build an agricultural empire in the area and he knew the mass influx of people would put an end to that dream. Word of gold spread quickly in the surrounding area, and in March, San Francisco newspaper publisher Samuel Brannan bought up as many shovels and picks as he could and ran through the streets with a vial of gold shouting, “Gold! Gold! Gold from the American River!”
3. The rush was on
In August, the New York Herald reported on the gold discovery (the first major newspaper on the East Coast to do so), and in December, President James Polk confirmed the discovery in an address to Congress. From that point, thousands upon thousands of immigrants and settlers from all over the world migrated to California—by land and sea—in search of instant riches.
4. Population boom
Before the discovery of gold, San Francisco had been a sleepy settlement of about a thousand people. By 1850, the city had 25,000 full-time residents. As for the entire California territory, in March 1848 there were about 157,000 people, the vast majority of them Native Americans—only about 800 non-native Americans lived there. Less than two years later, there were more than 100,000 non-native Americans. And by the mid 1950s, the area had more than 300,000 immigrants living there.
5. All gone
By 1850, most of the obvious gold had been collected. Efforts continued and techniques were devised for extracting gold from more difficult locations, but within a few years the surge of the gold rush began to subside. Of course, the effects of the gold rush continue to be felt to this day, both locally and around the world.
On Explore America’s Sacramento: California’s Capital & the Gold Rush tour, students visit key state parks associated with the discovery of gold. They even have the chance to do some gold panning, just like the hundreds of thousands of fortune-seeking “forty-niners” in the middle of the 19th century. Who knows, maybe they missed a spot…