How the Gold Rush transformed California

The work was hard and dirty. Disease spread quickly. Native tribes were displaced and murdered. This is the unvarnished story of the “49ers” and their legacy.

One of James K. Polk’s last major acts as president was also one of his most consequential: He helped set off the California Gold Rush.

Polk’s deed came during his final State of the Union in December 1848. After discussing the recently concluded Mexican-American War, the president got to the point: There was gold in those California hills. A sawmill worker named James Marshall had spotted flecks of metal in a stream bed, and word was starting to get out.

“The accounts of the abundance of gold in that territory are of such an extraordinary character as would scarcely command belief,” Polk told Congress

There were already at least 4,000 gold prospectors in California, he reported. There would soon be many more. His announcement helped spark a mad dash for riches that would transform the distant American territory into the “Golden State” and leave an imprint on the national consciousness that lingers today.

Just last month, in fact, heavy winter storms in California brought on “mini gold rushes” of enthusiasts who scoured streams and rivers for tiny nuggets of shiny yellow metal washed down from the mountains. It’s clear the lure of a quick payday is still strong today.

Those prospectors probably won’t get rich from their finds. It turns out, neither did the so-called “49ers” who came to California at the Gold Rush’s height—1849. This is their story.

How California was transformed by the Gold Rush

One way to measure the impact of the Gold Rush is by population. In 1850, just over a year after Polk made his announcement, the Census Bureau made its first-ever count: It found 92,597 residents.

A decade later, that number had nearly quadrupled.

“All sorts and conditions of men, old, young, and middle-aged… were relinquishing their existing pursuits and associations to commence a totally new existence in the land of gold,” the Edinburgh-born artist J.D. Borthwick wrote in his memoir. Borthwick had been living in New York in 1851 when he “was seized with the California fever” and joined the crowds headed west. 

They didn’t find unclaimed land, though: California had long been home to a number of Native tribes—and the state’s new leaders declared war on them. That war “will continue to be waged between the races until the Indian race becomes extinct must be expected,” Gov. Peter Burnett said in his 1851 State of the State address. The Indigenous population, estimated at 310,000 in 1769, fell to just 30,000 by 1860.

For many newly minted prospectors, though, hopes of striking it rich faded quickly. Life could be hard: Miners often ate bad food and lived in crowded, shabby quarters where disease spread easily. In Sacramento, the cholera epidemic killed 1,000 people in three weeks in 1850. The work of panning and digging for gold was hard and dirty, but wasn’t often productive. Luck was a bigger factor than effort.

“We soon found that, although, in imagination, it might be agreeable work, yet in reality, it was the most laborious and in the majority of cases the most unsatisfactory that men could be engaged in,” Augustin Hibbard  wrote to his brother a few months later. 

A few men did become very wealthy during this time—not often from gold, but from selling goods to those who had come west looking for gold. They were, as one popular phrase had it, “mining the miners.” California’s first millionaire was not a miner but a merchant and newspaper publisher, Samuel Brannan, who spent the Gold Rush selling equipment and provisions to newcomers. Other merchants included Leland Stanford, who founded Stanford University; Domingo Ghirardelli, who would become famous for his chocolate and coffee business; and Levi Strauss, the blue jeans maker.

The rush didn’t just bring migrants from the American east, but also from abroad. In 1852, 20,000 Chinese immigrants arrived in California—a third of the state’s population increase that year. They often encountered racism, were given low pay and dangerous jobs while warding off violent attacks in the camps. The law didn’t help: Chinese migrants were barred from testifying in court after the murder conviction of a white man. The 1850 Foreign Miners License Law placed a $20 monthly charge on non-U.S. gold miners, though it was repealed a year later. The law had a lasting effect: Many of those Chinese migrants settled in San Francisco, creating the first U.S. Chinatown.

All these newcomers transformed the geography of the state. Three formerly small and sleepy towns suddenly boomed into thriving cities: San Francisco, Sacramento and Stockton. And that boom dramatically accelerated the United States’ westward expansion. Thanks to its resources and growing population, California became America’s 31st state in September 1850 — leapfrogging territories far to the east, including Minnesota and Kansas.

The Gold Rush’s lasting legacy

The heyday of the California Gold Rush was short-lived. "Now we hear of the complete exhaustion and abandonment of many of the diggings,” one newspaper lamented in 1851. Earnings among miners dropped from about $20 a day in 1848 to less than $8 a day three years later. Once an individual enterprise, mining quickly became an effort dominated by corporations—miners began to organize themselves into companies as it became clear that there were more people than working gold claims—and machines. Starting in 1853,  “hydraulic mining” operations that used high-pressure jets of water to blast away at mountains to uncover gold, devastating the environment. The process dirtied lakes, cut down forests and dammed up rivers. 

During the five years between Marshall’s discovery and the onset of corporatized mining, an estimated 750,000 pounds of gold was extracted from California’s mountains, rivers and streams—peaking with an estimated $81 million in value in 1852. By then, the rush had permanently altered the state. In many territories, Borthwick noted in his memoir, European settlement had been a gradual process. But in California “the process was much more abrupt,” he wrote. “Thousands of men, hitherto unknown to each other, and without mutual relationship, were thrown suddenly together.” 

They kept on coming. 

After quadrupling between 1850 and 1860, the state’s population more than doubled again over the next 20 years and continued to grow rapidly from there—making the state an anchor for the westward trek of the American population that may only now be petering out

Today, California has the fifth-largest economy in the world, driven by the agriculture, tech and entertainment industries, and may soon pass Germany for fourth place. The state has produced a lot of riches for a lot of people—and gold was just the start.

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