The History of Mining in California

The California Gold Rush started in early 1848 in the Sacramento Valley with the discovery of gold nuggets. Prospective gold miners, about a thousand of them, traveled to San Francisco and the surrounding area. California’s non-native population grew to 100,000 and later to approximately 300,000, visibly more than the population of 1,000 before the discovery. The Gold Rush, which peaked in 1852, has amassed $2 billion worth of invaluable metal, and the influx of money from the activity has boosted the American economy. The sudden increase in population rapidly advanced California to statehood. It’s not entirely without consequence, as the gold rush┬áhad severely affected the Native Californians. It promoted a decline in the Native American population as they suffered through the California Genocide, diseases, with some starving to death.

How It Began

Everything began at Sutter’s Mill on January 24, 1848. A foreman named James W. Marshall, originally from New Jersey found flakes of gold in a water channel of a lumber mill he was building for John Sutter, the owner, on the American River. Marshall presented his findings to Sutter. After privately testing the metal and finding that it was indeed gold, both men tried to keep the news of their discovery quiet, fearing for his business.

Just days after Marshall’s discovery, rumors went around about gold discovery, and although both men tried to keep their discovery a secret, word got out. The rumors were confirmed in March 1848 by a merchant named Samuel Brannan, a San Francisco newspaper publisher. The merchant slash publisher went around town, parading a vial of gold obtained from the mill. As mid-June approached, several of San Francisco’s male population flocked to the gold mines, and by August, the miner population reached 4,000.

In 1848, way before the rush began, San Francisco had a small population. After the discovery, it first became a ghost town, but then new people arrived, and from then on, it was no longer a town of abandoned ships and businesses. The population increased rapidly from about 1,000 to 25,000 full-time residents in just two years.

The “Forty-Niners”

As news of the discovery spread, it eventually reached the East Coast, and on December 5, 1848, the current US President James K. Polk confirmed the discovery of gold. As it was confirmed, individuals from other countries and other parts of the United States, seeking fortune, began their California journey. These fortune seekers were called the “forty-niners.” These people, mostly men, borrowed money and risked their property and life savings to make the journey to California. The would-be miners left their families and hometowns in pursuit of the wealth they’d attain when they get a hold of the gold. Thousands of them traveled across the land and by sea, and by the end of 1849, the non-native population of California grew to an estimated number of 100,000.

An estimate of approximately 90,000 people arrived in California in 1849. About 50,000 to 60,000 were Americans, and the remaining 30,000 were from other countries. By 1855, at least 300,000 fortune seekers and immigrants had arrived in California from around the world. The largest group in the growing population still seems to be the Americans, but there were at least 10,000 for each group of Australians, Britons, Chinese, French, Latin Americans, and Mexicans. There are also many smaller groups of miners, like the African Americans, Basques, Filipinos, and Turks.

To accommodate the forty-niners, gold mining towns complete with shops, brothels, and other businesses showed up. San Francisco eventually became the capital city of the new frontier with a bustling economy. But, as more and more businesses sprung up, chaos ensued. The mining towns grew more lawless as the people engaged in rampant banditry, prostitution, violence, and gambling.

A small number of women also participated in the gold rush. There were only 700 women of various ethnicities out of the 40,000 people who arrived in 1849. Some decided to come with their husbands, and some were there solely because their husbands sent for them, and others came thinking of adventure and economic opportunities.

The gold rush eventually dwindled after 1850, as the surface gold was gradually exhausted, yet miners continued to arrive. As gold became more difficult to attain, independent miners were driven into wage labor. The gold mining peaked in 1852 and continued just until the end of the decade. In its peak, $81 million worth of gold was pulled from underground, with the total gradually declining as the years passed and leveled to around $45 million annually by 1857. Hydraulic mining was developed in 1853 when there was a decline in surface gold deposits, but despite bringing massive profits, the operation destroyed so much of the landscape. By the end of the decade, the state of California’s population grew to a staggering number of 380,000.