California Gold Rush Begins Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

James W. Marshall’s discovery of gold in California launched a mass immigration of fortune seekers who quickly transformed the newly acquired territory into a prosperous state that helped to drive the development of the entire West.

Summary of Event

On January 24, 1848, James W. Marshall discovered gold in the terrace of a mill that a group of men were erecting for John Augustus Sutter on the south fork of the American River. Despite Sutter’s efforts to keep the news secret until he could secure and protect the vast estates he had obtained through Mexican land grants, California newspapers revealed the find in March. By May, a rush had started, and San Francisco, Monterey, San Jose, and other California communities were quickly stripped of men who headed for the streams flowing westward from the Sierra Nevada Sierra Nevada;and California gold rush[California gold rush] . During the first prospecting season in the summer of 1848, Californians, joined by a few men from Oregon and Hawaii, searched for gold without competition from the horde of gold seekers who would soon descend on the gold country. California;gold rush Gold rushes;California [kw]California Gold Rush Begins (Jan. 24, 1848) [kw]Gold Rush Begins, California (Jan. 24, 1848) [kw]Begins, California Gold Rush (Jan. 24, 1848) California;gold rush Gold rushes;California [g]United States;Jan. 24, 1848: California Gold Rush Begins[2570] [g]Central America and the Caribbean;Jan. 24, 1848: California Gold Rush Begins[2570] [c]Immigration;Jan. 24, 1848: California Gold Rush Begins[2570] [c]Earth science;Jan. 24, 1848: California Gold Rush Begins[2570] [c]Expansion and land acquisition;Jan. 24, 1848: California Gold Rush Begins[2570] [c]Economics;Jan. 24, 1848: California Gold Rush Begins[2570] Marshall, James W. Sutter, John Augustus Larkin, Thomas Oliver Mason, Richard Barnes

Cartoon published in 1849 that lampoons the motives of the many people who were flocking to California to join in the gold rush.

(Library of Congress)

News of the discovery first reached the East in August, when the New York Herald New York Herald published a report. During the following month, official word arrived from Thomas Oliver Larkin Larkin, Thomas Oliver , the U.S. consul in Monterey, who was alarmed by the impact of the event. After a tour of the diggings, Richard Barnes Mason Mason, Richard Barnes , the military governor of California, forwarded a report to Washington, D.C., accompanied by a small box of gold samples. In December, 1848, when President James K. Polk Polk, James K. [p]Polk, James K.;and California gold rush[California gold rush] notified Congress of the gold discovery in his annual state of the union address, the United States and the whole world realized that earlier reports were true. Gold fever broke out in the eastern United States, and thousands of men made arrangements to go to California in the spring. Some gold seekers planned to migrate and operate independently, and others organized cooperative groups and companies to share expenses, labor, and profits.

Many people living on the eastern seacoast elected to travel to California by sea. Within a month following the president’s message, sixty-one ships had left the Atlantic seaports for the six-month voyage to the Pacific coast around South America’s Cape Horn Cape Horn;and California gold rush[California gold rush] . They arrived at their destination during the summer months of 1849. It was possible to shorten the journey by taking steamships to Central America Central America , crossing by land, and boarding other ships on the opposite coast that were bound for California. However, overland passages were uncertain, even the most expensive accommodations were often inadequate, and the Central American isthmus was Diseases;tropical disease-ridden.

Most gold seekers traveled to California overland, on what was both a shorter and a cheaper trip. Warm weather permitted an early start on a journey across northern Mexico or New Mexico. Texas trails converged on El Paso, from which the adventurers headed west by way of Tucson and the Gila River into southern California, and then went northward to regions in the foothills of the Sierras where gold had been discovered. Santa Fe Santa Fe, New Mexico was another base, at which people arrived from Fort Smith, Arkansas, after ascending the valley of the Canadian River or coming west from Missouri by way of the Santa Fe Trail. At Santa Fe, some people elected to turn southward down the Rio Grande and west along the Gila River, following the route of Stephen Kearny’s Army of the West into California. Others turned north and west in a greater semicircular path, known as the Old Spanish Trail, that went into southern California.

The most popular route, however, was the well-known Platte River Trail Platte River Trail to the South Pass, then by way of Fort Hall or Salt Lake City to the California Trail, and across Nevada along the banks of the Humboldt River. The overland migration of 1849 along this route appeared to duplicate that of earlier years, but there were considerable differences. The danger from attacks by Native Americans was minimized because of the number of travelers, and parties were less likely to lose their way. However, the heavy traffic exhausted the grass supply needed for animals, and water holes along the trail became infected with Asiatic cholera.

Suffering was intense, because most immigrants knew nothing about traveling along plains or over mountains. Guides were scarce, and many guidebooks and newspaper accounts were misleading. Consequently, the trails were marked by the graves of those who succumbed to accidents, cholera, dysentery, mountain fever, and other ailments. Beyond the South Pass, much of the route passed through hot and dusty alkali deserts. In the desert crossing between the sinks of the Humboldt and Carson Rivers, the ground was littered with abandoned wagons and carcasses of dead animals. Many weary travelers resorted to pack animals or walked across the Sierra Nevada Sierra Nevada;and California gold rush[California gold rush] . A relief society in Sacramento financed and delivered medical and food supplies to groups stranded in the desert, saving many lives. Conditions were equally bad in the desert west of the mouth of the Gila River. Those who wandered from the established routes encountered indescribable suffering; one party leaving the Colorado River Colorado River to strike directly west into California left most of its members in a valley subsequently known as Death Valley.

Meanwhile, San Francisco San Francisco;and California gold rush[California gold rush] was developing into the metropolis of the gold country, and supply towns grew at such strategic locations as Marysville, Sacramento, and Stockton. Hundreds of mining camps sprang up near the diggings, with picturesque names such as Poker Flat, Hangtown, Red Dog, Hell’s Delight, and Whiskey Bar expressing the sentiments of a predominantly male society. Most of the so-called forty-niners who began migrating to California in 1849 were young unmarried men. However, thousands of women Women;and California gold rush[California gold rush] also made the trip to California.

So many people came to California that the majority of gold seekers had to work long, hard hours to obtain the gold necessary simply to provide shelter and food as prices of goods soared. The weak and the defenseless were quickly weeded out. As economic pressures mounted, prejudice against members of ethnic and national minorities increased. California mining camps were cosmopolitan, and the Euro-Americans from New England, the South, the Missouri frontier, and elsewhere used various devices to discriminate against Chinese, Chinese immigrants;and California gold rush[California gold rush] Mexicans, and African Americans.

Native-born Euro-Americans constituted almost 80 percent of all the forty-niners. The second largest group was from Mexico and other Latin American countries. Approximately 7 percent came directly from Europe and Asia. English and German immigrants were more successful at mining than were the French, most of whom returned to the supply towns and became shopkeepers. To escape the drudgery, miners occasionally spent days of recreation engaged in contests of strength, endurance, and speed to demonstrate their physical prowess. Many found amusement at night in the saloons, where they gambled at red dog or faro, and in dance halls, in which they could find women. Women;and California gold rush[California gold rush]

When the gold rush began, California California;population growth had a non-Indian population of 14,000 people. By the end of 1849, about 100,000 non-Indians were living in the former Mexican province. Exhibiting admirable leadership, some of these men laid plans for the calling of a constitutional convention to meet in September, 1849, to organize a new state that would seek admission to the United States.

During the early days of the gold rush, mining in California could be highly rewarding. The average prospector collected between ten and fifty dollars worth of gold per day. However, the rate of return declined rapidly as time passed. Nevertheless, until around 1865, about fifty million dollars worth of gold was mined in California each year. The first fortunes were made in the most easily accessible placer deposits; later fortunes were generally made by mining corporations that could afford the capital and machinery required to work deeper deposits.


The more than 75,000 people who migrated to California in the hope of earning their fortunes had a significant impact on American history. The huge influx of people from the East displaced many Native Americans and highlighted racial tensions between the native-born and foreign-born, particularly the Chinese.

The Manifest destiny;and California gold rush[California gold rush] notion of “manifest destiny” had been coined three years before the California gold rush began. That term was used by American expansionists who held that it was “the fulfillment of our manifest destiny to overspread the continent allotted by Providence for the free development of our yearly multiplying millions.” The gold rush appeared to be a fulfillment of manifest destiny. Because of the large numbers of westward-moving fortune seekers, California was admitted to the union as a state in 1850. Its miners developed new mining technology that benefited mining in other regions of the country, and the rapid economic development of the state accelerated the building of the first transcontinental telegraph and railroad lines.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Brands, H. W. The Age of Gold: The California Gold Rush and the New American Dream. New York: Doubleday, 2002. Lively history of the event that Brands describes as having launched “the most astonishing mass movement of people since the Crusades.” Does an admirable job of placing the California gold rush in the broadest possible historical perspective.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Caughey, John W. Gold Is the Cornerstone. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1948. Brief overview of several significant facets of the gold rush, including the original discoveries, the rush of the forty-niners, and the impact of the gold rush on California and United States history.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Gordon, Mary M., ed. Overland to California with the Pioneer Line. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1984. Collection of memoirs of participants in various land expeditions to California during the 1840’s.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Holliday, J. S. The World Rushed In: The California Gold Rush Experience. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2002. First published in 1981, this book examines the California gold rush through the voluminous and often compelling diaries of a single prospector, to which the author connects the letters of hundreds of other gold seekers.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Johnson, Susan Lee. Roaring Camp: The Social World of the California Gold Rush. New York: W. W. Norton, 2000. Innovative social history of the California gold rush that explores the event’s multicultural dimensions and the collisions among vastly different cultures. Well written and filled with fascinating anecdotal material.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Levy, Jo Ann. “Forgotten Forty-Niners.” In American History. Vol. 1. Guilford, Conn.: Dushkin, 1995. Provides new information on the experiences of women in the California mining camps and surrounding towns.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Paul, Rodman W. California Gold: The Beginning of Mining in the Far West. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1947. Covers several economic and social aspects of the gold rush era, including the impact on California, the contributions of the California miners to mining technology, and the regulation of mining society, particularly the growth of vigilante committees.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Royce, Sarah. A Frontier Lady: Recollections of the Gold Rush and Early California. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1977. Diary that describes the author’s experiences as a wife who took part in the California gold rush.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Tutorow, Norman E. The Governor: The Life and Legacy of Leland Stanford, a California Colossus. 2 vols. Spokane, Wash.: Arthur H. Clark, 2004. Biography of a pivotal figure in nineteenth century California who came to the state to prospect and instead built a commercial empire in businesses that supported mining.

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Categories: History