The Discovery of Gold in California Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

In Hutchings' California Magazine in 1857, John Augustus Sutter recounted the events surrounding the discovery of gold at his mill near Coloma, California, some nine years earlier. He explained how word of the discovery spread and how the discovery affected him personally. Sutter, a Swiss immigrant who became an early California landowner, could have become extremely wealthy as a result of the discovery of gold on his land, but it ran counter to his goals and eventually became the catalyst for a series of business failures that would characterize much of his later life. Within the context of American history, however, the discovery of gold in California helped to justify the country's belief in Manifest Destiny. It also set into motion large-scale and rapid immigration, and forced the nation to further address whether slavery would be allowed to expand westward.

Summary Overview

In Hutchings' California Magazine in 1857, John Augustus Sutter recounted the events surrounding the discovery of gold at his mill near Coloma, California, some nine years earlier. He explained how word of the discovery spread and how the discovery affected him personally. Sutter, a Swiss immigrant who became an early California landowner, could have become extremely wealthy as a result of the discovery of gold on his land, but it ran counter to his goals and eventually became the catalyst for a series of business failures that would characterize much of his later life. Within the context of American history, however, the discovery of gold in California helped to justify the country's belief in Manifest Destiny. It also set into motion large-scale and rapid immigration, and forced the nation to further address whether slavery would be allowed to expand westward.

Defining Moment

In January 1848, the United States was already preparing to expand its holdings in the Southwest. The war with Mexico was ending, and the goals of Manifest Destiny—the belief that the United States was destined by Providence to expand all the way across the North American continent—were becoming realities with the negotiation of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, under which Mexico ceded to the United States all the land from Texas to the Pacific. This Mexican Cession, as it was called, included the territory of Alta California, or Upper California, a name the Americans shortened to California.

Prior to Mexican independence in 1821, Alta California was a Spanish colony, and the search to find wealth in the Southwest dates back to the earliest Spanish entradas, or explorations, in the 1530s and 1540s. Stories of riches such as the mythical Seven Cities of Cibola had fuelled the imagination of explorers like Francisco Vásquez de Coronado, but in truth, the Spanish colonies of Texas, New Mexico, and Alta California had been a drain on Spanish resources. The riches the Spanish had found in their other colonies, such as Peru and Mexico, seemed not to be in evidence in Spain's northern holdings. Therefore, relatively few Spaniards colonized Alta California, although a vibrant Hispanic culture, based around the large landholdings of a number of wealthy Californios (Spanish-speaking inhabitants of California) and the numerous Franciscan missions, was well established by the time the Americans arrived. Before US annexation, the future cities of San Diego, Los Angeles, and San Francisco (then called Yerba Buena) were nothing more than small towns in a region far from the corridors of Spanish, Mexican, or American power.

The events that John Sutter describes, however, would change everything. California would almost overnight go from a primitive expanse occupied by Mexican landowners to a bustling and wild frontier region dominated by mostly young, single men from the eastern United States, Europe, and China. Prior to the gold rush, Americans had gradually been moving across the continent. Afterward, as historian J. S. Holliday aptly put it, “the world rushed in.” The gold that flowed out of California, which had remained hidden until just after the Americans took over, seemed to justify the American notion of Manifest Destiny and the country's preordained right to inhabit the continent.

Author Biography

Born in Baden, Germany, to Swiss parents in 1803, Johann August Sutter emigrated from Berne, Switzerland, to the United States in 1834 in order to avoid mounting debt, changing his first two names to John Augustus. He left his wife and family behind, though he hoped to bring them to the United States when his fortunes turned. He found his way to California in 1839, after stops in St. Louis, the Oregon Territory, and Hawaii. Along the way, Sutter relied on inflated stories of his past and his considerable “gift of gab” to get him out of financial difficulties and convince merchants to extend him credit and government officials to view him as a valuable new member of the community. Even the nickname “Captain” was the result of exaggerating his time as an under lieutenant in the Bernese reserve corps into service as a commander in the famed Swiss Guard (Hurtado 19–20). He tried his hand at trading along the Santa Fe Trail, raising horses and cattle, and building a hotel before leaving for California in order to avoid being sued for default on his debts in Missouri.

Once in California, Sutter impressed both American traders and Mexican government officials with his stories and apparent wealth, claiming, for instance, that he owned a ship. He applied for and received Mexican citizenship and then received a grant of 50,000 acres near present-day Sacramento, where he hoped to raise horses, cattle, and sheep. Once he made peace with the local Nisenan and Miwok Indians, whom he employed as laborers and as his own personal military force, his compound, which he named Sutter's Fort, became the social, political, and commercial center for the entire inland region. Because the area was so isolated from the centers of Mexican power closer to the coast, Sutter became the de facto authority of the region. But the events that would change the history of California and the United States as a whole occurred on another part of Sutter's land grant, about forty-five miles away from Sutter's Fort at a sawmill he had commissioned in the Coloma Valley, named for a nearby Maidu Indian settlement.

Historical Document

It was in the first part of January, 1848, when the gold was discovered at Coloma, where I was then building a saw-mill. The contractor and builder of this mill was James W. Marshall, from New Jersey. In the fall of 1847, after the mill seat had been located, I sent up to this place Mr. P. L. Wimmer with his family, and a number of laborers, from the disbanded Mormon Battalion; and a little later I engaged Mr. Bennet from Oregon to assist Mr. Marshall in the mechanical labors of the mill. Mr. Wimmer had the team in charge, assisted by his young sons, to do the necessary teaming, and Mrs. Wimmer did the cooking for all hands.

I was very much in need of a new saw-mill, to get lumber to finish my large flouring mill, of four run of stones, at Brighton, which was commenced at the same time, and was rapidly progressing; likewise for other buildings, fences, etc., for the small village of Yerba Buena, (now San Francisco.) In the City Hotel, (the only one) at the dinner table this enterprise was unkindly called “another folly of Sutter's,” as my first settlement at the old fort near Sacramento City was called by a good many, “a folly of his,” and they were about right in that, because I had the best chances to get some of the finest locations near the settlements; and even well stocked rancho's had been offered to me on the most reasonable conditions; but I refused all these good offers, and preferred to explore the wilderness, and select a territory on the banks of the Sacramento. It was a rainy afternoon when Mr. Marshall arrived at my office in the Fort, very wet. I was somewhat surprised to see him, as he was down a few days previous; and then, I sent up to Coloma a number of teams with provisions, mill irons, etc., etc. He told me then that he had some important and interesting news which he wished to communicate secretly to me, and wished me to go with him to a place where we should not be disturbed, and where no listeners could come and hear what we had to say. I went with him to my private rooms; he requested me to lock the door; I complied, but I told him at the same time that nobody was in the house except the clerk, who was in his office in a different part of the house; after requesting of me something which he wanted, which my servants brought and then left the room, I forgot to lock the doors, and it happened that the door was opened by the clerk just at the moment when Marshall took a rag from his pocket, showing me the yellow metal: he had about two ounces of it; but how quick Mr. M. put the yellow metal in his pocket again can hardly be described.

The clerk came to see me on business, and excused himself for interrupting me, and as soon as he had left I was told, “now lock the doors; didn't I tell you that we might have listeners?” I told him that he need fear nothing about that, as it was not the habit of this gentleman; but I could hardly convince him that he need not to be suspicious. Then Mr. M. began to show me this metal, which consisted of small pieces and specimens, some of them worth a few dollars; he told me that he had expressed his opinion to the laborers at the mill, that this might be gold; but some of them were laughing at him and called him a crazy man, and could not believe such a thing.

After having proved the metal with aqua fortis, which I found in my apothecary shop, likewise with other experiments, and read the long article “gold” in the Encyclopedia Americana, I declared this to be gold of the finest quality, of at least 23 carats. After this Mr. M. had no more rest nor patience, and wanted me to start with him immediately for Coloma; but I told him I could not leave as it was late in the evening and nearly supper time, and that it would be better for him to remain with me till the next morning, and I would travel with him, but this would not do: he asked me only “will you come to-morrow morning?” I told him yes, and off he started for Coloma in the heaviest rain, although already very wet, taking nothing to eat. I took this news very easy, like all other occurrences good or bad, but thought a great deal during the night about the consequences which might follow such a discovery. I gave all my necessary orders to my numerous laborers, and left the next morning at 7 o'clock, accompanied by an Indian soldier, and vaquero, in a heavy rain, for Coloma. About half way on the road I saw at a distance a human being crawling out from the brushwood.

I asked the Indian who it was: he told me “the same man who was with you last evening.” When I came nearer I found it was Marshall, very wet; I told him that he would have done better to remain with me at the fort than to pass such an ugly night here but he told me that he went up to Coloma, (54 miles) took his other horse and came half way to meet me; then we rode up to the new Eldorado. In the afternoon the weather was clearing up, and we made a prospecting promenade. The next morning we went to the tail-race of the mill, through which the water was running during the night, to clean out the gravel which had been made loose, for the purpose of widening the race; and after the water was out of the race we went in to search for gold. This was done every morning: small pieces of gold could be seen remaining on the bottom of the clean washed bed rock. I went in the race and picked up several pieces of this gold, several of the laborers gave me some which they had picked up, and from Marshall I received a part. I told them that I would get a ring made of this gold as soon as it could be done in California; and I have had a heavy ring made, with my family's cost of arms engraved on the outside, and on the inside of the ring is engraved, “The first gold, discovered in January, 1848.” Now if Mrs. Wimmer possesses a piece which has been found earlier than mine Mr. Marshall can tell, as it was probably received from him. I think Mr. Marshall could have hardly known himself which was exactly the first little piece, among the whole.

The next day I went with Mr. M. on a prospecting tour in the vicinity of Coloma, and the following morning I left for Sacramento. Before my departure I had a conversation with all hands: I told them that I would consider it as a great favor if they would keep this discovery secret only for six weeks, so that I could finish my large flour mill at Brighton, (with four run of stones,) which had cost me already about from 24 to 25,000 dollars—the people up there promised to keep it secret so long. On my way home, instead of feeling happy and contented, I was very unhappy, and could not see that it would benefit me much, and I was perfectly right in thinking so; as it came just precisely as I expected. I thought at the same time that it could hardly be kept secret for six weeks, and in this I was not mistaken, for about two weeks later, after my return, I sent up several teams in charge of a white man, as the teamsters were Indian boys.…

Mr. Brannan made a kind of claim on Mormon Island, and put a tolerably heavy tax on “The Latter Day Saints.” I believe it was 30 per cent, which they paid for some time, until they got tired of it, (some of them told me that it was for the purpose of building a temple for the honor and glory of the Lord.)

So soon as the secret was out my laborers began to leave me, in small parties first, but then all left, from the clerk to the cook, and I was in great distress; only a few mechanics remained to finish some very necessary work which they had commenced, and about eight invalids, who continued slowly to work a few teams, to scrape out the mill race at Brighton. The Mormons did not like to leave my mill unfinished, but they got the gold fever like everybody else. After they had made their piles they left for the Great Salt Lake. So long as these people have been employed by me they have behaved very well, and were industrious and faithful laborers, and when settling their accounts there was not one of them who was not contented and satisfied.

Then the people commenced rushing up from San Francisco and other parts of California, in May, 1848: in the former village only five men were left to take care of the women and children. The single men locked their doors and left for “Sutter's Fort,” and from there to the Eldorado. For some time the people in Monterey and farther south would not believe the news of the gold discovery, and said that it was only a ‘Ruse de Guerre’ of Sutter's, because he wanted to have neighbors in his wilderness. From this time on I got only too many neighbors, and some very bad ones among them.

What a great misfortune was this sudden gold discovery for me! It has just broken up and ruined my hard, restless, and industrious labors, connected with many dangers of life, as I had many narrow escapes before I became properly established.…

At the same time I was engaged in a mercantile firm in Coloma, which I left in January, 1849—likewise with many sacrifices. After this I would have nothing more to do with the gold affairs. At this time, the Fort was the great trading place where nearly all the business was transacted. I had no pleasure to remain there, and moved up to Hock Farm, with all my Indians, and who had been with me from the time they were children. The place was then in charge of a Major Domo.

It is very singular that the Indians never found a piece of gold and brought it to me, as they very often did other specimens found in the ravines. I requested them continually to bring me some curiosities from the mountains, for which I always recompensed them. I have received animals, birds, plants, young trees, wild fruits, pipe clay, stones, red ochre, etc., etc., but never a piece of gold. Mr. Dana of the scientific corps of the expedition under Com. Wilkes' Exploring Squadron, told me that he had the strongest proof and signs of gold in the vicinity of Shasta Mountain, and furthers south. A short time afterwards, Doctor Sandels, a very scientific traveler, visited me, and explored a part of the country in a great hurry, as time would not permit him to make a longer stay.

He told me likewise that he found sure signs of gold, and was very sorry that he could not explore the Sierra Nevada. He did not encourage me to attempt to work and open mines, as it was uncertain how it would pay and would probably be only for a government. So I thought it more prudent to stick to the plow, notwithstanding I did know that the country was rich in gold, and other minerals. An old attached Mexican servant who followed me here from the United States, as soon as he knew that I was here, and who understood a great deal about working in placers, told me he found sure signs of gold in the mountains on Bear Creek, and that we would go right to work after returning from our campaign in 1845, but he became a victim to his patriotism and fell into the hands of the enemy near my encampment, with dispatches for me from Gen. Micheltorena, and he was hung as a spy, for which I was very sorry.

By this sudden discovery of the gold, all my great plans were destroyed. Had I succeeded for a few years before the gold was discovered, I would have been the richest citizen on the Pacific shore; but it had to be different. Instead of being rich, I am ruined, and the cause of it is the long delay of the United States Land Commission of the United States Courts, through the great influence of the squatter lawyers. Before my case will be decided in Washington, another year may elapse, but I hope that justice will be done me by the last tribunal—the Supreme Court of the United States. By the Land Commission and the District Court it has been decided in my favor. The Common Council of the city of Sacramento, composed partly of squatters, paid Adelpheus Felch, (one of the late Land Commissioners, who was engaged by the squatters during his office), $5,000, from the fund of the city, against the will of the tax-payers, for which amount he has to try to defeat my just and old claim from the Mexican government, before the Supreme Court of the United States in Washington.

Glossary

aqua fortis: a solution of nitric acid that dissolves most metals other than gold

Eldorado: an area of great wealth, based on the Spanish legend of El Dorado, a city of gold

major domo: an administrator who acts on behalf of an absent landowner or supervises an owner's business

Mormon Battalion: a military unit made up of members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, which were then known as Mormons, that served during the Mexican-American War, many of whom settled in California

Document Analysis

John Sutter had an ambition that was certainly as big as the events that swept through his land grant starting in January 1848, and though he personally did not profit from the gold rush that followed, he was an integral member of the drama that played out in California, transforming the area from a sparsely populated Mexican backwater to one of the economic engines of the United States in a matter of less than five years.

One might think that someone with Sutter's ambitions who also had the good fortune to have gold discovered on his land would be well positioned to profit from the discovery. However, Sutter achieved all he had more by force of personality and slyness than business acumen, and this became readily apparent in the years following the discovery. By the time Sutter told his story to a popular journal—nearly a decade after the discovery—the gold rush was already well known across the nation. But the details Sutter revealed demonstrate much about who he was as a man as well as the importance of the California gold rush in the history of the state, the region, and the nation.

Sutter had chosen the then-remote area near the confluence of the American and Sacramento Rivers as his land grant some seven years earlier, despite having the chance to acquire land closer to the coast. However, being at a distance from the centers of power suited Sutter well, as he wished to have complete control over the development of his land grant as well as the people residing on it. In Sutter's vision, what was wilderness at the time would become a profitable operation, producing cowhides, beef, horses, and lumber for the slowly growing cities of Monterey and Yerba Buena on the coast. Development had been slower than Sutter anticipated, though, and Sutter's Fort was not yet self-sufficient. As a result, he was often seeking credit from suppliers on the coast to keep his operation functioning, something with which he had quite a bit of experience. Sutter had additional reasons for apprehension about what the future might bring in late 1847 and early 1848, as the United States was still at war with Mexico. Although California was still technically Mexican territory, it was by that time under the control of the United States, and a permanent change in government was almost inevitable. Sutter's authority in the region was largely based upon the fact that the Mexican government in Alta California was weak, and his grant was far enough from the Mexican territorial capitol at Monterey that he had unrestrained control over his land (Brands, 17–18).

In late 1847, Sutter had entered a partnership with James W. Marshall to build a sawmill on the South Fork of the American River. Marshall was a mechanic from New Jersey who, like Sutter, had gradually made his way west. Like Sutter, he had briefly settled in the Oregon Territory, but, disliking the weather, moved farther south into California. Men like Marshall who had extensive experience with tools and construction were in high demand in the West, and he had no problem finding work with Sutter. The main portion of Sutter's 50,000-acre land grant was near the present city of Sacramento, California, but he also had an additional grant in the Coloma Valley, which was in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada. Being close to the mountains and on a stream made a perfect location for a sawmill that would provide Sutter's Fort and the surrounding area with the wood needed for construction, and Sutter and Marshall had agreed to share equally in the lumber that the mill produced.

By January, the workers building the mill were digging out the millrace that was to bring the water from the river into the sawmill, turning the wheel that would power the operation. On January 24, 1848, as the water flowed through the millrace, Marshall noticed flakes of a gleaming yellow metal left behind. As the flowing water would have washed away any dirt or lighter minerals, it was clear to Marshall that the metal left behind was gold. Quickly, Marshall collected the flakes and, together with a number of his workers, performed several tests to verify the identity of the metal. Convinced that it was gold he possessed, four days later Marshall embarked on the forty-five mile trip to from Coloma to Sutter's Fort to discuss this development with his business partner.

As Sutter enters into his description of Marshall's arrival at Sutter's Fort, it is interesting that he veers into what others thought of his decision to settle on the Sacramento River rather than nearer to the coast. It appears that he is using the discovery of gold on his property to justify his decision and make his detractors look like fools, which is ironic considering the fact that Sutter profited very little from the discovery. In Sutter's account, when Marshall does arrive, he appears to have a full sense of the significance of the discovery, as he asked to discuss the matter in “a place where we should not be disturbed, and where no listeners could come and hear what we had to say.” Marshall asks Sutter to lock the door, and Sutter portrays himself as somewhat incompetent when he forgets to lock the door and his clerk comes into the room just as Marshall is removing the gold from his pocket.

After Marshall shows Sutter the gold, Sutter does exactly what Marshall did at the mill, chemically testing the metal to ensure that it actually was gold and reading up on the material to determine its quality. Satisfied that this was, indeed, high-quality gold, Marshall returned to Coloma, and Sutter left to join him the next morning. Sutter, too, was well aware of the consequences of the discovery, and he became determined to keep the secret for as long as possible. Although Sutter asks the workers at the mill to keep the discovery secret, he states that he knew that it would be nearly impossible to prevent the workers from talking. After the visit, Sutter explained that “On my way home, instead of feeling happy and contented, I was very unhappy, and could not see that it would benefit me much, and I was perfectly right in thinking so; as it came just precisely as I expected.” The workers at the mill were well acquainted with the workers at Sutter's Fort, so Sutter concludes that it was inevitable that word would escape. At the same time, Sutter takes great pride in describing the ring that he had made with the first gold taken from the millrace, which he stated he did very soon after, so Sutter himself could have been responsible for spreading news of the discovery. Rather than seeking a way to profit from the discovery personally, Sutter laments the fact that he could see no way to profit, as it did not fit with his plans to build a flour mill and continue his other operations at Sutter's Fort. Rather than seizing the opportunity to profit from gold before the world rushed in, Sutter remains steadfast in his own operations, “as it was uncertain how it would pay and would probably be only for a government. So I thought it more prudent to stick to the plow, notwithstanding I did know that the country was rich in gold, and other minerals.” In fact, finding no way to participate in the gold rush itself, Sutter's other operations suffered as his workers left his employ in droves, looking instead to enrich themselves by being among the first in the gold fields.

Interestingly, Sutter mentions in passing Sam Brannan of Mormon Island, who he said placed a tax on his people to mine there. What he does not mention is that Brannan was also a merchant who ran a store at Sutter's Fort. Perhaps if Sutter had possessed the business acumen of his hero John Jacob Astor, he might have followed Brannan's example. As soon as he learned of the discovery, Brannan bought up all of the mining supplies he could, took a trip to San Francisco, and did everything he could to spread the word of the gold strike. As a result, Brannan became the first millionaire in California, not through joining the rush to the gold fields, but by realizing that he was in the right place at the right time to profit from it. However, Sutter continues to complain about the discovery of gold ruining his dream of setting up his private kingdom: “What a great misfortune was this sudden gold discovery for me! It has just broken up and ruined my hard, restless, and industrious labors, connected with many dangers of life, as I had many narrow escapes before I became properly established.” Narrow escapes certainly characterized Sutter's life, though his self-pity was meant to disguise the fact that the narrow escapes were too often from circumstances of his own making.

As the gold rush progressed, Sutter focused on keeping what he had. But the vast majority of those who worked for him, with the exception of American Indian workers who were largely chased away from the gold fields, led the throngs that would come to California from all over the United States and the rest of the world to seek their fortunes. Many of the early miners were successful, as there was a significant portion of gold that could be found in much the same way that Marshall had. Placer gold—gold that is on the surface of the earth rather than underground—was still relatively abundant, and miners quickly descended on the region's streams hoping to follow Marshall's example. Governmental jurisdiction of the land was lax because of the gold fields' distance from the coast and because the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo did not go into effect until July 4, 1848. The absence of effective government restrictions meant that there were no rules and no taxes. Small impresarios like Sutter could no longer hold sway over their land grants, as the miners largely made up their own laws to govern themselves in the mining camps.

As much as Sutter had sought to delay the spreading of the news, those like Brannan, who saw opportunity in the influx of immigrants that was sure to follow, ensured that the word would get out. The first outsiders to seek their fortunes began to arrive during the summer of 1848. News had spread to the neighboring Oregon Territory, where many Americans had already migrated. By the end of the year, miners were appearing from Hawaii, Mexico, and South America, and the first settlers from the eastern United States were beginning to arrive. But those numbers would snowball during 1849, when tens of thousands flocked to the California territory. Most came on the overland route via the California Trail, although those with some means could purchase a ticket to come by ship and sail either around the cape at the southern tip of South America or by the Panama shortcut (the Panama Canal would not be built for another sixty-five years).

Mining became more difficult as the “forty-niners” arrived. Competition over claims in the gold fields was intense, and the prices that miners paid to merchants like Brannan for necessary supplies were often exorbitant. It was said that just to survive, a miner in 1849 or 1850 had to mine one ounce of gold every day. Although those who arrived came looking for easy wealth, mining whatever gold was available was extremely difficult work. Success could still be found during those first few years, but after 1853, the amount of placer gold that was mined began to decrease while the number of miners continued to increase.

It is impossible to separate the history of the gold rush from the story of the rapid population growth in California. Although many of the miners returned home disappointed and destitute, many others decided to stay in the region, which became a state on September 9, 1850. Ironically, it was those very miners who saw the potential of the region as agricultural land who realized many of Sutter's dreams, albeit on a much smaller scale.

Like Sutter's own life, the fate of California was determined by a number of events that seemingly overwhelmed the area. The gold rush, clearly, brought huge numbers of people and made the dream of Manifest Destiny a reality. Only nine days after Marshall's discovery of gold, the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo was signed, which, when ratified by the US Senate, would make California a US territory. The timing of the discovery of gold, combined with the transfer of California from Mexico to the United States, made the fate of the region a national issue, since Congress had been debating for decades whether new states and territories would be admitted into the union as slave or free. The rapid increase in the population of California meant that quick statehood would be a necessity. California was ultimately admitted as a free state, but only as a part of the Compromise of 1850, which allowed for a popular vote on slavery in other parts of the territory gained from Mexico, the continuation of slavery in Washington, DC, and, most importantly to Southerners, the passage of a new Fugitive Slave Act, which stated that Southern slave owners could cross into the nonslave states and territories to capture escaped slaves.

Sutter, however, remained focused not on the transformative impact that the discovery of gold on his land had on the region, but rather on his own personal misfortune that was caused by his poor business decisions. His concluding remarks continue his theme of feeling personally ruined by the discovery of gold. “By this sudden discovery of the gold, all my great plans were destroyed. Had I succeeded for a few years before the gold was discovered, I would have been the richest citizen on the Pacific shore; but it had to be different. Instead of being rich, I am ruined.”

Essential Themes

The discovery of gold on John Sutter's land in 1848 had dramatic consequences for many different populations within California. For miners, the impact was felt economically, and for a few of them it was a time of incredible profit and good fortune. For others, it was a fool's errand, and they returned home destitute and in disgrace. Furthermore, for many of California's American Indians, Sutter's discovery was the beginning of the end of their culture. As happened in other regions where Euro-American settlers arrived in large numbers, disease spread rapidly, decimating many communities. The dependency some tribes had on Euro-American trade meant that with the increased prices of those trade goods, many Indians slipped into poverty or even died of starvation. The justice of the gold fields did not include justice for the Indians, who were sometimes killed for their land. Those who remained had their land and their cultures invaded by the flood of Euro-Americans.

The gold rush that resulted from the discovery also greatly diversified the California population. Mexicans and American Indians constituted the majority of native inhabitants in the region at the time of the discovery. That would quickly change, however, as immigrants from all over the world flooded in. The Chinese arrived in greater numbers than any other. By 1850, there were five hundred Chinese in California, and by 1855 the number of Chinese who had made the trip across the Pacific to the “Gold Mountain” reached twenty thousand, over twice the entire population of the region seven years earlier. San Francisco quickly became the center of Chinese American culture, and although many other cities in California developed Chinatowns, San Francisco's remained dominant and iconic. Chinese miners, like Indians, were persecuted and many had their claims stolen by Euro-American miners. However, the Chinese soon earned a reputation for making profitable claims that other miners had abandoned. After the gold rush, discrimination increased, and by 1882, the United States passed the Chinese Exclusion Act, which was the first immigration law restricting the entry of one particular group based on ethnicity.

Finally, the discovery had a dramatic impact on the landscape. Once the placer gold began to run out in 1853, more destructive means were employed to extract gold from beneath the surface. Hydraulic mining decimated entire hillsides by using torrents of water to find the gold hiding underneath. Chemicals such as arsenic, cyanide, and mercury—used to extract the gold from the materials in which it was embedded—poisoned the land and water. The burgeoning population cut down huge stands of timber to fuel the growth of their towns. In the end, the discovery of gold resulted in the creation of a new California, but—as Sutter would have pointed out—at the expense of destroying the old California.

Bibliography and Additional Reading
  • Brands, H. W. The Age of Gold: The California Gold Rush and the New American Dream. Rev. ed. New York: Random, 2002. Print.
  • Holliday, J. S. The World Rushed In: The California Gold Rush Experience. New York: Simon, 1981. Print.
  • Rush for Riches: Gold Fever and the Making of California. Berkeley: U of California P, 1999. Print.
  • Hurtado, Albert L. John Sutter: A Life on the North American Frontier. Norman: U of Oklahoma P, 2006. Print.
  • Osborne, Thomas J. Pacific Eldorado: A History of Greater California. New York: Wiley-Blackwell, 2013. Print.
  • Starr, Kevin. Americans and the California Dream, 1850–1915. New York: Oxford UP, 1986. Print.
  • Dillon, Richard. Fool's Gold: The Decline and Fall of Captain John Sutter of California. Sanger, CA: Write Thought, 2012. Print.
  • Owens, Kenneth N., ed. John Sutter and a Wider West. Rev. ed. Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 2002. Print.
  • Riches for All: The California Gold Rush and the World. Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 2002. Print.
  • Trafzer, Clifford E. and Joel R. Hyer, eds. Exterminate Them! Written Accounts of the Murder, Rape, and Slavery of Native Americans during the California Gold Rush, 1848–1868. East Lansing: Michigan State UP, 1999. Print.
  • Vaught, David. After the Gold Rush: Tarnished Dreams in the Sacramento Valley. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 2007. Print.
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