California Gold Rush Essay

The California Gold Rush
Shortly after the acquisition of California from Mexico a man by the name of John
Sutter arrived in East San Francisco Bay in 1839. Born in Germany he had to leave
because he was unable to pay his creditors. With plenty of charm and letters from friends
he convinced the Mexican governor of California to award him a land grant of more than
50,000 acres. John Sutter built a stockade and a fort and soon after became referred to as
Captain Sutter, and his riverbank establishment Sutters Fort. Sutter chose a location on
the south fork of the American River, 50 miles to the south of his fort, to build a sawmill.

(Pic. 1) A millrace was dug and wooden gates were opened periodically so that the
current would widen and deepen the channel. During his inspection on January 24, 1848
James W. Marshall found the first piece of gold at the end of the race. Over the next
decade his discovery would have a profound effect on the experiences of hundreds of
thousands of individuals, their families, their communities, and ultimately the nation as a
whole. By the winter of 1848, whispers of a gold strike had drifted eastward across the
country but few easterners believed it. The gold discovery needed validation, and
President Polk was just the one to deliver it. In his opening address to Congress on
December 5, 1848 Polk said that at the time of the California acquisition it was known
that mines of the precious metals exsisted to some extent. Recent discoveries render it
probable that these mines are more extensive and valuable than was anticipated. The
accounts of the abundance of gold in that territory are of such an extraordinary character
as would scarcely command belief were they not corroborated by authentic reports.
(Johnson, 38). With Polk’s address making headlines around the world Gold Fever had
begun. The future forty-niners now under the influence of Gold Fever had to overcome a
cruel journey, miserable living and working conditions, and coming home boom or bust.
The trials and tribulations they faced are many and forever carved into American history.

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Polk’s simple words, backing up the claim of gold in California, were a powerful call
to action. Farmers left their fields, merchants closed their shops, soldiers left their posts,
and all made plans for California. The departing gold seekers faced an immediate
problem. There was no railroad to take them there, nor was there a river route. The
journey proved to be a incredible test of endurance. There were two ways to get to
California either by land or by sea. By land they faced a 2,000 mile trip across rugged
landscape (Map 1). Almost everyone going to California overland travelled with a group,
which were democratic in nature. Contracts were signed that spelled out rules of conduct,
especially with respect to participation and sharing of duties. The journey across the
plains varied in length and difficulty, and because it was so severe a test it was one the
gold seekers would never forget if they survived it. There were tens of thousands of men
and women on the trail and all they could think about was gold as they crept along at two
miles per hour on the dusty trail. At first it was an adventure, but as they pushed farther
westward their enthusiasm turned to fear of the indians along the trail. The real danger of
the overland journey wasn’t the indians, but the lack of water especially the last 200 miles
through the deserts of Nevada. Goods and food were cast aside along the trail to lighten
the load. At the beginning of the final stage on the Humboldt River, many 49ers left their
wagons and proceeded on foot, using as pack animals the stock horses they had brought
for breeding. (Rohrbough, 65).

The journey by land was rough but so was the sea voyage. The sea route (Map 2)
around the tip of South America often took more than six months and seasickness was
rampant in the beginning. The accomodations were severely overcrowded men were
accommodated in tiered berths, usually three men sleeping abreast on platforms barely
two feet apart, one above the other. (Johnson, 64). Boredom soon took over and the
men took to gambling from morning to night. Cards and gambling not only drew veteran
players, but also rapidly seduced those heretofore innocent of such vices. (Rohrbough,
59). The food was often full of bugs, and the meat was often rotten. Water stored for
months in the ships holds took on a foul taste, and was often diluted with molasses or
vinegar so it could be kept down. The weather in the Cape passage was very perilous.
The sea was very rough and it was bitterly cold. At night the passengers wore all their
clothing and shivered in their bunks, praying they would make it through the night.
There was another route that was partly by sea and partly by land. By sailing across
the Atlantic Ocean to Panama the forty-niners could then cross over the narrow land
bridge between North America and South America. Finally continuing their journey by
sailing the Pacific Ocean to California. This was not as easy as it sounded though for
crossing the jungles of Panama many travelers picked up aches and fevers including
cholera and malaria. For those who remained well and luck was on their side the
journey took about five days. The first leg of the crossing was by canoes, navigated by
the natives, on the Chagres River. After travelling as far as they could by canoe they
finished the trip on foot to Panama City. Waiting in Panama City for passage to
California could take several weeks and the numbers of gold seekers piling up in Panama
City was staggering. There were simply not enough ships to handle the mass of people
waiting to go to California. Many ships would take a load of passengers to California and
the crew would stay leaving the ship abandoned in San Francisco Bay. By the mid 1850s
more than 500 ships lay rotting in the bay, many still full of cargo that no one had taken
time to unload. Regular steamer service between Panama and California helped relieve
the situation in Panama but never remedied it. After securing passage to California the
journey was over but few men had any idea of the hardships they were going to face.

Prior to the gold rush California had little community life on which to build on.

When thousands began flowing into California settlements sprang up overnight in the
mining fields. According to Paul, The most common was the camp: a straggling settle-
ment that might vary in size from a few houses to a small town. A more impressive place
was the mining town, a community that was larger in size than the camp, and usually had
a few buildings that could make some pretentions to substantiality. (California Gold,
72). In the beginning nearly everyone was camping out, under shelter of a tree, a crude
tent, or a lean to made of canvas. By 1850 log cabins were being built in the developing
settlements. For the common miner construction costs were so high that most buildings
were made of wood frame with canvas stretched over it. Such methods of construction
produced communities that were wiped out by fires several times. Miners set up a camp
close to where they were digging, it could be set up in a few hours and taken down in
even less time. This was an important part of their lifestyle since they were constantly on
the move from one location to another. If the daily living was rough the work was then
Work began on the streams at daylight, and as the miners dressed and prepared them-
selves for a hard day of labor the cook made their breakfast. After breakfast the miners
made their way down to the streams with their picks, shovels, pans, and buckets. After
arriving at the claim the miners began the routine of digging, shoveling, carrying, and
washing until sunset. (Pic.2). This routine was carried out at least six days a week and
often seven. Often men would be removing the sand knee deep in ice-cold water for
hours on end. One miner summarized the labors of mining in these terms: Mining is the
hardest work imaginable and an occupation which very much endangers health. A weakly
man might about as well go to digging his grave as to dig gold.(Rohrbough, 138). Few
forty-niners were prepared for the incredibly hard work. Working fifty pans of dirt in a
ten hour day was a reasonable goal. But digging the dirt to fill those pans, sorting it out,
and panning for the gold became more work than most gold seekers had anticipated. For
a man who could endure hardships, could handle the incredible amount of labor, and
could handle the sorrows of dissapointment, there was never a better opportunity in the
world to make a fortune. There was a great number of men who barely knew how to pick
up a shovel including doctors, lawyers, preachers, bookkeepers, and other white-collar
workers, few of them prepared for the hard life of mining. As much as a thousand dollars
worth of gold could be washed from a single pan, but few miners ever had that exhilar-
ating experience. A half an ounce of gold a day was generally recognized as the bare
minimum a miner must make to keep himself working due to the inflated prices in the

Prices were so high in the camps that had the miners been making what they did per
day anywhere else in the world the majority of them would have become rich. As it was
though many miners barely made enough to get by on a day to day basis. A tin pan that
could be bought for fifteen cents anywhere in the United States sold for eight dollars
in the gold fields. Everything was sold at unbelievable profits such as shovels for two
dollars, frying pan for two dollars, a mule for two hundred dollars, a box of sardines for
sixteen dollars, one pound of hard bread for two dollars, one pound of butter for six
dollars, a bottle of ale for eight dollars, a half pound of cheese for three dollars, flour
for fifty dollars a barrel, potatoes for three dollars a pound. Not just the price of goods
was high services were equally severely inflated, for example a full time house servant
would receive around one hundred dollars a month, clothes washing could bring one
hundred dollars per week, a cooked meal cost around five dollars, women could receive
more than one hundred and fifty dollars a month for house cleaning. These high prices
were paid for by the average miner working day in and day out under miserable condit-
ions and poor health.

In the late eighteen hundreds at the time of the gold rush men and women were
accustomed to hard physical labor, but the intense labor required by mining eventually
wore down even the most optimistic and the physically and mentally tough. Wealth
was the dream; grinding toil was the reality that for many made it into a nightmare.
(Rohrbough, 192). In the face of such demanding physical conditions, men aged rapidly
in the mines. Their hair turned gray, their teeth rotted, their aching backs cried out for
relief from the daily labor of digging and carrying. The faces of miners were lined by
hard labor, hot sun, and continuing exposure to the weather of all kinds. In addition to the
dangers associated with mining was the communal living and poor sanitation. Baths were
infrequent and the men did not have enough clothes to change on a regular basis. Epi-
demics of smallpox and dysentary afflicted the mines each season, and to make things
worse as prospects in the mines diminished cheap basic foods was all the miners could
afford. These cheap meals lacking in vegetables and fruits, made the miners susceptible
to scurvy. Even with all the hardships and miserable conditions most of the miners made
it through and now faced the most difficult task of returning home.

Few miners found more than enough gold to cover their daily living expenses, and
fewer still had any left over after gambling and drinking. By the year of 1853 the big gold
rush was at an end, the placer deposits were virtually exhausted, earlier stakes had been
worked over several times, and now the miners had to face the reality of going home.
How could the forty-niner justify his long absence when he returned with no more than
he left with? For those that stayed to the end and had still not struck it rich, there was the
belief that they had done all they could to make their dreams come true. If they had left
after a couple of years they would have been forever looking back and wondering if they
had just missed the mother lode. In a way, coming home was the coming to terms with
failure. Many of the forty-niners who disappeared into the countryside of California did
so because they couldn’t return home empty-handed and face relatives and loved ones.

How much gold would a returning miner have to possess to measure up as a success?
Ten thousand dollars was frequently mentioned as the standard in newspaper articles.

(Rohrbough, 264). For many a few thousand dollars would be enough, and for others
just being able to square up accounts was enough.
Many forty-niners did strike it rich as is the case of John and Daniel Murphy who
came to California in early 1848. By the end of the year the brothers hade made one and
a half million dollars. John became a politician and Daniel ended up buying three million
acres of land in California. John Bidwell also came to California in 1848 and within six
months had made a fortune and became one of the richest and most respected men in
California. A man named Dye in less than two months mined more than seventy-six
thousand dollars worth of gold. Generally unless a miner found a lot of gold quick and
then left, he would eventually spend it all looking for more gold. The men who did not
make their fortunes in money did gain wealth in their memories of taming the wild land
called California.

Captain Sutter prior to the gold rush wanted nothing more than to start an empire in
the new land in which he had received two hundred and thirty square miles. His land
turned out to be the gold fields, but Sutter turned out to be careless about his business
dealings. His workers went after gold along with the miners and left his fields and cattle
unattended. Sutter tried mining but soon began drinking up all the gold he could find. By
the end of his life Captain Sutter had sold all the land he had acquired and was a poor
man. James Marshall, who found the first nugget, never made anything off of the gold
discovery. He actually lost his mill as forty-niners overrun his land looking for gold. He
tried panning for gold but never had any success. James Marshall ended up dying
penniless and bitter over the way his life turned out.
Of the nearly four hundred thousand men who crowded into California in the decade
after the find at Sutter’s Mill the vast majority neither prospered or starved. For them it
was a grand adventure that they would never forget. For many it didn’t end in California
when the diggings tapered off. Many men loaded up their tools and moved on to new
gold fields such as the Black Hills, Montana, Oregon, and even as far as Australia. Still
other men simply packed up and went back home, for the most part looking back with
fondness on California and their experiences searching for gold. Many decided to stay in
California and take up trades staying close to the land they had grown to love
Works Cited
Johnson, William Weber. The Forty-Niners. Ed. Hedley Donovan. Canada: Joan
D. Manly, 1974.

Paul, Rodman W. The California Gold Discovery. Georgetown, California: The
Talisman Press, 1967.

—, California Gold. Lincoln, Nebraska: University of Nebraska Press, 1947.

Rohrbough, Malcolm J. Days of Gold: The California Gold Rush and the American
Nation. Berkeley and Los Angeles, California: University of California Press,


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