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Digital History ID 3271

 

In the span of just five years, the United States had increased in size by a third and acquired an area that now includes the states of Arizona, California, Colorado, Idaho, Nevada, New Mexico, Oregon, Texas, Utah, Washington, and Wyoming.

First to carry the American flag into the Far West were a small coterie of government explorers, fur trappers, traders, and missionaries. These were the people who found the fertile valleys and great forests of the West, marked trails, and stirred the imagination of many Midwesterners eager for adventure. Ranchers, farmers, and tradesmen followed, taking the overland trails across treeless plains, dangerous mountains, and arid deserts, into Texas, Oregon, and California. The United States acquired Texas through annexation. Negotiations with Britain gave the United States half of the Oregon Country. California and the great Southwest became part of the United States as a result of war with Mexico.

The exploration and settlement of the Far West is one of the great epics of 19th century history. But America's dramatic territorial expansion also created severe problems. In addition to providing the United States with its richest mines, greatest forests, and most fertile farm land, the Far West intensified the sectional conflict between the North and South and raised the fateful and ultimately divisive question of whether slavery would be permitted in the western territories. Could democratic political institutions resolve the question of slavery in the western territories? That question would dominate American politics in the 1850s.

The rapid influx of miners into California led to a frenzy of price gouging. A bottle of molasses or a pint-and-a-half of vinegar sold for a dollar. Pork was $5 a pound. Eggs went for as much as $4 a dozen. Toothpicks were sold for 50 cents apiece. The value of real estate exploded. A lot in San Francisco purchased in 1847 for $16.50 sold for $6,000 in the spring of 1848 and was later resold for $48,000.

The gold rush era in California lasted less than a decade. By the mid-1850s, the lone miner who prospected for gold with a pick, a shovel, and a wash pan was already an anachronism. Mining companies using heavy machinery replaced the individual prospector. Systems of dams exposed whole river bottoms. Drilling machines drove shafts 700 feet into the earth. Hydraulic mining machines blasted streams of water against mountainsides.

By 1860, the romantic era of California gold mining was over. Prospectors had found more than $350 million worth of gold. Certainly, some fortunes were made--one prostitute claimed to have made $50,000 after a year's work--but few struck it rich.

Ironically, the two men most responsible for the gold rush died penniless. James W. Marshall, who discovered the first gold bits, eventually became a blacksmith in Kelsey, California, and died in poverty. John A. Sutter, on whose ranch gold was discovered, was left bankrupt as a result of the gold rush. His workmen deserted to hunt gold; his crops rotted in the fields; and forty-niners trespassed on his land and stole his cattle. He died in 1880 in Pennsylvania while lobbying Congress to reimburse him for the losses he had suffered because of the discovery of gold on his land.

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