Digital History

Westward Expansion

The Gold Rush Previous Next
Digital History ID 3270



On January 24, 1848, less than 10 days before the signing of the peace treaty ending the Mexican War, James W. Marshall, a 36-year old carpenter and handyman, noticed several bright bits of yellow mineral near a sawmill that he was building for John A. Sutter, a Swiss-born immigrant who owned one of the great ranches that dotted California's Sacramento Valley. To test if the bits were "fool's gold," which shatters when struck by a hammer, or gold, which is malleable, Marshall "tried it between two rocks, and found that it could be beaten into a different shape but not broken." He told the men working with him: "Boys, by God, I believe I have found a gold mine."

On March 15 a San Francisco newspaper, The Californian, printed the first account of Marshall's discovery. Within two weeks, the paper had lost its staff and was forced to shut down its printing press. In its last edition it told its readers:

The whole country, from San Francisco to Los Angeles...resounds with the sordid cry of Gold! Gold! Gold! while the field is left half-planted, the house half-built, and everything neglected but the manufacture of picks and shovels.
In 1849, 80,000 men arrived in California--half by land and half by ship around Cape Horn or across the Isthmus of Panama. Only half were Americans; the rest came from Britain, Australia, Germany, France, Latin America, and China. Platoons of soldiers deserted; sailors jumped ship; husbands left wives; apprentices ran away from their masters; farmers and business people deserted their livelihoods. By July, 1850, sailors had abandoned 500 ships in San Francisco Bay. Within a year, California's population had swollen from 14,000 to 100,000. The population of San Francisco, which stood at 459 in the summer of 1847, reached 20,000 within a few months.

During the early years of the Gold Rush, men traveled alone to California. Few women arrived during the early years--for example, only 700 in 1849. In 1850, women made up only 8 percent of California's population. In mining areas, they made up less than 2 percent.

The gold rush transformed California from a sleepy society into one that was wild, unruly, ethnically-diverse, and violent. Philosopher Josiah Royce, whose family arrived in the midst of the gold rush, declared that the Californian was "morally and socially tried as no other American ever has been tried." In San Francisco alone there were more than 500 bars and 1,000 gambling dens. In the span of 18 months, the city burned to the ground six times.

There were a thousand murders in San Francisco during the early 1850s, but only one conviction. Forty-niners (the nickname of the immigrants who traveled to California in 1849) slaughtered Indians for sport, drove Mexicans from the mines on penalty of death, and sought to restrict the immigration of foreigners, especially the Chinese. Since the military government was incapable of keeping order, leading merchants formed vigilance committees, which attempted to rule by lynch law and the establishment of "popular" courts.

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