On 24th January 1848 gold was discovered by James W Marshall at Sutter’s Mill located in Coloma, California. It began a gold rush in which people flocked from all over the country in order to get their hands on some. It affected not only the economy of California but also impacted the political and social stature of the state. This article takes you through this historic event and explains what all happened.
THE DISCOVERY OF GOLD
James Wilson Marshall was a regular carpenter working at the mill when he spotted flakes of gold in the American River which flows through the base of the Sierra Nevada Mountains. He showed it to John Sutter who after running tests confirmed that it was indeed real gold. James had discovered what would later be revealed to be 750,000 pounds of gold.
THE BEGINNING OF THE GOLD RUSH
Marshall and Sutter both wanted to keep it a secret for a while but a newspaper in San Francisco ended up writing a report on it and people started to know about the discovery. Many people started to travel to Coloma in order to obtain some of the precious metal and thus the gold rush began. It was reported that by August of that year, some 4000 men had travelled to the town to mine some gold.
The news was spreading like wildfire and gradually people from all around the country started to come to Coloma. At first, only those people who could access it by lands like those in states like Oregon and other neighbouring states started to come in. Eventually, people used the waterways and started rowing all the way from Hawaii, Peru, Chile, and even as far as China. In December 1848, the then US President James K Polk also confirmed the presence of gold and confirmed the news to be authentic.
All throughout 1849 as well many people came in to mine gold. Many people around California, the US, and even other countries would borrow money or mortgage their houses to travel to Coloma to extract some gold and dreamt about having a better, wealthy life. Thousands of miners came to be known as the 49ers, who travelled across oceans and sailed all the way from foreign lands.
WAS IT LEGAL TO EXTRACT GOLD?
When gold was discovered in California, it was a part of Mexico but in military occupation under the US. With the end of the war in 1848 itself, the territory did belong to the US but officially it had not become a state.
Therefore, it existed as without any governing authority. At the beginning of the gold rush, the goldfield in California was mostly lawless. The land was technically owned by the US, but since there were no proper rules and regulations in place it was “public land”, which meant anyone could access it.
IMPACT OF THE GOLD RUSH
At the time of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, which freed California from Mexico and approved its transfer to the United States of America, the population of California was majorly comprised of 150,000 Native Americans, and others were people of Spanish or Mexican descent and some foreigners. By the end of 1849, the non-native population rose up to 100,000 people.
To provide for all these new people, many mining towns sprung up and other facilities such as saloons, brothels, pubs, etc also started coming up. Many businesses to regulate the gold rush also started coming up. Soon San Francisco became a bustling economy and emerged as a frontier city on the west coast. By the end of the decade, the population of California had risen to 380,000 people.
At first, the natives did not mind the influx of white people. It led to an increase in employment and even more demand for their agricultural produce which was their main source of income. But soon they realized that due to an increase in demand for land to settle on, their agricultural land was being invaded and the whites had started to assert their dominance over the natives by means of aggression. Many indigenous people were driven out of their homeland.
By the end of 1850, the surface gold of the mines started to disappear. Gold became increasingly difficult to reach and it became tiresome to shovel it out. Still, the mining continued all throughout the 1850s. With the incoming of the Industrial Revolution, new methods were being devised to extract more and more gold.
Hydraulic mining was put to use in 1853, even though it worked very well, it disrupted a large portion of the region’s landscape. Dams were being built to water the area in hotter months, but it altered the course of rivers. A canal was also being built but it led to waterlogging. A ton of natural resources was used to feed the gold rush.
By 1852, gold worth $81 million had been extracted out of the earth. Another $45 million worth of gold was extracted by 1857. It also assisted in California is recognized as an official part of the US.
CALIFORNIA THE “GOLDEN” STATE
The discovery of gold and the gold rush had various impacts on the state of California. Even today, there are many business and tourist sites dedicated to the gold rush. Be it economic acceleration, an increase in population, an increase in employment, and even agriculture, the golden state has reaped many benefits from the discovery.
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An aspiring civil servant, a curious mind but also an avid binge watcher- Prerna is currently pursuing BA Prog in English and Political Science from Kirori Mal College. She belongs to Chandigarh but really enjoys the hustle of Delhi. Her favourite pastime is taking naps and recognises herself as a pro at it.