On January 24, 1848, a thin piece of metal the size and thickness of a corn flake altered the history of California and, by extension, the history of the United States.

That day, in a remote region of the Sierra Nevada foothills, a man named James Marshall was overseeing the construction of a sawmill on the American River. He was building the mill for his boss, John Sutter. As he looked in the millrace, a fast moving stream that powered the mill wheel, Marshall spotted a glint of color. After picking up the flake and applying rudimentary tests to the metal, Marshall came to a conclusion: he had discovered gold!

San Francisco Empties Out

Four days later, Marshall informed Sutter, who urged him to keep the discovery secret so that work on the sawmill would be completed. Eventually, word of the gold spread across the region like a Western wildfire, igniting the curiosities of the citizens of the nearby city of San Francisco.

By the spring of 1848, people poured out of San Francisco hoping to strike it rich. It is said that San Francisco emptied after businessman Sam Brannan walked down the city’s Montgomery Street with a bottle containing gold flakes, grains, and dust, shouting: “Gold! Gold! Gold from the American River!”

An historian and author of 1997’s Days of Gold: The California Gold Rush and the American Nation, Malcolm J. Rohrbough says the immediate effects of the discovery of gold on San Francisco were nothing short of drastic.

“The whole town and the rancheros around the town essentially were deserted,” he says. “Everyone went to the gold fields.”

The summer after Marshall’s unexpected find, the American military governor of California, Colonel Richard Barnes Mason, decided to travel to the area to draft a report for the U.S. government in Washington D.C. On his journey to the region, he described finding parts of California towns that were suddenly abandoned by people fleeing to the Sierra Nevada foothills.

Mason wrote in the letter that he saw “whole route mills were lying idle, fields of wheat were open to cattle and horses, houses vacant and farms going to waste.”

But when Mason arrived at the gold fields, he discovered swarms of people sifting through the streams and dirt in a mad search for gold. “At the time of my visit, but little more than three months after its first discovery, it was estimated that upwards of 4,000 people were employed [in the gold fields],” Mason wrote in the letter.

 

Near the end of the report, Mason described how abundant the precious metal was and how it could be easily extracted from the land. “I have no hesitation now in saying, that there is more gold in the country drained by the Sacramento and San Joaquin Rivers than will pay the cost of the present war with Mexico a hundred times over,” he wrote. “No capital is required to obtain this gold, as the laboring man wants nothing but his pick and shovel and tin pan, with which to dig and wash gravel, and many frequently pick gold out of the crevices of rocks with their knives, in pieces of one to six ounces.”

From Mexico to the United States

The years before Marshall’s big discovery, California had been a northern frontier of Mexico. Less than two weeks after gold was found, California was given to the United States by Mexico through the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, which ended the Mexican-American War.

“Politically, California in many respects was independent or quasi-independent,” Rohrbough says of pre-Gold Rush California. “Economically, it was very much connected to the hides [pelts or animal skins] and tallow [the fatty tissue of animals] trade.”

California’s population and diversity would change drastically once Mason’s letter arrived on the East Coast. The initial reports of gold were greeted with skepticism, according to Rohrbough. However, everything changed when President James K. Polk gave his State of the Union address to Congress on December 5, 1848. Of the gold craze in California, the President stated: “the explorations already made warrant the belief that the supply is very large and that gold is found at various places in an extensive district of country.”

Following the President’s confirmation of the rumor, a gold mania swept across the United States.

In mid to late December, ships filled with gold-seekers left the East Coast for California. During the spring of 1849, scores of people embarked on a journey across the continent hoping to find gold. In reference to the year of their departure, these early immigrants to California were called forty-niners.

Rohrbough cites the number of miners in California in 1848 compared to populations over the following years as proof of the amazing movement of gold-seekers to the newly acquired American territory. He says that in 1848 there were 5,000 miners in the region. There were more than 50,000 by the end of 1849. The number rose to 100,000 in 1850 before peaking at 125,000 in 1851.

While gold miners came from as far away as Europe and China, the California Gold Rush drew many young men from their homes in the American Midwest and East Coast. That flood of Americans radically changed California during the Gold Rush years.

“California was Americanized, almost literally, overnight,” Rohrbough says, “and became a place that was dominated by Americans as opposed to the Mexicans who were so prominent at the time of the gold discoveries.”

Gold Fever
Many miners panned for gold, but most used more sophisticated tools and machinery.

Golden Touch
The Gold Rush included explorers who didn't actually mine for gold. The American writer Samuel Clemens wrote about the Gold Rush for the San Francisco Call newspaper. Bankers Henry Wells and William Fargo provided economic security to miners. German immigrant Levi Strauss helped create strong, durable canvas pants held together with metal rivets. Miners made Mark Twain, Wells Fargo, and Levi's household words.

Chinese Gold
Today, the People's Republic of China is the world's largest gold producer. Australia and South Africa are also large gold producers. The United States still produces hundreds of tons of gold, most of it from mines in the state of Nevada.

Early Expedition
On his visit to the California gold fields, Colonel Richard Barnes Mason was accompanied by Lieutenant William Tecumseh Sherman, who later gained notoriety as a Union general in the American Civil War.

abandon
Verb

to desert or leave entirely.

abundant
Adjective

in large amounts.

acquire
Verb

to get or take possession of.

amazing
Adjective

awesome or very impressive.

Americanize
Verb

to adopt the culture and style of an American.

California Gold Rush
Noun

(1848-1855) worldwide immigration to California following the discovery of gold.

canvas
Noun

heavy, woven cloth.

capital
Noun

goods or funds used to increase production or wealth.

cattle
Noun

cows and oxen.

Civil War
Noun

(1860-1865) American conflict between the Union (north) and Confederacy (south).

confirmation
Noun

assurance that something is true.

Congress
Noun

legislative branch of the government, responsible for making laws. The U.S. Congress has two bodies, the House of Representatives and the Senate.

Noun

one of the seven main land masses on Earth.

craze
Noun

fad or very popular fashion.

crevice
Noun

crack in a rock.

curiosity
Noun

desire to know more about a subject.

desert
Verb

to abandon completely.

discovery
Noun

something seen, documented, or noticed for the first time.

Noun

difference.

dominate
Verb

to overpower or control.

draft
Verb

sketch or outline.

drastic
Adjective

severe or extreme.

durable
Adjective

strong and long-lasting.

economic
Adjective

having to do with money.

effect
Noun

result or impact produced by an action.

embark
Verb

to leave or set off on a journey.

employ
Verb

to hire or use.

essential
Adjective

needed.

estimate
Verb

to guess based on knowledge of the situation or object.

eventually
Adverb

at some point in the future.

exploration
Noun

study and investigation of unknown places, concepts, or issues.

explorer
Noun

person who studies unknown areas.

extensive
Adjective

very large.

extract
Verb

to pull out.

farm
Noun

land cultivated for crops, livestock, or both.

foothill
Noun

hill at the base of a mountain.

forty-niner
Noun

immigrant who came to California during the Gold Rush of 1849.

frontier
Noun

largely unpopulated area that is slowly being opened up for settlement.

general
Noun

highest rank of leadership in armies and air forces.

gold
Noun

valuable chemical element with the symbol Au.

gold field
Noun

geographic area where gold is mined.

greet
Verb

to meet and welcome.

hesitation
Noun

pause or delay.

hide
Noun

leather skin of an animal.

historian
Noun

person who studies events and ideas of the past.

household word
Noun

common name or phrase.

idle
Noun

inactive.

ignite
Verb

to set on fire.

immediate
Adjective

quickly or right away.

immigrant
Noun

person who moves to a new country or region.

initial
Adjective

first.

James K. Polk
Noun

(1795-1849) 11th American president.

James Marshall
Noun

(1810-1885) American carpenter who discovered gold in California in 1848.

John Sutter
Noun

(1803-1880) American businessman and owner of a California mill where gold was discovered.

journey
Noun

voyage or trip.

labor
Noun

work or employment.

Levi Strauss
Noun

(1829-1902) American businessman.

literally
Adverb

exactly what is said, without exaggeration.

mad
Adjective

insane or mentally ill.

mania
Noun

fad or very popular fashion.

metal
Noun

category of elements that are usually solid and shiny at room temperature.

Mexican-American War
Noun

(1846-1848) armed conflict between Mexico and the U.S.

Midwest
Noun

area of the United States consisting of the following states: Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota, Ohio, South Dakota, and Wisconsin.

military governor
Noun

leader of a territory or colony representing the armed forces.

millrace
Noun

current of water that rotates a mill wheel.

mill wheel
Noun

rotating wheel that powers a large machine used for grinding or crushing various materials.

miner
Noun

person who excavates metal or other materials from the Earth.

nearby
Adjective

close.

notoriety
Noun

unfavorable fame.

overnight
Adjective

very quickly.

pelt
Noun

animal skin or fur.

pick
Noun

tool resembling a hammer, with at least one end pointed, used for carving stone.

precious metal
Noun

valuable metal, such as gold, silver, or platinum.

prominent
Adjective

important or standing out.

quasi-
Prefix

sort of.

radically
Adverb

completely or extremely.

ranchero
Noun

large land grant to an individual from the Mexican government, and the site of livestock raised for meat and clothing. Also called a rancho.

Noun

any area on Earth with one or more common characteristics. Regions are the basic units of geography.

remote
Adjective

distant or far away.

respect
Noun

manner or way of doing things.

rivet
Noun

piece of metal that holds two pieces of material together.

rudimentary
Adjective

basic.

rumor
Noun

gossip, or a story that lacks evidence.

Samuel Clemens
Noun

(1835-1910) birth name of American writer Mark Twain.

sawmill
Noun

facility for turning raw timber into boards and other lumber material.

score
Noun

20 years.

security
Noun

safety or stability.

shovel
Noun

large, flat tool for digging.

sift
Verb

to separate larger pieces of material from smaller ones.

skepticism
Noun

doubt or questioning.

State of the Union address
Noun

speech given by the president of the U.S. every year, concerning his policies and plans.

Noun

body of flowing water.

tallow
Noun

fatty tissue of animals, used to treat leather and make candles and soap.

territory
Noun

land an animal, human, or government protects from intruders.

town
Noun

human settlement larger than a village and smaller than a city.

trade
Noun

buying, selling, or exchanging of goods and services.

Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo
Noun

(1848) agreement ending the Mexican-American War.

Union
Adjective

having to do with states supporting the United States (north) during the U.S. Civil War.

urge
Verb

to strongly encourage.

vacant
Adjective

empty or abandoned.

warrant
Noun

guarantee or assurance.

wheat
Noun

most widely grown cereal in the world.

Noun

uncontrolled fire that happens in a rural or sparsely populated area.

William Tecumseh Sherman
Noun

(1820-1891) Union general in the U.S. Civil War.