California Gold Rush Of 1849

A small gold nugget found by James Marshall started what is known as the California Gold Rush; facts and history of the gold rush of 1849.

Two years before California received her statehood, an event like none other caused thousands of U.S. citizens to head west to her territories: the California gold rush.

In 1848, gold was discovered near the mill of John A. Sutter, who in 1839 had led a group of fellow settlers west, colonizing a small community along the American River. The next year, 1849, Sutter's son John Jr. developed his own community just a few miles east of the Sacramento River; this town was named after the river which lay along its boundaries: Sacramento, California. It was in this same year, 1849, that thousands upon thousands of fortune seekers found their way to Sutter's community with one goal in mind: to become rich and famous with the help from nuggets of gold that lay waiting in the waters of the Sacramento.

Sutter, Sr., was a much-respected man among whose many interests was that of owning and running a sawmill. In May of 1847, he hired John Marshall, a friend and fellow outdoorsman with whom he shared much in common. Having earned Sutter's immense trust, on a request from Sutter, Marshall embarked upon a journey up the American River to find the perfect location for the sawmill upon which both men hung their dreams for success.

Having found what he considered an outstanding location for the building of the mill, Marshall reported back to Sutter, Sr., who was more than pleased with his friend's findings. Both men entered into an agreement and cut a deal in regards to the building of the mill; Marshall himself would build the mill, and Sutter would seek all other provisions, including teams and tools, and would also pay a large portion of the workers' wages.

In January, eight months after first having been hired to procure a site for the mill, Marshall happened upon something bright and shiny in less than one foot of water in the American River. Marshall, heart pumping and palms sweating, stooped down to draw the shiny piece of gold, half the size of a pea, into his hand.

Quiet rumors had long been spread about the possibility of great wealth out west in regards to gold. However, it took an address to the entire country by its' leader to finally and fully exploit all the truth about the amount of gold available for mining. On December 5, 1848, President Polk stood before Congress and reported that, "At the time of the acquisition of the territory of California, it was fairly well known that mines filled with the precious metals existed to some extent. Recent discoveries render it entirely 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."

And with those few, simple words spoken by their President, hundreds of thousands of Americans began their two-thousand mile trek west: the California gold rush of 1848 was on.

After months of traveling along unexplored foot paths, being seized by angered tribes of Indians, living for days on end without clean drinking water, all at a pace of an incredibly slow two or three miles per hour, those who were lucky enough to have finished the journey found themselves at their final destination: the Sacramento River.

Because California was, prior to the gold explosion, a territory with very few actual communities in which to live, those seeking their fortunes often grouped together to build small mining towns. Here, they could and often did build small homes that were easily dismantled. If the area they had chosen to mine came up empty, as was most often the case, those little cabins and huts could quickly be taken down and moved on to the next hopeful mining location.

After setting up camp, the forty-niners, as they were known, would ready themselves for the long and exhausting day ahead. Filled with an abundant breakfast prepared by the camp cook, right after mealtime each miner would grab the necessary tools to begin the workday. Picks, buckets, shovels and pans were all loaded onto the backs of each miner, who would then head to the stream to begin the work of panning for gold.

The routine of each day's work was monotonous, difficult, and more often than not disheartening. For hours on end, sometimes from sun-up to sun-down, the same chores were completed over and over again. First came the digging, which at first glance appeared to be quite exciting. After a time, though, without good results, this endless digging for dirt to fill the pans became more work than most of the miners were willing to expend. Add to the back-breaking weariness of this digging the often ice-cold waters in which the men had to stand, knee-deep, and there were very few left who felt they could continue on.

Throughout the ten-hour days, which often included not only Monday through Saturday but Sunday, as well, a miner could expect to work almost fifty pans of the sifting river dirt. If one were lucky, incredibly lucky, perhaps as much as one thousand dollars in gold could be sifted from one single pan. More often than not, however, all that was found from such painstaking work was little more than the dirt and sand that was originally shoveled from the river.

While there were a few who struck gold and became incredibly wealthy during the gold rush days, the odds were that most miners would return home, wherever that may have been, with not a single dime more than when they arrived.

"Wealth was the dream; grinding toil was the reality that for many made it into a nightmare," is the quotation from "Days of Gold: The California Gold Rush." And those who lived through it were considered very lucky indeed to have been healthy enough to travel home, regardless of any wealth found. Dysentery, smallpox, and other epidemics often ravaged the campsites of the miners. Lack of funds caused many problems, including having enough good, nourishing food to keep the miners on their feet long enough to pan. Often, too, those who stayed looked much older in appearance at the end of their journey; the hot, scorching sun would dry out skin and hair; exposure to the winter elements could cause such damage to toes and fingers that sometimes amputation was necessary to keep gangrene in check.

When setting out for the return trip home, many miners found themselves without enough food, clothing, and money. Not only were they returning without the grand wealth and success they once envisioned, now, with aching backs and emaciated bodies, they often had to pool whatever assets available just to find ways back home.

By 1853, the big gold rush was, in effect, over. The rivers and mines were completely exhausted, and all the early stakes found at the beginning of the rush had been worked over many, many times.

Some headed for home, proud of their accomplishment in merely staying alive long enough to be able to return. Others, embarrassed and ashamed, could not face the reality of their failures and simply stayed on in California, seeking refuge in towns where they knew no one. Those who struck it rich often did the same; some returned to their families and hometowns as heroes, having earned sometimes more than a million dollars from their efforts. Still others settled on into California, buying land and attempting to create settlements with the wealth from the rivers and mines.

John Sutter, Sr., was not left untouched by the gold rush. The land he owned having been found full of gold, many of his employees simply left their jobs at hand and headed for the sight of gold themselves. His cattle and farms were left unattended, and in short time every bit of it was nothing more than the dirt he had first held in his possession. He himself was found to have gained "˜gold fever,' but struck nothing more than the taste for alcohol which caused him to lose control over everything he had acquired. He was forced to sell all his land to pay debts, and died penniless.

Sutter's friend, James Marshall, died the same way; penniless from a few bad investments and from having his land pillaged by thousands upon thousands of others who came looking for easy wealth. Having been the first to find the gold, Marshall never once made any money off his incredible discovery.

When it was over, more than four hundred thousand men had tried their hand at digging for gold. Some starved, lost everything they came with, and returned home feeling as failures. Others found incredible wealth, and found their lives changed forever, for the better. But no matter how each man faced the end of the gold rush, each who lived through its trials had attained, whether returning home or staying on, a wealth of stories and experiences to share.

© High Speed Ventures 2011