When you talk about the most important events in American history, you would be remiss if you didn’t mention the California Gold Rush. In terms of establishing the west coast as a place where people came for adventure and opportunity, the Gold Rush served as a major impetus.
It all started in January of 1848, when James Wilson Marshall became the first man to find gold in California. He made his famed discovery in Coloma at a place called Sutter’s Mill.
Marshall’s discovery might have been the beginning of the process, but it certainly was not the culmination. It merely set into account a chain of events that would change the course of American history as it was known at the time.
The First Wave
When Marshall first discovered gold, the news spread quickly. The term “quickly” applies in relative terms for the time period. People certainly were not flocking to California that week, but less than a year later, the first explorers made their way to the state in search of their own treasure. These people were aptly called “49ers”, since they first made their way to California in 1849.
Of the many methods that people used to find out about the Gold Rush, the newspaper industry was probably the most responsible. Local newspapers ran advertisements and produced headlines that talked about the opportunity and the money being made in the area. One of those people was Samuel Brannan, a San Francisco business man who took the opportunity to get more press and etch his name in lore with his famous headline proclaiming, “Gold, Gold!”
Though much of the legend says that the majority of the 300,000 or so explorers came to California by way of land, the truth is that about half of those people arrived by sea. The fact that California was being descended upon from both directions is a testament to just how important the event actually was.
California and the New Horizon
The Gold Rush was an interesting phenomenon for a number of reasons. During that time, America was quickly expanding and there were few concrete laws on how things would be handled in the new frontier.
California was mostly unexplored territory and many of the most valuable places in the state were unclaimed at the time of the California Gold Rush. This meant that it was completely unclear who had ownership of any of the gold that was being found.
Ultimately, this added to the “rush” portion of the process and make it that much more important for people to hustle to the state to see what they could find.
The Original “Panning” for Gold
As legend tells the story, the original adventurers used relatively rudimentary methods for extracting gold. They found most of the gold in streams and many of the area’s rivers. They used the well-publicized method of “panning” to extract this gold and when successful, this led to substantial returns for the few who found it.
One of the interesting things about the Gold Rush was that it started out as a mostly individual enterprise. Since not much was known about the risk or the potential return of such a journey, the people who came out to California were mostly those folks who had little or nothing to lose in the process. Many of these people got rich, while others went away basically empty-handed after all of their travels and their painstaking efforts.
Corporate Gold Extraction
As the California Gold Rush went along, the methods for extracting the gold become much more advanced and companies started to try their hand at getting some of the metal. When word spread that there was actually a great amount of gold to be had, these speculators sent over teams to extract the gold. The end result was billions of dollars worth of gold were found and many individuals got handsomely rich in the process.
Most of the 300,000 people who originally came out to California stayed in the area, and it helped to create the California that we know today. Lots of the companies were foreign or from out of state, so they took their new found wealth elsewhere.
Development of California
The effects of the California Gold Rush are hard to overlook, as well. During the Rush, the state was incorporated into the Union as a new “free” state, under the Compromise of 1850.
During that time, a set of laws was also established to govern the new activity out in the area. These things were born out of necessity more than anything else. With so many people flocking to a mostly unwatched and unoccupied space, there needed to be some order.
This was all especially true considering the large amounts of money that were battled over during that time period.
Establishing the State’s Infrastructure
The California Gold Rush was not just restricted to one city or one town in the state, which contributes to why the state’s infrastructure saw some major developments during the time. More roads were built, because people wanted to get to towns like San Francisco.
Likewise, with all of the people moving to the state, California saw its schools and churches get a huge boost. This helped to establish systems much more quickly than they were developed in many of the other newly occupied territories. Likewise, individual towns saw explosions in popularity as a result of what took place in the Gold Rush.
The San Francisco “Boom”
One of those was San Francisco and it is always mentioned when you talk about the event. It started out as just a small town where people would stop over, but as the Gold Rush became bigger, San Francisco grew by leaps and bounds. It became the prime destination that it is today during that time and it was really put on the map.
The gold deposits were not nearly as available in San Francisco as many people had originally thought, but that didn’t stop people from looking.
The California Gold Rush fizzled out after about a decade and there were decreasing returns for individual 49ers as the years went along. With more and more commercial companies coming in and getting all of the gold with their technologically superior equipment, not much was left for the people who might have otherwise enjoyed the spoils.
Still, the Gold Rush left its impact on the state of California and it certainly played a huge role in American history. It brought more than 1,000,000 people in total to the west coast over that period, which was a huge boost in terms of establishing California as a new state in a rapidly changing American landscape at the time.