On August 19, 1848, the the New York Herald, a major newspaper of the American East Coast printed the exciting news that gold has been found on the West Coast, which caused thousands of immigrants from all over the world to travel to California hoping to to find wealth and glory.
The story began some months earlier, in January 1848. James Marshall constructed a saw mill for the pioneer John Sutter at the American River and discovered the first gold. Unfortunately nobody believed in the articles the San Francisco newspapers published about these findings until May of the same year when a storekeeper ran around the city with a bottle full of gold dust proving the rumors right. The big immigrant wave arrived after the New York Herald published its article and many people around the country left their jobs and families to search for gold.
As easy as it sounds today traveling to California, in the middle of the 19th century it was not a walk in the park. Some traveled by sea which took several months. The most famous land route was the California Trail, a route of 3,200km across the western half of the United States. Either way, the travelers had to face fever, cholera, and often death. Still, most of them made it to San Francisco, which caused the city to grow from about 1,000 citizens up to 25,000 in between two years.
The big amount of 49-ers (as the gold seekers were called) caused many structural and political problems. First of all, the new citizens had to be supplied with food and it sometimes took too long for the merchant ships to arrive. Also many disagreements between Americans and foreigners began and resulted in cruel attacks from American prospectors against mainly the Mexican and Chinese workers. Soon, foreigners had to pay a ridiculously high tax to being able to seek for gold. Native Americans also faced bad times, they were pushed out of their hunting areas and starved to death, others were slaughtered and over the years more than 100,000 Native Americans were killed as a result of the Gold-Rush.
After a short time, the gold that could basically just be collected from the ground was gone and the 49-ers had to come up with new techniques that were more of hard work and also very pricy so that many had to receive loans from the bank or were forced to work together. These circumstances affected the life in the camps the gold diggers were living in were described by Mr. Shufelt, one of the many 49-ers:
“Many, very many, that come here meet with bad success & thousands will leave their bones here. Others will lose their health, contract diseases that they will carry to their graves with them. Some will have to beg their way home, & probably one half that come here will never make enough to carry them back. But this does not alter the fact about the gold being plenty here, but shows what a poor frail being man is, how liable to disappointments, disease and death.”
The overall profit of the miners was rather modest in contrast to the many merchants settling in the new cities, one of them was the famous Levi Strauss selling denim overalls. The California Gold-Rush indeed stimulated the economy, let the cities grow fast and was the reason for several technical inventions as well as the construction of schools, roads and train routes.
At yovisto academic video search you can watch Angela Hawk from University of California, Irvine with her talk “Madness and Migration in Gold-Rush Era California and British Columbia: The Comparative Dimensions of Borderland Insanity” from the Bancroft Symposium, Session IV: The Borderlands: The Early Years, at UC Berkeley in 2010.
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