It’s a little known fact that there were two Gold Rushes in California. The first was in 1848 immediately after gold was found that January at Sutter’s Mill near Coloma in the Sierra foothills. The much more famous 1849 Gold Rush started after President Polk announced the discovery in an address to Congress in December 1848.
News of the 1848 Gold Rush was spread up and down the Pacific coast from Oregon to South America and across the Pacific by the trade ships that would dock in California to deliver supplies. Only around 10,000 came to the gold fields as a result, consisting of Anglo Americans in California and Oregon, Mexicans, Hawaiians, Chileans, Peruvians, Californios (Mexican-Californians), and Indians. They found an ample supply of relatively easy to mine surface gold that could be extracted through techniques such as panning, washing dirt in water in a pan so that the heavier gold would be revealed and long toms, whereby dirt was shoveled into a box with water flowing through it to wash away the gravel to leave the gold. On average, $20 a day in gold was extracted. The fact that there were few prospectors, little competition and plenty of gold to be found led to a somewhat harmonious and prosperous gold rush for the first year.
By 1849 the news of the Gold Rush spread across the entire U.S., Europe, and Asia. Thousands of people became infected with gold fever, the belief that they could go to California and instantly become rich. This led to a huge a migration of up to 300,000 people to California made up of whites and blacks from the east coast of the U.S., English, Irish, Germans, French, Australians and Chinese. The majority were men that had left their families behind to find their fortune.
The trip to California could take up to 4-8 months by land, sea or a combination of both. From Asia and Europe, prospectors would have to take a ship across the wide Pacific and Atlantic Oceans. Those from Europe who arrived on the east coast of the United States would then join American travelers to California. This trip followed three main routes. One was to travel the entire distance by sea, taking a ship around the tip of South America. Another option was to sail to the east coast of Central America or Mexico, cross overland, and then get on a steamer to journey up to California. The third means, which was the most popular, was to join a wagon train across the great western United States. Each had its own drawbacks, from a long and boring trip, to scurvy, to disease, to taking the wrong trails, to attack by Indians or the elements. Each leg of the trip could cost several hundred dollars for supplies, tickets, or wagons. By the end of 1849 around 90,000 people had come to California, roughly evenly divided by land and sea, 50,000-60,000 of which were US citizens.
Theses later arrivals were shocked to find declining amounts of gold and thousands upon thousands of people mining for it. Many had to join teams so that they could raise the money necessary to buy the equipment needed to dig deeper and deeper for the riches. When one area dried up, men would pack their bags and travel to another spot to stake another claim, which was increasingly difficult as more and more people arrived in California. The average amount of gold found per day went down from $20 to $8 by 1851. Much of that was spent on food, mail, and supplies, leading few 49ers to make much at all in the end. Prices could range from two dollars for mail, one dollar for an onion, fifty cents for one egg, and twenty dollars for a bottle of rum. Since there was such a huge demand for goods and services with the instant arrival of tens of thousands of gold miners, local business could charge exorbitant prices and still make sales. This is where the women who participated in the Gold Rush found their niche running boarding houses, laundries, restaurants, etc. It turned out that the businesses were the real beneficiaries of the 1849 Gold Rush.
The miners also settled in camps or boomtowns. Those were divided between those in the north, populated mostly by Americans and Europeans, and those in the south that were predominately Latin and French. The towns were notorious for drunkenness, gambling, murders, lynchings, and vigilantes since they were almost completely deprived of women. Bret Harte captured life in those settlements in stories such as “The Luck of Roaring Camp” where a dying prostitute leaves her newly born child to be raised by a group of drunkards, criminals, and gamblers. The natural conditions of the Sierras and its foothills were also very harsh, especially during the cold winters, which could lead to death and sickness.
The Gold Rush forever changed California. It was the beginning of American rule after Mexico had lost the state in the Mexican-American War. Tens of thousands of new residents came, looking for riches, and many ended up settling, creating California’s diversity and immigrant history.