Part history and part legend, the California Gold Rush figured prominently in the formation and development of California as a state. By 2000, California was the most populous and diverse state in the country, and both of these trends can clearly be traced back to the Gold Rush. While the population explosion is well studied and understood, diversity is not. In popular culture and American legend, the forty-niners are often depicted as bearded white men dressed in blue jeans and flannel shirts. While this image is part of American legend, it's not altogether accurate. Undeniably, a large number of white men joined the search for gold, but history reveals a much more diverse group. The Americans who came to search for gold were black as well as white, from all states and territories. In addition, gold seekers from all over the globe raced to California. They came from Mexico, Peru, Ireland, Germany, Belgium, and, in the largest concentration, China. The story of the Gold Rush must be told from multiple perspectives, from the point of view of Chinese and Irish, men and women, prospectors and shopkeepers. The rich cultural diversity that California displays today was also evident during the Gold Rush.
Miners from all over came to California with a common dream: to strike it rich. Most left with their dreams shattered, or at least, unfulfilled. Although the Gold Rush held the promise of riches, the most common result for miners was disappointment. Most left with no more money than they had when they arrived. However, the Gold-Rush experiences were worse for miners from different parts of the globe. Many foreign miners suffered discrimination, particularly the Chinese and Mexicans who made up the two largest groups. In addition to harassment and prejudice, foreign miners were burdened with two special taxes, one that passed in 1850 and the other in 1852. These taxes caused extra economic hardships for miners from these countries. Free blacks also came to California in search of fortune and faced discrimination. For example, free blacks were not allowed to testify in court in California until 1863. However, Native Californians were the group of people who suffered the most because of the gold rush. Gold seekers pushed into territory that had not previously been settled by whites. This influx, coupled with tremendous immigration, resulted in California native peoples being systematically removed from their lands.
Prior to the Gold Rush, the city of San Francisco did not exist. In its place stood a small, sleepy village named Yerba Buena. Quiet village life, however, soon ended as wave after wave of people journeyed out to the gold fields. This sleepy town quickly grew into a city where miners congregated and cultures collided. San Francisco was both the starting point for those seeking fortunes in the gold fields and the departure point for those retreating back home. The city grew tremendously in size and diversity, as people from all over the world came in search of instant riches. George Henry Burgess captures this diversity in the painting.
- Students explain the economic, social, and political life in California from the establishment of the Bear Flag Republic through the Mexican-American War, the Gold Rush, and the granting of statehood.