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Discovery of Gold in California

Gold Timeline

James Marshall, after traveling to Oregon by wagon train in early 1840s, wandered down the coast to California and started working for John Sutter.  Sutter was building a farming empire, which became known as Sutter’s Fort.  In August 1847, Marshall became Sutter’s partner and agreed to build a sawmill to support many of Sutter’s activities.  In January 1848, Marshall discovered gold in the raceway of the sawmill in a valley called “Coloma” by the local Native Americans on the south fork of the American River.  When Marshall and Sutter realized they had found gold, they attempted to keep the discovery a secret for fear the farming lands would be overrun by gold seekers.

Sam Brannan had come to Sutter’s Fort earlier and opened a general store there.  Brannan was one of the first to hear the news of gold as it leaked out.  He also was first to see an opportunity to make his fortune by supplying shovels, picks and other simple mining supplies to the gold seekers.  Brannan purchased enough gold dust to fill a jar and traveled to San Francisco and walked the streets shouting and showing the gold.

These events started the gold fever and the race for gold began in California in early 1848.  But back east, people were not sure that this was the real thing until President Polk verified the gold discovery on December 5, 1848, when he made his official annual message to Congress.  He reported that gold was being found daily in California, worth large sums of money, and displayed a small box filled with gold dust that had been sent to him by courier from California.

Americans came from the east, both north and south and from everywhere in between.  They came by the thousands in sailing ships, steamships, by horse, mules, ox and wagons and on foot.  Some were ordinary workingmen, farmers, professionals and many were deserting soldiers and sailors.  They had one thing in common—they sought gold, which was free to anyone.  When they stuck it rich, they would return home.  Many died, many went back empty handed and many stayed to work for years in poverty, but some did strike it very rich.  They were the lucky ones.  Placer gold mining reached its peak in 1852.  Soon the easy placer gold was gone and they had to join forces and use new technology to extract the gold.  By the end of the 1850s some estimates put the total amount of gold yield at about 600 million dollars.  The future of mining now belonged to people who were willing to pay for the building of commercial water and flumes for hydraulic mining and stamp mills, equipment needed to extract gold from quartz deposits recovered deep below the earth’s surface.

The Gold Rush changed the Native American cultures that had been in existence for hundreds of years.  In the 1840s, the Native American population was estimated at 150,000.  By 1880, the population was reduced to only 16,000.  Virtually every Native American village on the coast of California was destroyed, during or shortly after the Gold Rush.  Besides outright murder and displacement, settlers and miners brought diseases to the Native Americans that often proved fatal.  Some of these diseases were cholera, typhoid, measles, malaria, small pox, whooping cough and tuberculosis.  In just three years, the Gold Rush created a major population expansion consisting of over twenty different nationalities and accelerating California into statehood at the expense of the Native American cultures.  By 1870 there were fewer than fifty thousand.  It was the worst injustice to fall onto to the Native Americans in the United States history.  The Gold Rush made major changes to the people who lived in California and impacted the entire Western cultural development.

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