Marshall’s discovery fueled the largest migration in United States history. The promise of wealth drew hundreds of thousands of people to California. It spurred the U.S. economy and even lead to seemingly impossible things that would forever shape the face of America, like a cross-country railroad line.
California Before the Rush
In 1846, the United States and Mexico were at war for control of the land around California and the West Coast. At the time, California was under the loose control of the Mexican government and only had a population of about 6,500 “Californios” (people of Spanish and Mexican decent) 150,000 Native Americans, and just 700 foreigners (mostly Americans).
The Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo was signed on February 2, 1848, two years after the war had started. The treaty formally ended the war and gave control of California over to the U.S. At the time, neither country knew that gold had been discovered in California just a couple weeks prior.
The Crowds Rush In
The news about the gold first reached areas near Coloma, like San Francisco. It then traveled to areas which had the easiest access to the California coast, such as the Sandwich Islands (now known as Hawaii), Oregon, and Mexico. In some cases, the news traveled as far south as Chile and Peru, and as far west as China! People from all these places made their way to find gold before America’s East Coast had any clue what was going on.
East Coast newspapers first started reporting about the discovery of gold in mid-summer 1848, but editors and readers were skeptical. It wasn’t until President James K. Polk cited a military report in his State of the Union address on December 5, 1848 that Americans everywhere caught the gold bug.
With the news of gold reaching coast to coast—and even across continents—the crowds followed. Around 6,000 people rushed to California in 1848, just a year later, in 1849 around 90,000 people made their way to the golden state. Today, we know these migrants as the “Forty-niners.”
Gold proved to have a huge payoff for those who were lucky enough to find it. More than $10 million worth of gold was found in 1849, $41 million in 1850, $75 million in 1851, and $81 million in 1852. That’s more than $200 million worth of gold in just four years!
After that, the amount miners were finding began to decline, and eventually leveled off to about $45 million a year beginning in 1857.
To get rich in the gold rush, miners needed luck. However, the people who didn’t need luck to make money were business owners. The thousands of people who came to California in search of gold needed supplies like mining pans, shovels, picks, as well as goods like food, tents, lamps, and coffee. The store owners and businesses that sold these types of supplies often became wealthier than any of the miners.
Gold Loses Its “Glitter”
As more and more people came to California, there was less and less gold to go around. Competition began to grow rapidly. Surface gold began to disappear, and miners had to join large mining companies to reach the gold below ground, which was more of a wage labor job with a less enticing payoff.
A growing population often leads to a growing crime rate. The American miners became very aggressive and territorial when it came to their land, and would sometimes use violent tactics to protect it. Near the end of the rush, 120,000 Native Americans had died due to diseases, starvation, and homicide.
With gold losing its appeal, the boomtowns that were home to the mining populations became abandoned ghost towns. Miners either returned to their homes and families, or moved on to the next area to search for gold there.
Get in on the Gold Rush
The California gold rush might be over, but your child can still experience the thrill of finding treasure, just like the miners did in the late-1840s.
Visit: There are many “ghost towns” throughout California that families can visit and explore. One example is Bodie, California, which is a State Historic Park. Today town is a popular tourist attraction and visitors can walk the streets, go on a tour, and check out the museum.
Do: One of the ways miners used to find gold was by panning. The Discover with Dr. Cool, Pan for Gold Science Kit is a hands-on activity that lets your child become a real prospector and they test their luck in finding their own gold.
Read: If this topic really interests you child, you can let them explore more and hear the stories of actual miners. What Was the Gold Rush? includes illustrations and photos that bring the gold rush to life.
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