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This Day in History: The California Gold Rush

On this day in 1848, gold is discovered in the Sacramento Valley. It was the beginning of the California Gold Rush!

The first person to find gold wasn’t out to get rich. James W. Marshall was a carpenter who had been working with a local ranch owner to build a sawmill. When Marshall showed up at work on the morning of January 24, he saw something glittering in a water channel that he’d been creating under the mill wheel. It looked like gold.

Gold mining in California (Currier & Ives)

What a way to start your day?!

Marshall tested the gold and found it “could be beaten into a different shape but not broken.” He rushed to tell some of the other men. At first, no one seemed to realize what they’d stumbled on. The gold was surely a fluke? The men went back to work on the mill. They would look for more gold, but only on “odd spells and Sundays.”

It was a full four days before Marshall finally traveled to tell the ranch owner, John Sutter, about his discovery. By then, he was beginning to get excited. He and Sutter tried to keep the discovery secret, but it was too late.

Gold fever was on—and it heated up even more when President James Polk mentioned the matter in his Annual Message to Congress. “The abundance of gold in that territory are of such an extraordinary character as would scarcely command belief were they not corroborated by the authentic reports of officers in the public service,” he told the nation.

Gold seekers flooded into California territory! The mass movement of people was unprecedented. In just one year, the population of California mushroomed from 14,000 people to 100,000. By 1852, that number had more than doubled to 250,000.

One San Francisco newspaper lamented “the sordid cry of Gold! Gold! Gold! while the field is left half-planted, the house half-built, and everything neglected but the manufacture of picks and shovels.”

That same paper soon closed its doors. It had lost too many of its employees to the Gold Rush.

One unexpected problem confronted gold seekers in those days: It wasn’t easy to get to California. Traveling overland was difficult and risky. Some people opted to travel by boat, but this required travel all the way around the tip of South America because the Panama Canal wasn’t built yet. Fortunately, a transcontinental railroad was soon built across the Isthmus of Panama, and some people were able to get to California that way.

In the meantime, the scene in California wasn’t great: Morals were loose. Gambling, drinking, and violence were rampant. Moreover, despite the furor over the opportunity, most people didn’t get rich simply because they’d traveled to California.

“Many, very many, that come here meet with bad success & thousands will leave their bones here,” one gold-seeker would say. “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.”

Fortunately, the California Gold Rush wasn’t characterized only by immorality, gambling, drinking, and fighting. Many of those who traveled to California also exhibited patience, perseverance, and determination in their efforts to succeed.

Perhaps the philosopher Josiah Royce said it best: The California Gold Rush, he wrote, exhibited “both the true nobility and the true weakness of our national character.”

Hmm. I wonder if we could say the same thing about a few other events in our history. What do you think?

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