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The story of the famous Californian Gold Rush began on January 24th, 1848, when a certain James Marshall found a few flakes of gold at Sutter’s Mill, on the banks of the American River at Coloma, near Sacramento, in California. Marshall was an employee of John Sutter, who owned the mill. Sutter wanted to keep the finding quiet, fearing his plans for an agricultural empire would fall if a mass search for gold occurred.
Rumors soon spread, however, which were confirmed by a newspaper publisher and merchant, Samuel Brannan, who in March 1848 strode through the streets of San Francisco shouting, “Gold! Gold! Gold from the American River!” Something like finding pure riches doesn’t happen every day so the news of the find spread rapidly and caused roughly 300,000 people to come to the area from the rest of the United States and foreign countries.
These first ‘few’ gold seekers, known as “forty-niners” went through turmoil and tough times to get to California for the good gold stuff, arriving in wagons from other parts of the States and in ships from other countries, with people coming in huge numbers from Latin America, Europe, Australia and Asia. John Sutter had of course been wise in trying to conceal the gold findings, as indeed his plans were ruined; his employees all left in search of gold and squatters destroyed his land and crops, and stole his cattle.
In a very space of time, San Francisco changed a lot. Before the rush it was just your average small sized settlement. At first, when gold was discovered, it turned into a sort of a ghost town, as all its merchants and families left, they too in search of gold. Soon, people coming IN to the area settled in the city and its numbers boomed from 1,000 in 1848 to 25,000 residents living there full time in 1850. Trade also multiplied enormously, as all the newcomers had to be fed, bedded, given ale and tobacco, and clothed. Without necessarily asking for it, San Francisco became wealthy in terms of ships, as arriving ship captains found that their crew abandoned ship in the search of gold.
After a time of a few years, the rush spread to Northern California, mainly to Siskiyou, Shasta and Trinity Counties. One of the gold rush towns, Weaverville, now has one of the oldest Taoist temples in California, a testament to the Chinese miners that arrived and settled there. At that time, there was still gold in Southern California but it wasn’t enough to draw a lot of notice. Eventually, all the easily extracted gold was found, and gold hunters turned to the task of extracting the more difficultly extracted gold. This brought about resentment from the ‘Americans’ towards the ‘foreigners’ and arranged attacks starting taking place, to drive them away. At this time, Native Americans were being driven away from their traditional hunting and food gathering land, and they too turned to attacking the miners. The miners counterattacked and, with the advantage of having rifles, massacred a great number of the Native Americans.
Much negativity came about as a result of the gold rush, as always will when great amounts of money are involved, though many made a mean profit. One of those who profited was Samuel Brannan, who jumped right into selling supplies for digging for gold and thus, became a very wealthy man. Small fortunes were also made, of course, by the miners themselves, and on average, a miner could expect to make a modest profit. Some, and only some, miners were fortunate enough to really ‘hit gold’.
(Illustration of gold panning old man by Tony Oliver)