The discovery of gold at Sutter's Mill in January 1848 sparked a mass migration to California — but not everyone was lucky enough to strike it rich.
In 1848, a carpenter building a sawmill near Coloma, California, caught a glimpse of something glittering along the banks of the American River. It was gold. And his discovery would launch the California gold rush, a frantic, hopeful, and transformative period in American history.
Seeking riches, hundreds of thousands of people — mostly men, but some women, too — flooded the territory. Borrowing money or using their life savings, they came from the East Coast, Europe, and even China. From roughly 1848 until 1855, they mined for gold across the state, eventually extracting some $2 billion worth of the precious metal.
This mass migration transformed the territory forever. But the California gold rush also altered the course of American history in more ways than one.
'It Made My Heart Thump': The Discovery Of Gold In California
The California gold rush began on January 24, 1848. That day, as carpenter James Wilson Marshall worked on a water-powered sawmill for his employer, Swiss immigrant John Sutter, he noticed something shiny in a streambed.
"My eye was caught by something shining in the bottom of the ditch," Marshall later recounted of his discovery, according to the Library of Congress. "I reached my hand down and picked it up; it made my heart thump, for I was certain it was gold... Then I saw another."
Marshall's find came at a serendipitous time for the United States. The Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo was signed in February 1848 just weeks after Marshall's discovery, ending the Mexican-American War and ceding gold-rich California to the United States. At the time, no one knew that Marshall, Sutter, and their workmen had started to dig for the precious metal.
Indeed, Marshall and Sutter tried to keep the discovery of gold at Sutter's Mill under wraps — but word soon got out. Stories about the discovery of gold started to run in newspapers that March, and storekeeper Sam Brannan caused waves in San Francisco when he displayed flakes of gold discovered at Sutter's Mill around the city.
Before long, according to the Library of Congress, San Francisco became a ghost town. Merchants, sailors, soldiers, and laborers alike dropped everything and headed into the California hills, hoping to strike it rich.
The Rise Of The California Gold Rush
Before long, news of the California gold rush spread across the world. PBS reports that thousands of eager prospectors sailed to California from Hawaii, Oregon, Mexico, Chile, Peru, and even China. Though Americans on the East Coast initially doubted that gold had been discovered in the territory, they were convinced by the end of the year when President James K. Polk confirmed it.
"The accounts of abundance of gold 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," Polk wrote.
Nearly 100,000 people poured into the state by 1849. The so-called "49ers" sailed 17,000 miles around Cape Horn, traversed Panama, or made their way across the Great Plains. While some dreamt of finding gold, others realized that there was money to be made by supporting the miners in jobs ranging from merchants to dance hall girls.
"A smart woman can do very well in this country," one woman wrote who went west during the California gold rush. "[T]rue, there are not many comforts and one must work all the time and work hard, but there is plenty to do and good pay."
The miners extracted shocking riches from the ground — and each year seemed to be better than the last. According to PBS, they found $10 million in 1849, $41 million in 1850, $75 million in 1851, and a whopping $81 million in 1852, the peak of the California gold rush.
But the gold rush had a dark side, too. PBS reports that white miners could be territorial and violent toward immigrants. And Native Americans in California suffered in great numbers, losing a full third of their population to disease, mining-related accidents, and murder, according to HISTORY.
In addition to the loss of so many indigenous residents, around 300,000 hopeful prospectors from around the world had flooded California by 1855. The demographics of the state were forever changed — but that wasn't the only effect the gold rush had on the region.
The Lasting Impact Of The California Gold Rush
Though the California gold rush sputtered to an end around 1855, it cast a long shadow over American history in more ways than one. As National Geographic notes, it transformed California and quiet towns like San Francisco and Sacramento turned into humming metropolises.
And the gold rush had political implications as well. It likely fast-tracked California's admission to the Union — but also added to existing tensions between North and South. Though California entered the Union as a free state, the Compromise of 1850 dictated that the new states of Utah and New Mexico could make their own decisions about slavery.
Just a decade later, the Civil War broke out.
In that way, the California gold rush represents a crucial chapter in American history. Not only did it add to existing political tensions, but the possibility of untold wealth also completely transformed the "Golden State."
Above, look through 33 photos of the California gold rush that capture this stunning moment in American history.
After reading about the California gold rush, look through these photos of the Klondike gold rush. Or, discover the story of Slab City, the squatters' paradise located in the California desert.