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In the early 1840s, California was a distant outpost that few Americans had seen. John Sutter (left) was a Swiss emigrant who had come to California in 1839 with the idea of building a vast empire. At the end of 1847, Sutter sent a group of men, including James Marshall, to build a new sawmill near the river. The sawmill was nearly complete when, on January 24th 1848, Marshall spotted something shining in the river.


The metal was tested and confirmed as gold. However, Sutter wanted the area to be his empire and did not want to attract others to the area so it was decided to keep the discovery secret. But it was not long before news of the discovery leaked out. The gold rush that followed was to make California the richest state in America.

Travelling to California

There were three choices of route from the western states to California. Two by sea and one overland.

By boat via South America By boat via Panama Overland  The California Trail
Six months of sea- sickness, rotten food, rancid water and boredom. The quickest option but travellers risked malaria and cholera. A 2000 mile walk in sweltering heat with little food or water.

Get Rich Quick

Sam Brannan was a San Francisco merchant who spread news of the discovery throughout San Francisco. He got rich quick, but not through mining. As he spread the word about the discovery of gold he bought every pickaxe, shovel and pan in the region. A metal pan that he bought for 20 cents was sold for 15 dollars. In nine weeks Brannan made 36,000 dollars.

The Road to Poverty

Many overland travellers were not prepared for the harshness of the journey. Supplies ran out very quickly and replacements were expensive. Sugar rose to $1.50 per pint, coffee $1.00 per pint, alcohol $4.00. Many were forced to pay $1, $5 or even $100 for a glass of water. Those without money died.

The Road to Sickness and Death

The overland routes west became crowded with wagons. Dust was kicked up by those in front, making it difficult for those behind to see and breathe. Wagons camped together overnight for safety. They dug toilet pits, often close to rivers resulting in polluted water supplies, diarrhoea, illness and death.

The Reality of the Dream

1849 saw huge numbers of people flooding into California all with dreams of discovering gold and becoming rich. They were known as the forty-niners. But by the middle of 1849 the easy gold had gone. A typical miner spent 10 hours a day in freezing water sifting through the mud with no end result but frustration and depression. Men drowned their sorrows in the saloons and bars. Crime was on the increase and the jails were overcrowded. Some gave up and went back to the east. Others stayed on hoping that tomorrow would be the day. For most of them tomorrow never came?

This article is part of our larger resource on the American West culture, society, economics, and warfare. Click here for our comprehensive article on the American West.

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"American West – The California Gold Rush" History on the Net
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February 21, 2024 <https://www.historyonthenet.com/american-west-the-california-gold-rush>
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