In January 1848, James Marshall discovered gold in the American River northeast of Sacramento. By the end of the year, thousands of prospectors were dropping everything to bolt west. The gold rush peaked in 1852, when $80 million worth was mined, and ended with the discovery of silver in Nevada in 1859. Though most found only fool’s gold, the rush essentially minted the new state of California. Here are some amazing facts from the period.
1. It was one of the largest migrations in American history.
The Californian announced the discovery of gold in 1848 (via Wikimedia)
In early 1848, only about 1,000 non-Native Americans lived in California. Less than two years later, there were 100,000. People came from all 31 states and at least 25 countries, especially China. Historical newspapers on Ancestry are filled with breathless reports of land “richly impregnated with gold” (Gettysburg, PA) and men “nearly crazy with the riches suddenly forced into their pockets” (Prairie Du Chien, WI).
Ads touted wares for the traveling prospectors, as in the Bangor, Maine, paper above. Though the United States had only acquired the territory in 1848, its rapid growth accelerated its incorporation into the Union. California became the 31st state in just two years.
2. Two brothers mined $1.5 million worth of gold in a single year.
John and Daniel Murphy arrived in the Sierra Nevada in 1848 and struck gold within days. In a year, they mined $1.5 million worth of the precious metal, about $40 million today. (The town of Murphys, California, is named for them today.) Another legendary miner found $17,000 in gold in a week. But most didn’t have anywhere near that kind of luck.
3. At the start of the gold rush, California had no banks.
Due to American banking crises in the 1830s and 1840s, California passed a provisional constitution in 1849 that prohibited the creation of state or commercial banks. This left banking to private individuals, who operated without any government regulations. These private bankers became extremely powerful and could even change gold into currency. A government mint opened in 1854.
4. There were hardly any women.
In 1850, only 3 percent of California’s nonnative population was female. Saloons and theaters put the few women around on display. There were the so-called “model artists,” otherwise known as strippers, and “fancy ladies” who poured drinks and provided companionship at gambling halls. Gradually, wives and family members of the miners arrived, bringing a semblance of civilization to the rowdy West. By 1860, nonnative women made up 19 percent of the state’s population.
5. In a decade, it created the new metropolis of San Francisco.
At the start of the gold rush, San Francisco was a scrappy frontier outpost. In 1848, the population was 1,000; in 1850, it was 20,000. By 1861, San Francisco had over 56,000 people and was a bustling metropolis with soaring property values. The city directory from that year (above), viewable on Ancestry, describes the transformation with awe. In the previous year, it says, there were 1,455 wood and brick buildings, including hotels and theaters, constructed within the city limits. “It is easy to see that the accommodations for the multitudes have been vastly increased,” the directory said, “and living in San Francisco rendered more pleasant and inviting to the immigration that has given impetus to the rapid development.”
6. The city was built on top of gold rush ships.
Not all ’49ers came to California by covered wagon. Others arrived on ships, which passengers and crew quickly abandoned in their hunt for gold. With San Francisco growing rapidly, these boats were repurposed as shops or hotels, or torn apart for lumber. Others were left to rot and sink in the harbor, and the city was eventually built on top of them. Construction projects taking place as recently as 2001 have revealed ship remains buried underground.
7. Merchants, not miners, were the ones who really got rich.
San Francisco in 1851. (Courtesy of Library of Congress)
With thousands of prospectors flooding the frontier, cities and towns had to be built from scratch. That led to businesses to feed, clothe, supply, and entertain prospectors. Entrepreneurs who made a killing during the rush included Levi Strauss. A Bavarian tailor, he came to San Francisco in 1850 intending to manufacture tents and wagon covers. Instead, he made pants sturdy enough for the miners out of the durable material he brought with him. He eventually turned them into blue jeans.
8. If you struck gold, you ordered a Hangtown Fry.
An unusual delicacy emerged out of the gold rush: an omelette cooked in bacon fat and topped with fried oysters. This is supposedly what one lucky miner ordered when he sauntered into an eatery and realized he could order absolutely anything on the menu. The name came from its town of origin, known for its frontier-style justice. You can still find the dish at restaurants in San Francisco.