The 49ers and the California Gold Rush

Sutter's Mill - James Marshall and the Discovery of Gold in California
James Marshall in Front of Sutter's Mill in California. This set off the Gold Rush. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs - cph 3c37164

The Gold Rush of 1849 was sparked with the discovery of gold in early 1848 in California's Sacramento Valley. Its effects cannot be overstated in shaping the history of the American West during the 19th century. Over the next years, thousands of gold miners travelled to California to 'strike it rich'. In fact, by the end of 1849, the population of California had swelled by over 86,000 inhabitants. 

James Marshall and Sutter's Mill

James Marshall found flakes of gold in the American River while working for John Sutter at his ranch in northern California on January 24, 1848. Sutter was a pioneer who founded a colony he called Nueva Helvetia or New Switzerland. This would later become Sacramento. Marshall had been hired to build a mill for Sutter. This place would enter American lore as 'Sutter's Mill'. The two men tried to keep the discovery quiet, but it was soon leaked and news quickly spread of the gold that could be found in the river. 

Arrival of the 49ers

Most of these treasure seekers left for California in 1849, once word had spread across the nation. This is the reason why these gold hunters were called by the name 49ers. Many of the 49ers themselves picked an appropriate name from Greek mythology: Argonauts. These Argonauts were in search of their own form of a golden fleece - wealth free for the taking. The trek was arduous for those who came over land. Many made their journey on foot or by wagon. It could sometimes take up to nine months to get to California. For the immigrants who came from across the ocean, San Francisco became the most popular port of call. In fact, San Francisco's population grew from about 800 in 1848 to over 50,000 in 1849.

The first lucky arrivals were able to find nuggets of gold in the stream beds. These people made quick fortunes. It was a unique time in history where individuals with literally nothing to their name could become extremely wealthy. The gold was free for whoever was lucky enough to find it. It is no surprise that gold fever hit so heavily. Yet the majority of those who made the trek out West were not so lucky. The individuals who became the richest were in fact not these early miners but were instead entrepreneurs who created businesses to support all of the prospectors. It is easy to think of all the essentials this mass of humanity would need in order to live. Businesses sprang up to meet their needs. Some of these businesses are still around today including Levi Strauss and Wells Fargo.

The individuals who made their way out West during the Gold Rush met with numerous hardships. After making the journey, they often found the work to be extremely hard with no guarantee of success. Further, the death rate was very high. According to Steve Wiegard, staff writer for the Sacramento Bee, "one in every five miners who came to California in 1849 was dead within six months." Lawlessness and racism were rampant. However, the impact of the Gold Rush on American History cannot be overestimated.

The Gold Rush reinforced the idea of Manifest Destiny, forever entwined with the legacy of President James K. Polk. America was destined to span from Atlantic to Pacific, and the accidental discovery of Gold made California an even more essential part of the picture. California was admitted as the 31st state of the Union in 1850. 

Fate of John Sutter

But what happened to John Sutter? Did he become extremely wealthy? Let's look at his account. "By this sudden discovery of the gold, all my great plans were destroyed. Had I succeeded for a few years before the gold was discovered, I would have been the richest citizen on the Pacific shore; but it had to be different. Instead of being rich, I am ruined...." Because of the United States Land Commission proceedings, Sutter was delayed in being awarded the title to the land which he had been given by the Mexican Government. He himself blamed the influence of squatters, people who immigrated to Sutter's lands and took up residence. The Supreme Court eventually decided that parts of the title that he did have were invalid. He died in 1880, having fought for the rest of his life unsuccessfully for compensation.