The 49ers and the California Gold Rush

Sutter's Mill
Bettmann Archive / Getty Images

The Gold Rush of 1849 was sparked by the discovery of gold in early 1848 in California's Sacramento Valley. Its impact on the history of the American West during the 19th century was immense. Over the next years, thousands of gold miners traveled to California to "strike it rich," and, by the end of 1849, the population of California had swelled by more than 86,000 inhabitants.

James Marshall and Sutter's Mill

The discovery of gold is attributed to James Marshall, who 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 was the construction superintendent who 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.

First Arrivals

The first arrivals—those who emptied out the California cities over the first few months—were able to find nuggets of gold in the stream beds. The American River and other nearby streams regularly gave up nuggets the size of pumpkin seeds, and many were as large as 7–8 ounces. These people made quick fortunes. It was a unique time in history where individuals with literally nothing to their name could become extremely wealthy. It is no surprise that gold fever hit so heavily.

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. Sam Brannan's store in Sutter's Fort grossed more than $36,000 between May 1 and July 10th selling equipment—shovels, picks, knives, buckets, blankets, tents, frying pans, bowls, and any kind of shallow dish. Businesses sprang up to meet the essentials this mass of humanity would need in order to live. Some of these businesses are still around today, such as Levi Strauss and Wells Fargo.

The 49ers

Most of the treasure seekers outside of California left their homes in 1849, once word had spread across the nation, which is 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 magic golden fleece—wealth free for the taking.

Yet the majority of those who made the long trek out West were not so lucky. It was hard work to get to Sutter's Mill: California had no roads, no ferries at river crossings, no steamships, and there were no hotels or inns on the few trails that did exist. 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, after the early decimation, San Francisco's population exploded from about 800 in 1848 to over 50,000 in 1849.

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.

Manifest Destiny

An estimated 60,000–70,000 people rushed into an area that had not long before supported 6,000–7,000 Yaqi, Mayo, Seri, Pima and Opatas. The would-be miners came globally, but selectively: Mexicans and Chileans, Cantonese speakers from South China, African Americans, French came in droves, but not Brazilians or Argentineans, not Africans, not people from Shanghai or Nanjing or Spain. Some Indigenous groups joined in the free-for-all but others fled the massive influx of people.

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.

Resources and Further Reading

  • "Gold Rush Sesquicentennial." The Sacramento Bee, 1998. 
  • Holliday, J. S. "The World Rushed In: The California Gold Rush Experience." Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2002.
  • Johnson, Susan Lee. "Roaring Camp: The Social World of the California Gold Rush." New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2000. 
  • Stillson, Richard Thomas. "Spreading the Word: A History of Information in the California Gold Rush." Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2006. 
  • Sutter, John A. "The Discovery of Gold in California." The Virtual Museum of the City of San Francisco. Reprinted from Hutchings' California Magazine, November 1857. 
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Kelly, Martin. "The 49ers and the California Gold Rush." ThoughtCo, May. 9, 2021, Kelly, Martin. (2021, May 9). The 49ers and the California Gold Rush. Retrieved from Kelly, Martin. "The 49ers and the California Gold Rush." ThoughtCo. (accessed March 28, 2023).