Gold nuggets discovered in the Sacramento Valley in early 1848 sparked the Gold Rush— one of the most significant events to shape American history during the first half of the 19th century. As news spread of the discovery, thousands of prospective gold miners traveled by sea or overland to San Francisco and the surrounding area; by the end of 1849, the non-native population of the California territory was some 100,000 (compared with the pre-1848 figure of less than 1,000). A total of $2 billion worth of precious metal was extracted from the area during the Gold Rush, which peaked in 1852. James Wilson Marshall, found the flakes of gold in early 1848, in a river at the base of the Sierra Nevada Mountains in California. Just days after Marshall’s discovery at Sutter’s Mill, the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo was signed, ending the Mexican-American War and leaving California in the hands of the United States. Marshall and Sutter tried to keep news of the discovery under wraps, but word got out. By mid-June, some three-quarters of the male population of San Francisco had left town for the gold mines, and the number of miners in the area reached 4,000 by August.
THE ’49ERS COME TO CALIFORNIA Throughout 1849, people around the United States (mostly men) borrowed money, mortgaged their property or spent their life savings to make the journey to California. In pursuit of the kind of wealth they had never dreamed of, thousands of would-be gold miners, known as ’49ers, left their families and hometowns; in turn, women left behind took on new responsibilities such as running farms or businesses and caring for their children alone By the end of the year, the non-native population of California was estimated at 100,000, (as compared with 20,000 at the end of 1848. To accommodate the needs of the ’49ers, gold mining towns sprung up all over the region. San Francisco developed a bustling economy and became the central metropolis of the new frontier.
LASTING IMPACT OF THE GOLD RUSH After 1850, the surface gold in California largely disappeared, even as miners continued to arrive. Mining had always been difficult and dangerous labor, and striking it rich required good luck as much as skill and hard work. Moreover, the average daily take for an independent miner working with his pick and shovel had by then sharply decreased from what it had been in 1848. As gold became more and more difficult to reach, the growing industrialization of mining drove more and more miners from independence into wage labor. Though gold mining continued throughout the 1850s, it had reached its peak by 1852, when some $81 million was pulled from the ground.
Source: The Gold Rush of 1849
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