All That Glitters: The California Gold Rush

A mining family hoping to strike it rich in the California Gold Rush.

What would you do if you heard you could make a fortune in gold by going to a far-off place called California? Your ancestors might have asked themselves that question if they lived during the time of the California Gold Rush.

The California Gold Rush—named for the thousands who “rushed” to the state of California to find gold—started in 1848 and ended around 1855. At first, most fortune seekers were locals, but before long, throngs of people from other states, territories, and countries, including Latin America, Europe, Australia, and China, joined in the search for gold. An estimated 300,000 people came to California during the Gold Rush.

A forty-niner panning for gold in California during the Gold Rush

Why Did the California Gold Rush Happen?

The California Gold Rush began on January 24, 1848, when James W. Marshall discovered gold while working at Sutter’s Mill (now part of Coloma, a few miles northeast of Sacramento). He reported his findings to the mill’s owner, John Sutter. After they confirmed that the metal Marshall had found was indeed gold, Sutter asked the mill workers to keep the discovery a secret. Not surprisingly, it didn’t remain a secret for long.

Life during the Gold Rush

Dreams of making a fortune in gold didn’t match reality for many people. Mining was difficult and often dangerous. At the time, California had few established cities, so conditions were often primitive in the makeshift camps and boomtowns that grew up seemingly overnight. Prices for food and supplies were high as merchants tried to get their share of the miners’ expected profits. Sometimes families mined together, but more often men left their families at home as they went to search for gold.

When the Gold Rush started, California was not yet a state and was under military rule. It had no formal government or legal system, so residents developed their own codes of conduct. One widely accepted practice was “staking a claim,” in which gold-seekers “staked off” an area of land and began working it. If they abandoned it later, someone else could “claim-jump” and take over the staked-off land as their own. Law enforcement was virtually nonexistent, and disputes were often settled personally or by groups of miners.

Evolution of the Mining Industry

Methods for finding gold evolved over time. Early efforts usually involved “panning” to separate the heavy gold from lighter rocks and dirt. But panning took a lot of time and effort for a small return, and it wasn’t feasible on a large scale. Panning was soon replaced by placer mining, a method involving the use of “cradles” or “rockers” to process larger amounts of soil and rocks to find gold.

A man using hydraulic equipment to mine for gold during the California Gold Rush

Hydraulic mining began in 1853. Miners used high-pressure hoses to wash soil and rocks over sluices. The principle was the same as for panning and placer mining: lighter elements were washed away, while gold and other heavier elements remained. Another mining method involved using mercury to separate gold from crushed rocks. Unfortunately, both hydraulic and mercury mining caused significant environmental damage, which led to conflicts between miners and agricultural workers. In the 1870s, the California government passed the first laws to protect the environment.

Changes in California after the Gold Rush

When the gold rush began, the population of California was about 12,000. By the end of the Gold Rush, the population was around 25 times that number. The growth of California’s population was undoubtedly a factor in its being admitted as the 31st state of the Union in 1850.

Historian Malcolm Rohrbough notes, “The California Gold Rush was the decisive influence in bringing together the east with the newly acquired western extensions of the American empire, especially California. In other words, the Gold Rush didn’t separate the nation by creating an east and a west. It united the nation by bringing the west into the rest of the nation.”

A large group of miners during the California Gold Rush.

Did Anyone Get Rich from the California Gold Rush?

About 750,000 pounds of gold were found in California during the Gold Rush, but most fortune seekers never became rich. In fact, merchants who sold goods and services to the miners often fared better than the miners themselves. Prominent businessmen who made their fortunes during the Gold Rush included Levi Strauss, John Studebaker, Henry Wells, and William Fargo.

As for James Marshall, he never did become rich from gold. The sawmill ultimately failed, and he was forced off his land by hordes of prospectors searching for gold. He came back to Coloma years later, raising grapes for a time. He died impoverished in Kelsey, California, in 1885.

With its impact on society and the environment, the California Gold Rush “was arguably one of the most significant events to shape American history during the first half of the 19th century.”

Was your family in California for the Gold Rush? Check out the 1850 and 1860 censuses in FamilySearch Historical Records to see where your ancestors lived during that time. If your ancestors were in California, there’s a chance that they were there to strike it rich!

About the Author
Kathryn is a writer, teacher, and family history enthusiast. Her specialty is mentoring new family historians and helping them find success—and maybe even avoid some of the mistakes she's made. She believes that with the right guidance, everyone can learn to love and do family history.