Just how grand was the California Gold Rush? Lets consider the city of San Francisco, which ballooned from 1,000 to 25,000 by the end of 1849 alone. It wasn't just sheer numbers that made the gold rush so impactful however, it was its reach on the entire globe that set it apart. Miners and businessmen alike gathered from the far corners of the globe; from China to Australia to Brazil. No distance was too great an undertaking for the promise of riches the goldfields could provide. It was not an easy journey but claims of gold nuggets and the opportunity to make money off the miners brought forth a diverse group of motivated individuals that would shape the character and diversity of the newly formed state.
Who were these individuals that flocked to California? They were primarily men, especially at first. They were merchants, craftsmen, and laborers. Bakers, sailors, and medics. All brought together by a shared dream of finding wealth in the California goldfields. The early rush of 1848 featured mostly miners from the Oregon area and the nearer parts of Latin America. As time progressed new inhabitants started flocking from all parts of America, all the way across from the East Coast. These individuals had to partake in a treacherous six month journey over land or by sea around the tip of South America. Many fell ill and died along the way. The travelers hardy or lucky enough to survive were joined by fortune seekers from virtually ever continent on the globe. The Chinese in particular made the long ocean passage in tremendous numbers. Of the nearly 300,000 individuals that made the journey for California's gold during the peak influx, 1848-1855, over 25,000 were Chinese.
To give a glimpse to the power of the draw the gold rush had on these Argonauts (a term given to the miners), lets take a moment to analyze the type of wealth that was possible to be gained. For the early miners, at a time in America when an average days labor of 12 hours garnered about $1.00, the goldfields were a destination too good to be true. In the same amount of time the average miner could earn $16.00. If we transpose that into today's market for California where minimum wage stands at $10.00 an hour and the average work week sits at 40 hours, multiply that by 52 weeks a year and a 1,600% increase and we get $332,800 a year (before taxes ;)). Not too shabby for a minimum wage job eh? Any takers?
It is not hard to see why the gold rush was so enticing. Only hard work and dedication were required to make a hefty sum. The reality of the riches found by those early miners and their 300,000 followers quickly met the reality that the easy to grab gold was soon gone. By 1850 the average miner could earn only roughly $2.00 a day. The decreasing accessibility of gold led the miners to discover new ways of extracting it. The gold was still there it was just finer and trapped inside the hills. For more on the ingenuity of the miners and the technological advances brought on by the gold rush check back into our future blog.
The statehood and development of California is forever linked with its famous gold rush. Its incorporation as a state is as rocky a history as the gravel beds of the goldfields themselves. The state's quick and often disputed succession from one nation to another mirrored the rapid and often lawless settlement of the gold country.
Prior to the westerner's discovery of gold California was a territory of Mexico and before it Spain. The year gold was discovered, 1848, marked the same year that ended the Mexican-American War, a mere 27 years after Mexico's fight for independence from Spain. The change to a newly formed Mexican government in 1821 led to instability throughout Mexico and especially its northern reaches such as Texas and Alta California. This instability and the continued American expansion of Manifest Destiny led to conflict and the 1836 Texas Revolution. For the next decade the political sovereignty of Texas was under extreme debate between Mexico and the U.S. The non-compromised annexation of 1845 incorporated Texas as an official U.S. state and prompted open war between the two countries. The American victory in 1848 resulted in the treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo and a large land acquisition including Alta California.
The result of this messy transfer was a largely lawless area where much of the goldfields themselves were outside established land grants and deemed public land. As neither an official territory or state and under minimal military control California was ripe for the taking. These conditions aided the gold rush fever, a chance to stake one's own claim at no cost and strike it rich was motivation enough to bring nearly 100,000 souls to California in 1849. Unsurprisingly many disputes over claims arose, and with no governmental body yet in place many matters were handled privately and violently, giving the gold rush its often perceived wild west feel.
The lack of government enforcement, the rapidly increasing number of miners, and the seemingly unbridled economic gain forced the United States into quick action and to forego the usual process of new land first becoming a formal territory. Instead, on September 9th 1850 California was granted full statehood becoming the 31st state of the union. Along with its initial incorporation much of its settlement and character was to be equally influenced by the continuing, and now officially, California Gold Rush.
California's Gold Rush hardly seems a fitting history to tell unless we start from the beginning, when the gold itself rushed in to California. The term rushed is used rather loosely here to describe a time frame of some 400 million years. A number that plays a wonderful juxtaposition to the frantic pace of Marshall finding gold in 1848 to the Sawyer court decision ending hydraulic mining tailings (legally) in 1884.
Beginning roughly 400 million years ago and for over 200 million years much of California was being formed. Plate tectonics were slowly spreading the ocean floor until it subducted (sank) below the continent of North America. During this process parts of the ocean floor, some carrying gold placed by underwater volcanism, accreted (accumulated) onto the North American landmass. Around 160 million years ago the docking of Smartville, a gold rich island arc, created much of what is today know as California's Mother Lode.
Not long after, a mere 20 million years, an event known as the Nevadan Orogeny (a term for mountain building) over a span of 40 million years created and pushed up the Sierra Nevada Batholith (a giant complex of granite), and with it veins of quartz and gold. Then the mountains began to erode, and for up to 80 million years the gold was slowly concentrated and deposited downstream in gravel beds along the Sierra foothills. These ancient gravel beds richly laced with gold, were then cut into by modern rivers such as the American and Feather exposing the gold for the North American settlers to discover.
It is this unique geologic history that made the Gold Rush possible. Most of our planet does not contain the quantity of highly consolidated gold that made California the hot spot it became. These gold rich gravel beds are responsible not only for the influx of people to the California coastline but also for a host of breakthroughs in technology engineered for the specific needs of extracting the gold from the often hard to reach places. Check back again for more on the people and technological advances of the California Gold Rush.