The Gold Rush of 1849

The Gold Rush of 1849

Primary Sources

Gold from Sutter’s Mill, 1848

James Marshall found this tiny piece of pure gold in the tailrace of John Sutter’s Coloma, California, sawmill on January 24, 1848. This is the actual nugget that sparked the rush for California gold.

New York Daily Tribune, January 18, 1849

Courtesy of the Sacramento Archives and Museum Collection Center

California Gold-Finder

Gold finders, gold washers, and other spurious devices were advertised widely to lure gullible gold-seekers.

Miner’s Gold Pan

The most basic tool in any gold miner’s kit was a pan. A handful or two of sandy river gravel was dumped into some water, and the mix was swished around. The lighter sand and gravel rose to the top the heavier gold flakes and nuggets sank to the bottom, where they could be picked out.

Gold Rush California Was Much More Expensive Than Today’s Tech-Boom California

If you have ever wondered how California’s modern-day rush for riches in Silicon Valley compares with the Gold Rush of 1849, look no further than the cost of buying a home.

Glenn Kelman, CEO of real estate startup Redfin, recently warned of an exodus of tech-specialists from Silicon Valley as the average price of property there topped $1 million – more than double the averages in Seattle, Boston or Portland.

It would be fair to say that property prices rose during the Gold Rush too, but that is where the comparison would have to end. Because back in 1849, they climbed to levels that would make modern Californians weep.

GOLD FEVER: One Man’s Adventures on the Trail of the Gold Rush

In 2013, Steve Boggan flew to San Francisco and joined the 21st century’s gold rush in a quest to understand the allure of the metal. Written with Boggan’s characteristic wit and self-effacing charm, "GOLD FEVER" offers unique insight into the history and future of the world’s most seductive metal.

The writer Bayard Taylor arrived in San Francisco by ship in the summer of 1849 and feared that nobody would believe him when he wrote about the Gold Rush economy in his dispatches for the New York Tribune.

When the average wage for a laborer in New York might be one or two dollars a day, he was astounded to discover that individual hotel rooms were rented to professional gamblers for upwards of $10,000 a month – the equivalent today of about $300,000. (All inflation estimates are courtesy of

“[One] citizen of San Francisco died insolvent to the amount of forty-one thousand dollars the previous autumn. His administrators were delayed in settling his affairs and his real estate advanced so rapidly in value meantime that after his debts were paid, his heirs had a yearly income of $40,000 [$1.2 million today].

“These facts were indubitably attested everyone believed them, yet hearing them talked of daily, as matters of course, one at first could not help feeling as if he had been eating ‘of the insane root’.”

According to the consumer data website Numbeo, San Franciscans today face grocery bills and rents about 21 percent higher than the national average. That is an unfortunate figure, but again, it seems negligible when compared with the prices facing shocked gold-seekers as they arrived in the early days of the rush, when almost everything – tools, equipment food, clothing – was in short supply.

Edward Gould Buffum, author of Six Months in the Gold Mines (1850), described having a breakfast of bread, cheese, butter, sardines and two bottles of beer with a friend and receiving a bill for $43 – the equivalent today of about $1,200.

There were reports of canteens charging a dollar for a slice of bread or two if it was buttered, the equivalent of $56. A dozen eggs might cost you $90 at today’s prices a pick axe would be the equivalent of $1,500 a pound of coffee $1,200 and a pair of boots as much as $3,000 when today you could get a decent pair for around $120.

“Every newcomer in San Francisco is overtaken with a sense of complete bewilderment,” wrote Taylor. “The mind, however it may be prepared for an astonishing condition of affairs, cannot immediately push aside its old instincts of value and ideas of business, letting all past experiences go for naught and casting all its faculties… Never have I had so much difficulty in establishing, satisfactorily to my own senses, the reality of what I saw and heard.”

While some miners did strike it rich in the early days, those that made most money were the ones who “mined the miners.” Imagine the joy of the woman who made $18,000 by baking and selling pies in the gold fields. Or of the foresighted man who arrived in San Francisco in July 1849 with 1,500 old newspapers which he sold to miners, hungry for news from back east, for a dollar each.

Some of America’s best known businesspeople also began this way: Philip Armour was just 19 when he began selling meat to forty-niners in Placerville California (then called Hangtown) Levi Strauss, a Jewish emigrant from Germany, identified the need for tough clothing in the gold fields Henry Wells and William Fargo made millions by setting up banking services in San Francisco and John Studebaker’s automobile empire began with him making wheelbarrows for California miners.

Their equivalents today – Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg, Microsoft’s Bill Gates, Larry Page and Sergey Brin of Google, and so on – have made billions rather than millions. And, unlike most of the hapless gold miners, their employees have reaped considerable rewards. By comparison, their costs of living are much more bearable.

About Steve Boggan

Steve Boggan is the author of the new book GOLD FEVER: One Man’s Adventures on the Trail of the Gold Rush. He has been an investigative journalist for more than 30 years. He lives in London.

The history of the California Gold Rush of &rsquo49: How gold was first discovered

John A Sutter, a native of Switzerland, and formerly an officer of the Swiss Guards of Charles X of France, came to the United States in 1833, and settled in Missouri. There he remained till 1839, and then made the long and difficult journey across the plains and mountains to Oregon.

Thence he went to the Sandwich Islands [Hawaii], and finally to California, where he obtained the liberal grant of forty square miles of land in the Sacramento Valley. His disposition to rove was now satisfied, and he established himself on this princely domain.

With the aid of a few foreigners and the neighboring Indians, whom he conciliated by kindness and taught to labor, he built a spacious dwelling after the original California style, which was dignified with the name and had something of the character of a fort.

Here he lived most of the time alone, except for the company of his Indian retainers, who occupied burrows and huts in his neighborhood, and who labored in his fields and acted as herdsmen of his cattle.

His fields yielded an abundance to supply the wants of his establishment and his native dependants, and his cattle multiplied so that, when Fremont first enjoyed his hospitality and obtained from him supplies, he was a wealthy proprietor of the old Californian type.

The Gold Rush of 1849 - HISTORY

Over 150,000 Native Americans lived sustainably in California prior to the gold rush. They had existed for many centuries, supporting themselves mostly by hunting, gathering and fishing. This life changed drastically in 1848 when James Marshall discovered the yellow metal in the American River at Coloma, in Northern California.

By 1870, there was an estimated native population of only 31,000 Californian Indians left. Over 60 percent of these indigenous people died from disease introduced by hundreds of thousands of so-called 49ers. However, local tribes were also systematically chased off their lands, marched to missions and reservations, enslaved and brutally massacred.

In 1851, the California State government paid $1 million for scalping missions. You could still get $5 for a severed Indian head in Shasta in 1855, and twenty five cents for a scalp in Honey Lake in 1863.

The gold miners dug up 12 billion tons of earth - excavating river beds and blasting apart hillsides in their greed. In addition, they used mercury to extract gold from the ore, losing 7,600 tons of the toxic chemical into local rivers and lakes. The amount of mercury required to violate federal health standards today would be equivalent to one gram in a small lake.

Although this gold rush ended in the late 19th century, a new gold rush began in the 1960s. In California, Nevada and around the globe, multinational companies have begun to use giant earth movers and new technology using deadly cyanide to extract gold from indigenous lands.

About the artist: Denise Davis, whose family is from the Maidu tribe of the Sierra foothills, lives in Chico, California. The design that frames this painting is a traditional Maidu basket pattern. It was Maidu land on which gold was originally discovered at the place we now know as Sutter's Mill.

The painting was commissioned by Project Underground in 1999 based on the book Gold, Greed & Genocide. Copies of this book and information about the impact of gold mining on Native American lands may be obtained from:

The Gold Rush of 1849

On January 24, 1848, James Marshall and Johann Sutter made a discovery that would transform the territory of California and bring about pandemonium in American society. The specks of gold that they discovered, while they may have hoped to keep secret, were anything but a secret.

Within just a few months, one man, Sam Brannan, waved a sample of gold in the streets of San Francisco and shouted, “Gold! Gold! Gold from the American River!” Daniel Walker Howe, What Hath God Wrought: Transformation of America, 1815-1848, 814. Some soldiers deserted their units, some sailors left their ships, and San Francisco seemed to empty out as by mid-June, “three-quarters of the men in San Francisco had left for the gold country.” Id.

Word spread quickly, first around the Pacific Rim, with gold-seekers coming from Hawaii, Mexico, Chile, Peru, Australia, and China. See id. Those Americans on the East Coast thereafter learned about the gold discovery and many set out plans to go, with two options open to them. One could take a boat south and either attempt to go around Cape Horn at the bottom tip of South America or cross through Panama or Mexico, however, this was a risky option. Instead, most Americans chose the second option: to trek on land. The trip cost between $180 to $200 for each person, and approximately 70,000 took the trip from 1849 to 1850. See id. at 816.

California’s population experienced a growth and a diversification with the influx of so many gold-seekers. See id. at 818. Perhaps not surprisingly, the Native Americans were victimized from the start, as they were often coerced to work for others either paid a subsistence wage or working in virtual slavery. Id. at 818-19.

There was virtually no rule of law to control the population. As prostitution became widespread, so did gambling and construction of shantytowns throughout the area. Id. at 820-21. With violence and disorder being the norm, kangaroo courts emerged, without any real sense of justice being dispensed. See id.

The rush for gold represented a new aspect of democracy, where individuals could work for themselves and strike it rich. This independence appealed to many, who only knew working countless hours in grueling conditions for little pay. For many, disappointment was inevitable. For Marshall and Sutter, the two who purportedly first discovered gold, it proved to be more of a curse than a blessing, as they would be ruined later in life. See id. at 814.

Nonetheless, the rush brought about a mass migration westward to California, just as it was being admitted into statehood in 1850 as the 31st state. With that mass migration came new diversity, ideas, and hope for what the future would bring. While not everyone made a fortune from their hunt for gold, California, and America more generally, was becoming more diverse and more open. Slowly, the country was becoming the place that modern Americans would recognize, with a various types of people coming together and creating a larger marketplace of ideas.

Research Sources

Brands, H. W. The Age of Gold: The California Gold Rush and the New American Dream. New York: Doubleday, 2002. Print.

Chandonnet, Ann. Gold Rush Grub: From Turpentine Stew to Hoochinoo. Fairbanks, AK: U of Alaska, 2005. Print.

Conlin, Joseph Robert. Bacon, Beans, and Galantines: Food and Foodways on the Western Mining Frontier. Reno: U of Nevada, 1986. Print.

Noble, Doug. “The Origin of the Hangtown Fry.” Mountain Democrat Newspaper [Placerville] 31 July 2000: n. pag. Print.

Peters, Erica J. San Francisco: A Food Biography. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield, 2013. Print.

Root, Waverley, and Richard De Rochemont. Eating in America: A History. New York: Morrow, 1976. Print.

The Gold Rush of 1849 - HISTORY

Visit the Historic Photo Gallery , to see these photos and more

C alifornia is called the "Golden State" possibly for many reasons, among which, and in addition to its abundant sunshine, is the exciting and colorful history of the Gold Rush.

Along the Mother Lode Highway 49 on the way to Coloma, among the flowering white dogwoods, olive colored oaks and towering cedar, there are remnants of this history: old stone cabins and buildings, mining equipment, and stamp mills that were used to crush gold-bearing quartz.

On an icy cold morning early in 1848, James Wilson Marshall, a carpenter from New Jersey, picked up a few nuggets of gold from the American River at the site of a sawmill he was building for John Sutter near Coloma. By August, the hills above the river were strewn with wood huts and tents as the first of 4,000 miners lured by the gold discovery scrambled to strike it rich. Prospectors, from the East sailed around Cape Horn. Some hiked across the Isthmus of Panama, and by 1849, about 40,000 came to San Franciso by sea alone. Nearly $2,000,000,000 in gold was taken from the earth before mining became dormant.

The upheaval was enormous. Native American cultures that had lasted for thousands of years in California were lost and destroyed. But the Mormon economy in Utah flourished with the large gold riches funneled into their banks. The old Mexican province suddenly became a new state. The gold that enriched California may have even precipitated the Civil War.

James Marshall was building the sawmill to supply lumber for Sutter's Fort in the Sacramento Valley. John Sutter had ambitious dreams of creating an empire--the New Helvetia in the Sacramento Valley. But his great fiefdom was destroyed because all of his holdings and Sutter's Fort were lost to the ever-increasing masses seizing everything in pursuit of instant wealth.

Because the gold discovery was such a large historical event and affected so many different people, there followed a vast number of conflicting stories about how and who was responsible for the exact way in which it occurred. Several tales include one report from a Mrs. Wimmer, the cook, who claims her husband was a co-discoverer and that the precious yellow metal was found by her children. The Mormons reportedly got wind of it through Henry Bigler's friends working on a new sawmill near Sutter's Fort. They later came to Coloma and prospected at a spot that became the rich diggings of Mormon Island. More than $80,000 eventually went through Brigham Young's gold accounts and into the Mormon mint in 1848-1851.

The date that Marshall found those first few flakes in the tailrace of the sawmill is uncertain. Today most historians agree that Marshall was the discoverer, and that the date was January 24.

Marshall was not on a gold hunting expedition that icy Monday morning when he shut off the water. He and his crew were building a sawmill. The tailrace was too shallow to carry water fast enough past the wheel that powered the saw. They needed to dig the tailrace during the day and to let water pour through at night to scour the bottom which then turned the ditch into a giant sluice box with cracks that exposed bedrock serving as the rifles which caught the gold that washed from the loosened gravel of the banks. By early morning, Marshall walked down the tailrace below the mill wheel and found in a crevice in the smooth granite bedrock, under water, those flakes of the raw yellow, and at first, thought it was Blotite, or "fools gold."

The gold, wrapped in a handkerchief, he took to Sutter where they looked up in Sutter's well-worn encyclopedia whatever they could find on the subject of gold, and then they tested the sample in nitric acid from Sutter's medical kit. It was almost pure gold.

John Sutter decided they should be cautious. Henry Bigler had been keeping a diary in which he reported that within only a few days the men at the mill had done a little prospecting on their own and had picked up more than $100 worth of gold. Sutter worried that "easy" gold would make it difficult to get men to work. He needed workers to build the gristmill to grind his flour, and for constructing other farming facilities that would make his empire--the New Helvetia--profitable. Sutter and Marshall had no legal claim to the Coloma area, nor to the land on which the mill was located. Sutter negotiated an agreement with the Indians in exchange for a promise of clothing and other items. However, the U. S. military governor in Monterey, Colonel Richard B. Mason, refused to accept it. Mason maintained that the Indians had no title to the land. According to him, it belonged to the United States by right of conquer.

In the beginning, both Sutter and Marshall tried to keep the discovery a secret. But word got out when Jacob Wittmer took two wagons up to the mill on February 9 and the Wimmer children told him all about the gold. He brought the news back to the fort store, flashing the gold, and the store operator sent word to his partner, Sam Brannan, in San Francisco. Sutter, himself, was soon telling visitors to the fort about the discovery, and the first newspaper, the Californian, had a small item about it on March 15 with the headline, "GOLD MINE FOUND. Sam Brannan's rival paper, California Star, followed with more brief mention of the discovery. Charles Bennett who had been present at the discovery and remembered pounding out one of the pieces on an anvil himself, was sent to Monterey to bring the news to governor, Colonel Mason.

At first there was little more than a few curiosity seekers. Many assumed it was a hoax. Henry Bigler continued to work the mill only on Sundays and holidays, the times Marshall would allow. Soon visitors from the fort and the gristmill, and men from the scattered Sacramento Valley ranches began to come to do a little "prospecting." Isaac Humphrey came up to the mill from San Francisco on April 1 with his friend Bennett, bringing the first piece of mining equipment: a rocker.

The news did spread. More and more, people were getting gold fever. Sam Brannan, who had come by ship to San Francisco with a following of Mormon settlers, met with his partner at the Sutter's Fort store and went on to Mormon Island where the Mormon miners showed him their gold, and gave him the Church's tithe. While in San Francisco, Brannan, was shouting everywhere, "Gold! Gold! Gold from the American River!" It is reported that within a few days the town was nearly emptied.

Sutter's agricultural enterprises began to fall apart. He got his wheat harvested, but there was no one to thrash it. The stone wheels of his grist mill never produced any flour. Hides rotted in his tannery vats. Squatters settled in brush shelters in his fields and vandalized the fort itself, stealing, according to Sutter, even the bells from his fort.

Colonel Richard B. Mason, as the military governor of California, came to Coloma, after first celebrating the Fourth of July with John Sutter at Sutter's Fort. Together, he and his adjutant, Lt. William Tecumseh Sherman of later Civil War fame, gathered information and estimated that about 4000 people were working the mines, about half of whom were Indians, and that some $30,000 to $50,000 worth of gold was being mined every day. Mason toured the area with James Marshall and actually saw quantities of gold, fourteen pounds of which had been taken from the North Fork the previous week by Indians working for John Sinclair, one of Sutter's neighbors.

By July, the gold discovery had reached Hawaii. By August, the news had reached Oregon, and soon people began arriving from the ranches and towns of Southern California, Sonora, and provinces of northern Mexico. Rapidly, word was reaching even such faraway places as Chili and Peru.

At the close of 1848, high water ended the first mining season, but there were approximately 5,000 miners still working, and new strikes were being made every day.

When Colonel Mason's report reached Washington, accompanied by a tea caddy full of Gold, President Polk sent a message about the Gold out West to Congress on December 5. Editorials began warning against the "folly" of rushing out to California to get rich.

But they came. And they came. Englanders came on anything that would float. Sometimes taking five months to round Cape Horn to get to San Francisco. They came from Michigan, Ohio, and western Pennsylvania. Miners from Georgia took the Santa Fe Trail and routes across Mexico. Those with money came by steamer to Panama, then by dugout and mule to the Pacific side of the isthmus for another steamer to San Francisco. By the end of 1849 there were 40,000 people in the mines. Disillusionment settled in because of growing problems with lawlessness and sickness.

Mining evolved from pocketknife to the gold pan, from the pan to the rocker, and the rocker to the long tom and the sluice box.

By the fall of '49 gold fever had spread worldwide. Companies were being formed in Great Britain, Germany, and France. Miners were recruited from China. The Gold Rush assuaged some of the grievances of the economic world problems: the potato famine in Ireland revolution in France, Germany, and Italy Taiping Rebellion and opium wars in China. The California Gold Rush by the end of 1850 had affected markets worldwide.

After 1850 major engineering efforts were required, because most of the remaining big gold deposits were under rivers or in prehistoric riverbeds. Hard-rock mining involved miles of tunnels beneath the earth and was followed in later times by hydraulic mining which washed away whole mountainsides. The hydraulic mining muddied up the riverbeds so badly that they became unnavigable. In 1882 the old steamer, Daisy, made its last run up the American River to the town of Folsom. On the Sacramento, Marysville was no longer a port. Farmlands were flooded and buried under sand, mud, and rocks. Still, miners continued to try and recover as much of the last few bits of gold as they could find. Inevitably, there followed long environmental battles over the use of giant dredgers that left endless windrows of bare stones. Early during World War II, all gold mining in the United States was stopped by executive order. By the time the presidential order was lifted, the old gold mining gear had rusted or been sold for scrap. Today, recreational panners and suction-dredge operators in scuba gear rework the creeks and rivers, reminiscent of the early '49er days.

By the fall of 1848 there were still only three stores in Coloma. One of them was Sam Brannan's. Coloma Valley had once been described as a "beautiful hollow surrounded on all sides by lofty mountains." Eventually the hundreds of scrubby tents and shanties that covered the hillsides around Marshall's rough cabins gave way to more substantial buildings. Coloma became the hub of the northern mining region in the early fifties and soon had opulent hotels and restaurants, becoming the county seat serving a surrounding population of several thousand. Tens of thousands more passed through.

It became a thriving Gold Rush town with only 600 to 900 residents, even though its placers could only support a modest number of gold-seekers.

In the May 13, 1854 edition of The Empire County Argus, Sutter's Mill was heralded as being part of the "first page of our history." And it continued with, "The accidental discovery of gold at Sutter's Mill was a commencement of a new era in the affairs of the world."

Although John Sutter tried desperately to find ways to profit from the discovery, both he and John Marshall never enjoyed the wealth, power, and prestige they felt they deserved. But what they set in motion was something far greater than either of them ever envisioned.

Today you can visit the town that became known as the "Queen of the Mines," and tour the Marshall Gold Discovery State Historic Park. You can see James Marshall's cabin, and when you think of all that gold, it is sobering to look at this cabin and realize that throughout his life, he never lived in anything very much fancier. On one side of the highway close beside the river you can see a working replica of Sutter's mill and think of the thwarted little Swiss empire--the New Helvetia that was John Sutter's dream. Or you can look to the skyline to the southwest through a carefully cut break in the trees and see James Marshall's statue pointing to the spot where he found the first flake of gold glistening in the sun.

California State Capitol Museum
The park is located downtown Sacramento
at 10th and L Streets. 916-324-0333

California State Railroad Museum
The park is located in Old Sacramento at
125 "I" Street. 916-445-7387

Columbia State Historic Park
The park is three miles north of Sonora,
off Highway 49. 209-532-0150

Empire Mine State Historic Park
The park is located in Grass Valley at 10791
East Empire Street. 530-273-8522

Leland Stanford Mansion
State Historic Park

Malakoff Diggins State Historic Park

Marshall Gold Discovery
State Historic Park

Hwy 49, Coloma, CA - 916-445-4422

Old Sacramento State Historic Park

Railtown 1897 State Historic Park

Sutter's Fort State Historic Park
2701 L. Street, Sacramento, CA - 916-445-4422

State Indian Museum
2618 K Street, Sacramento - 916-324-0971

click on the book at left

For history of the gold mines between Downieville and Sierra city

click on the book at left

Since 1999
© 2000, 2001, 2002, 2003, & 2004
e-mail: [email protected]

In 1849, the California Gold Rush results in a flood of immigrants to the West Coast whose demand for lumber triggers economic development in the Pacific Northwest. Lumber from the Columbia River and from Puget Sound is more plentiful and more easily transported by sea to San Francisco than from the Sierra Nevada. As California grows, so will the timber industry and the economy of the Northwest.

Carpenter James W. Marshall (1810-1885) is credited with first discovering gold on the American River in 1848. Word of the find leaked to the world and the following year, tens of thousands of Forty Niners travel to California by ship and overland. Sparsely settled Oregon Territory experienced a temporary drop in population as men left their farms to find gold. Supplying the miners and the growing city of San Francisco quickly became a major industry and ships called at Northwest settlements looking for logs, which the homesteaders could easily cut close to the water.

After the first big influx of miners -- and the return of many to their homes -- San Francisco and California continued build to houses, wharves, railroads, and mines, all of which required lumber. Water- and steam-powered mills sprang up along the inland shores of Oregon and Washington Territories. Loggers felled trees both to sell and to clear land for farms and cities. The lack of laws governing land use at the time made timber essentially free. Lumbering became the leading industry in the Northwest for the rest of the century.

Improvements in technology -- geared locomotives, donkey engines, and sawmill efficiencies -- helped increase production from 160 million board feet in 1879 to one billion board feet 10 years later. Completion of transcontinental railroad lines in the 1880s and 1890s opened the rest of the country as a market for Northwest forest products.

Washington Forest Protection Association

Sutter's Mill, American River, Coloma, California, ca. 1851

Courtesy Library of Congress (2007676072)


Robert Spector, Family Trees: Simpson's Centennial Story (Bellevue: Documentary Book Publishers Corporation, 1990), XIII-XVI.

A Gold Rush Journal

This journal was written and illustrated by Alexander Van Valen of New York, who set sail in January 1849 to join the California gold rush. He and four partners had formed a company to dig gold, financed by two other New Yorkers. Leaving behind his wife Susan and four daughters, Van Valen planned to be gone for two years.

The group booked passage on the bark Hersilia, which reached San Francisco later that year. Van Valen’s experience was typical of many East Coast adventurers. But his account of the voyage and his observations of San Francisco and mining operations are remarkable in their detail.

Follow Alexander Van Valen’s journey and discover the stories of people who experienced the gold rush (and its effects) first hand.

Watch the video: Inside the California Gold Rush of the 1800s. Full Documentary