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Memoirs of the Gold Rush

The California gold rush significantly impacted the United States. Starting in 1848 at the first discovery of gold, it exploded into a frenzy of people abandoning families and jobs to search for treasure. The influx of people to the area increased the population of San Francisco from a small settlement into a growing city. When it ended in 1855, many people had made fortunes and some had lost everything.

The history of the California gold rush begins in 1848 when James Marshall found several nuggets of gold in the American River. Word eventually spread of the discovery to the local newspaper. Within a few months, thousands of people had “gold fever” and left their homes to travel to California to see if they could make a fortune. Many people earned the equivalent of several years of wages; others lost everything when they left their livelihoods at home only to find misfortune. The growth of businesses in the area was exponential, and the territory of California thrived. Millions of dollars worth of gold was found during the years of the gold rush before it ended in the 1850’s.

In January of 1848, nuggets of gold were discovered in the American River near Coloma. A small article was run in the local newspaper in March of that same year. Two months later, gold was again discovered, and Sam Brennan, a local merchant, was found running through the streets with a bottle of gold dust in his hands, shouting “Gold! Gold! Gold from the American River!” By August of 1848, people were migrating to California after an article was published in the New York Herald. The first ships that had set sail months before began arriving in February 1849. About 40,000 people were mining for gold by this time. A year later, in 1950, ships were sailing back toward the east with thousands of dollars of gold dust aboard. By 1851, mining had become more technologically advanced. Large amounts of people from other countries were in California, including thousands of Chinese. In 1852, a foreign miner’s tax was instilled to try to reduce the number of Chinese and Latin Americans who were mining. Gold mining continued for many years afterward, but the “Gold Rush” ended in about 1855 with people returning to their homes and lives.

Many pictures from the time of the Gold Rush were actually daguerreotypes, a kind of photograph where the image is exposed onto a plate to be viewed. Examples have been found of people, the mining area camps, and images of towns and settlements. Photography was a new art at this time and taking a picture was a much bigger endeavor, requiring more time than today. Some views of that time can still be found preserved in museums.

The man who was known to begin the series of events leading to the California gold rush was James Marshall. Born in 1810, Marshall was a carpenter whose family was originally from Missouri. He eventually moved to California and was working on the construction of a sawmill near Coloma for a man named John Sutter. In 1848, he discovered nuggets of gold in the American River, although he and Sutter both wanted to keep things quiet. Instead, word got out about the discovery and their fears were realized. The men who had been working on the sawmill abandoned the project in order to mine for gold of their own. Marshall later attempted to find gold with little success and then abandoned the effort to open a vineyard. He died never realizing his fortune, but he is remembered for beginning a series of events that led to fortune for many others. In the year 1849, thousands of people migrated to the area. Some came from the east, crossing the country over land. Some sailed through the Isthmus of Panama. News of the gold was heard around the world and many Asians arrived, primarily Chinese. Europeans also came, particularly French and Germans. The large volume of people who migrated to the area in the year 1849 alone surpassed any other year. The people who traveled during this time are known as forty-niners for the year they left their familiar lives to set out to strike gold.

There are many stories of people who traveled during the time of the California gold rush. Some left their homes, leaving wives and children behind. Letters have been found from families writing across the country. Memoirs and personal stories have also been found; people telling of their difficult journeys and life in the camps. Some people did realize their fortune. Others left with next to nothing. People faced challenges and even lost their lives attempting to reach California. The stories are priceless of a time when people tried to make their lives better by searching for their own destiny.

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