California Gold Rush (1848–1855) began on January 24, 1848, when gold was found by James W. Marshall at Sutter’s Mill in Coloma, California. The gold-seekers, called “forty-niners”, traveled by sailing ship and covered wagon and often faced substantial hardships on the trip.
While most of the newly arrived were Americans, the Gold Rush attracted tens of thousands from Latin America, Europe, Australia, and Asia. At first, loose gold and gold nuggets could be picked up off the ground.
The effects of the Gold Rush were substantial. San Francisco grew from a small settlement of about 200 residents in 1846 to a boomtown of about 36,000 by 1852. Roads and other towns were built throughout California.
In 1849 a state constitution was written, and a governor and legislature were chosen. California became a state as part of the Compromise of 1850. Marshall brought what he found to John Sutter, and the two privately tested the metal.
After the tests showed that it was gold, Sutter expressed dismay: he wanted to keep the news quiet because he feared what would happen to his plans for an agricultural empire if there were a mass search for gold.
Word of the Gold Rush spread slowly at first, the earliest gold-seekers were people who lived near California or people who heard the news from ships on the fastest sailing routes from California.
The first large group of Americans to arrive was several thousand Oregonians who came down the Siskiyou Trail. Next came people from the Sandwich Islands, and several thousand Latin Americans, including people from Mexico, from Peru and from as far away as Chile, both by ship and overland.
By the end of 1848, some 6,000 Argonauts had come to California. There were also women in the Gold Rush. They held various roles including prostitutes, single entrepreneurs, married women, poor and wealthy women.
They were of various ethnicities including Anglo-American, Hispanic, Native, European, Chinese, and Jewish. The reasons they came varied: some came with their husbands, refusing to be left behind to fend for themselves, some came because their husbands sent for them, and others came (singles and widows) for the adventure and economic opportunities.
On the trail many people died from accidents, cholera, fever, and myriad other causes and many women became widows before even setting eyes on California.
Throughout 1849, people around the United States (mostly men) borrowed money, mortgaged their property or spent their life savings to make the arduous journey to California.
In pursuit of the kind of wealth they had never dreamed of, they 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.
Thousands of would-be gold miners, known as ’49ers, traveled overland across the mountains or by sea, sailing to Panama or even around Cape Horn, the southernmost point of South America.
In 1850, the California legislature enacted the Foreign Miners Tax, which levied a monthly $20 tax on each foreign miner. The tax compelled many Chinese to stop prospecting for gold.
The Foreign Miners Tax was the opening act in a campaign by native-born white Americans to restrict the entry of Chinese laborers into California to compete with them for jobs and wages.
In 1882, the campaign to restrict immigration to California reached its first climax with the federal Chinese Exclusion Act, which effectively halted Chinese immigration for ten years and prohibited Chinese from becoming US citizens.