• Gold Fever
    Many miners panned for gold, but most used more sophisticated tools and machinery.

    Photograph by Willard Culver, National Geographic

    Early Expedition
    On his visit to the California gold fields, Colonel Richard Barnes Mason was accompanied by Lieutenant William Tecumseh Sherman, who later gained notoriety as a Union general in the American Civil War.

    Chinese Gold
    Today, the People's Republic of China is the world's largest gold producer. Australia and South Africa are also large gold producers. The United States still produces hundreds of tons of gold, most of it from mines in the state of Nevada.

    Golden Touch
    The Gold Rush included explorers who didn't actually mine for gold. The American writer Samuel Clemens wrote about the Gold Rush for the San Francisco Call newspaper. Bankers Henry Wells and William Fargo provided economic security to miners. German immigrant Levi Strauss helped create strong, durable canvas pants held together with metal rivets. Miners made Mark Twain, Wells Fargo, and Levi's household words.

    By Stuart Thornton

    Friday, January 21, 2011

    On January 24, 1848, a thin piece of metal the size and thickness of a corn flake altered the history of California and, by extension, the history of the United States.

    That day, in a remote region of the Sierra Nevada foothills, a man named James Marshall was overseeing the construction of a sawmill on the American River. He was building the mill for his boss, John Sutter. As he looked in the millrace, a fast moving stream that powered the mill wheel, Marshall spotted a glint of color. After picking up the flake and applying rudimentary tests to the metal, Marshall came to a conclusion: he had discovered gold!

    San Francisco Empties Out

    Four days later, Marshall informed Sutter, who urged him to keep the discovery secret so that work on the sawmill would be completed. Eventually, word of the gold spread across the region like a Western wildfire, igniting the curiosities of the citizens of the nearby city of San Francisco.

    By the spring of 1848, people poured out of San Francisco hoping to strike it rich. It is said that San Francisco emptied after businessman Sam Brannan walked down the city’s Montgomery Street with a bottle containing gold flakes, grains, and dust, shouting: “Gold! Gold! Gold from the American River!”

    An historian and author of 1997’s Days of Gold: The California Gold Rush and the American Nation, Malcolm J. Rohrbough says the immediate effects of the discovery of gold on San Francisco were nothing short of drastic.

    “The whole town and the rancheros around the town essentially were deserted,” he says. “Everyone went to the gold fields.”

    The summer after Marshall’s unexpected find, the American military governor of California, Colonel Richard Barnes Mason, decided to travel to the area to draft a report for the U.S. government in Washington D.C. On his journey to the region, he described finding parts of California towns that were suddenly abandoned by people fleeing to the Sierra Nevada foothills.

    Mason wrote in the letter that he saw “whole route mills were lying idle, fields of wheat were open to cattle and horses, houses vacant and farms going to waste.”

    But when Mason arrived at the gold fields, he discovered swarms of people sifting through the streams and dirt in a mad search for gold. “At the time of my visit, but little more than three months after its first discovery, it was estimated that upwards of 4,000 people were employed [in the gold fields],” Mason wrote in the letter.

    Near the end of the report, Mason described how abundant the precious metal was and how it could be easily extracted from the land. “I have no hesitation now in saying, that there is more gold in the country drained by the Sacramento and San Joaquin Rivers than will pay the cost of the present war with Mexico a hundred times over,” he wrote. “No capital is required to obtain this gold, as the laboring man wants nothing but his pick and shovel and tin pan, with which to dig and wash gravel, and many frequently pick gold out of the crevices of rocks with their knives, in pieces of one to six ounces.”

    From Mexico to the United States

    The years before Marshall’s big discovery, California had been a northern frontier of Mexico. Less than two weeks after gold was found, California was given to the United States by Mexico through the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, which ended the Mexican-American War.

    “Politically, California in many respects was independent or quasi-independent,” Rohrbough says of pre-Gold Rush California. “Economically, it was very much connected to the hides [pelts or animal skins] and tallow [the fatty tissue of animals] trade.”

    California’s population and diversity would change drastically once Mason’s letter arrived on the East Coast. The initial reports of gold were greeted with skepticism, according to Rohrbough. However, everything changed when President James K. Polk gave his State of the Union address to Congress on December 5, 1848. Of the gold craze in California, the President stated: “the explorations already made warrant the belief that the supply is very large and that gold is found at various places in an extensive district of country.”

    Following the President’s confirmation of the rumor, a gold mania swept across the United States.

    In mid to late December, ships filled with gold-seekers left the East Coast for California. During the spring of 1849, scores of people embarked on a journey across the continent hoping to find gold. In reference to the year of their departure, these early immigrants to California were called forty-niners.

    Rohrbough cites the number of miners in California in 1848 compared to populations over the following years as proof of the amazing movement of gold-seekers to the newly acquired American territory. He says that in 1848 there were 5,000 miners in the region. There were more than 50,000 by the end of 1849. The number rose to 100,000 in 1850 before peaking at 125,000 in 1851.

    While gold miners came from as far away as Europe and China, the California Gold Rush drew many young men from their homes in the American Midwest and East Coast. That flood of Americans radically changed California during the Gold Rush years.

    “California was Americanized, almost literally, overnight,” Rohrbough says, “and became a place that was dominated by Americans as opposed to the Mexicans who were so prominent at the time of the gold discoveries.”

  • Term Part of Speech Definition Encyclopedic Entry
    abandon Verb

    to desert or leave entirely.

    abundant Adjective

    in large amounts.

    acquire Verb

    to get or take possession of.

    amazing Adjective

    awesome or very impressive.

    Americanize Verb

    to adopt the culture and style of an American.

    California Gold Rush Noun

    (1848-1855) worldwide immigration to California following the discovery of gold.

    canvas Noun

    heavy, woven cloth.

    capital Noun

    goods or funds used to increase production or wealth.

    cattle Noun

    cows and oxen.

    Civil War Noun

    (1860-1865) American conflict between the Union (north) and Confederacy (south).

    confirmation Noun

    assurance that something is true.

    Congress Noun

    legislative branch of the government, responsible for making laws. The U.S. Congress has two bodies, the House of Representatives and the Senate.

    continent Noun

    one of the seven main land masses on Earth.

    Encyclopedic Entry: continent
    craze Noun

    fad or very popular fashion.

    crevice Noun

    crack in a rock.

    curiosity Noun

    desire to know more about a subject.

    desert Verb

    to abandon completely.

    discovery Noun

    something seen, documented, or noticed for the first time.

    diversity Noun


    dominate Verb

    to overpower or control.

    draft Verb

    sketch or outline.

    drastic Adjective

    severe or extreme.

    durable Adjective

    strong and long-lasting.

    economic Adjective

    having to do with money.

    effect Noun

    result or impact produced by an action.

    embark Verb

    to leave or set off on a journey.

    employ Verb

    to hire or use.

    essential Adjective


    estimate Verb

    to guess based on knowledge of the situation or object.

    eventually Adverb

    at some point in the future.

    exploration Noun

    study and investigation of unknown places, concepts, or issues.

    explorer Noun

    person who studies unknown areas.

    extensive Adjective

    very large.

    extract Verb

    to pull out.

    farm Noun

    land cultivated for crops, livestock, or both.

    foothill Noun

    hill at the base of a mountain.

    forty-niner Noun

    immigrant who came to California during the Gold Rush of 1849.

    frontier Noun

    largely unpopulated area that is slowly being opened up for settlement.

    general Noun

    highest rank of leadership in armies and air forces.

    gold Noun

    valuable chemical element with the symbol Au.

    gold field Noun

    geographic area where gold is mined.

    greet Verb

    to meet and welcome.

    hesitation Noun

    pause or delay.

    hide Noun

    leather skin of an animal.

    historian Noun

    person who studies events and ideas of the past.

    household word Noun

    common name or phrase.

    idle Noun


    ignite Verb

    to set on fire.

    immediate Adjective

    quickly or right away.

    immigrant Noun

    person who moves to a new country or region.

    initial Adjective


    James K. Polk Noun

    (1795-1849) 11th American president.

    James Marshall Noun

    (1810-1885) American carpenter who discovered gold in California in 1848.

    John Sutter Noun

    (1803-1880) American businessman and owner of a California mill where gold was discovered.

    journey Noun

    voyage or trip.

    labor Noun

    work or employment.

    Levi Strauss Noun

    (1829-1902) American businessman.

    literally Adverb

    exactly what is said, without exaggeration.

    mad Adjective

    insane or mentally ill.

    mania Noun

    fad or very popular fashion.

    metal Noun

    category of elements that are usually solid and shiny at room temperature.

    Mexican-American War Noun

    (1846-1848) armed conflict between Mexico and the U.S.

    Midwest Noun

    area of the United States consisting of the following states: Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota, Ohio, South Dakota, and Wisconsin.

    military governor Noun

    leader of a territory or colony representing the armed forces.

    millrace Noun

    current of water that rotates a mill wheel.

    mill wheel Noun

    rotating wheel that powers a large machine used for grinding or crushing various materials.

    miner Noun

    person who excavates metal or other materials from the Earth.

    nearby Adjective


    notoriety Noun

    unfavorable fame.

    overnight Adjective

    very quickly.

    pelt Noun

    animal skin or fur.

    pick Noun

    tool resembling a hammer, with at least one end pointed, used for carving stone.

    precious metal Noun

    valuable metal, such as gold, silver, or platinum.

    prominent Adjective

    important or standing out.

    quasi- Prefix

    sort of.

    radically Adverb

    completely or extremely.

    ranchero Noun

    large land grant to an individual from the Mexican government, and the site of livestock raised for meat and clothing. Also called a rancho.

    region Noun

    any area on the Earth with one or more common characteristics. Regions are the basic units of geography.

    Encyclopedic Entry: region
    remote Adjective

    distant or far away.

    respect Noun

    manner or way of doing things.

    rivet Noun

    piece of metal that holds two pieces of material together.

    rudimentary Adjective


    rumor Noun

    gossip, or a story that lacks evidence.

    Samuel Clemens Noun

    (1835-1910) birth name of American writer Mark Twain.

    sawmill Noun

    facility for turning raw timber into boards and other lumber material.

    score Noun

    20 years.

    security Noun

    safety or stability.

    shovel Noun

    large, flat tool for digging.

    sift Verb

    to separate larger pieces of material from smaller ones.

    skepticism Noun

    doubt or questioning.

    State of the Union address Noun

    speech given by the president of the U.S. every year, concerning his policies and plans.

    stream Noun

    body of flowing water.

    Encyclopedic Entry: stream
    tallow Noun

    fatty tissue of animals, used to treat leather and make candles and soap.

    territory Noun

    land an animal, human, or government protects from intruders.

    town Noun

    human settlement larger than a village and smaller than a city.

    trade Noun

    buying, selling, or exchanging of goods and services.

    Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo Noun

    (1848) agreement ending the Mexican-American War.

    Union Adjective

    having to do with states supporting the United States (north) during the U.S. Civil War.

    urge Verb

    to strongly encourage.

    vacant Adjective

    empty or abandoned.

    warrant Noun

    guarantee or assurance.

    wheat Noun

    most widely grown cereal in the world.

    wildfire Noun

    uncontrolled fire that happens in a rural or sparsely populated area.

    William Tecumseh Sherman Noun

    (1820-1891) Union general in the U.S. Civil War.

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