Discover Northern California History
Discover The California Gold Rush

Was the California Gold Rush a get-rich-quick scam or a real opportunity?

The California Gold Rush was a little like the "the shot heard round the world" in it's ability to galvanize people to take action. What is there about the word gold? It has the power to set hearts racing and to cause otherwise sane people to abandon job, hearth, home, and family to rush off to an unknown place based on hearsay and rumor.

Vial of Gold © Jane A. SawyerVial of Gold © Jane A. Sawyer

That's what happened after the discovery of gold in 1848 and subsequent years. Rumors bounced around the globe and people came!

First it was gold nuggets were picked up off the ground; then the streams and rivers were running with gold; the sidewalks were covered with gold, then the earth was packed with huge veins of gold dubbed the Mother Lode...

Was any of it true? Could people really get rich picking up gold off the ground?

Like most questions of this kind, the answers lie somewhere between yes and no. Yes, it was possible - especially in the early days - to quickly get rich by finding gold on the ground or in the streams (placer gold) of California's Gold Country provided you found the right spot to look.

But our gold rush history tells us that most people who came in search of gold either didn't find any, or didn't find enough to even cover their expenses.

Still, the rumors persisted and people came for their chance at the big time. In fact, the stories of California gold attract visitors from all over the world even today - they want to hear the stories and see the places where the stories took place. And they often want to try for a little gold themselves!

The California Gold Rush
Gold Discovery at Sutter's Mill in 1848

California Gold Miners; Artist UnknownCalifornia Gold Miners; Artist Unknown

The whole thing started on a dreary day in January 1848. James Marshall was the foreman of John Sutter's lumber mill project along the South Fork of the American River. While inspecting the tailrace, Marshall spotted what looked like gold pieces in the water. (Visit Marshall Gold Discovery State Historic Park to see a replica of the mill and the approximate area where James Marshall found the gold pieces.)

He collected the samples and took them to Sutter for testing - not only had Marshall discovered gold, but Mr. Sutter determined it to be gold of the highest quality - "at least 23 carats".

In spite of John Sutter's efforts to keep the discovery of gold a secret, word got out and the Gold Rush was officially on!

John Sutter's reason for wanting to keep the gold find a secret? Sutter's plans for California had always included building an agricultural empire for himself.  He needed men to work, but he knew they would opt for get-rich-quick over working his fields and building his mills.

The earliest gold-seekers were those prospectors who came during the summer of 1848 - the Argonauts. They came first from Sutter's Fort, then from San Francisco (thanks to Sam Brannan, as you'll see below), then from the world.

Nearly 90,000 newcomers from all over the world had come to California - most seeking gold - by the time 1849 ended. These new prospectors came to be called 49ers, a term that was derived from the year 1849 - the year most of them arrived - and California Gold Country was born!

Sam Brannan is considered to have been the first to announce the finding of gold in California when he walked the streets of San Francisco shouting, "Gold! Gold! Gold from the American River!"

Brannan's motivation for sharing this extraordinary news?

He'd stocked his stores in San Francisco and New Helvetia (Sutter's Fort) with all the shovels, whiskey, canvas material, food stuffs, and other mining supplies he could get his hands on!

And he was buying up land in both places as well!

Clearly Sam Brannan was a man with vision who knew how to take advantage of a money-making potential!

And as it happened, Mr. Brannan was the first to become a millionaire as a direct result of the Gold Rush in California - but he did it by mining the miners not by mining for gold!

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California Gold Rush