In the late-1840s, just weeks before the end of the Mexican-American war, gold was found in California. This discovery planted seeds of hope that was destined to become an outright fever in the minds of tens of thousands of soon-to-be miners traveling The California Trail.
The Discovery At Sutter’s Mill
On January 24, 1848, James W. Marshall spotted shiny pieces of metal while overseeing the construction of a lumber mill for employer John Sutter. Both men tried to keep the discovery a secret, but witnesses and neighbor Sam Brannan soon spread the news.
“My eye was caught by something shining in the bottom of the ditch. . . . I reached my hand down and picked it up; it made my heart thump, for I was certain it was gold. . . Then I saw another.” — James Marshall
Proving The Claims
Multiple California newspapers ended up closing as early reports started coming in. Reporters and other employees would rush to the gold to get while the getting was good. The military governor of California was persuaded to take a look for himself.
“I have no hesitation now in saying the there is more gold in the country drained by the Sacramento and San Joaquin Rivers then will pay the cost of the war with Mexico a hundred times over.” — Colonel Richard Barnes Mason to President Polk
Before Traffic On The Trail
Although the overland trail to California would ultimately be traveled by hoof and heel of an estimated 50,000 gold-seeking emigrants, early miners came from much closer to the source. These first prospectors were made up of men from Oregon, the Sandwich Islands (Hawaii), and Mexico.
Eventually, miners from the world-over risked everything to place their bets on a golden future.
- South America
- New Zealand
The 3 Routes To Riches
Once news spread East and beyond, there were three main routes to the California goldfields: the overland trail west, to sail to the eastern coast of Panama and cut across, and the longest route — to sail around Cape Horn.
Visions of a little bit of “glittering yella” prompted these travelers to brave potential tropical diseases, shipwreck, and months of hardship across the United States.
49-ers On The Trail
Prospectors in the eastern U.S. didn’t receive news of the discovery until the fall of 1848. Although they were drunk on hope, ready to leave families and livelihoods for the chance to strike it rich, these men had to reign themselves in and wait until the weather was favorable for the trek.
The name 49-ers reflects this late-starting, massive migration to California. These self-styled Argonauts had to travel light, re-supplying at forts and longing to see the next landmark marking their progress.
From Panning To Mining
Early gold rush miners were mostly inexperienced. Some were even doctors, businessmen, and other educated individuals not used to the amount of labor involved. For 10 to 14 hours a day, these inexperienced men would use frying pans, wooden bowls, and woven baskets to pan, sluice, or dredge for gold.
Sonoran Mexicans, on the other hand, had over 400 years of mining and refining experience under their belts. Cornish miners, also called “Cousin Jacks” were world-renowned for their Pocket mining aka the “coyote-ing” technique.
Prospectors from Spain and Chile brought time-saving methods with them like the mules-powered arrastre and Chili mills (aka rasters). Over time, these evolved the practice of searching for treasure in the west.
- Placer Mining
- Wooden Rockers aka Cradles
- Long Tom Chain Pumps
- Sluice Boxes
- Dry Washing aka Winnowing
- Hard Rock aka Lode Mining
- Pocket Mining
- Drift Mining aka Tunneling
- River Dredgers
- Hydraulic Mining
Camp & Boom Town Life
Prospectors usually worked in rivers and mines from sun up to sundown, six days a week. Many lived in crude tents or cabins on coarse campsites. Loneliness, desperation, and plenty of free-flowing whiskey made camp and town magnets for crime and lawlessness.
- Horse Town
- Hang Town
- Hell’s Half Acre
- Whiskey Town
The Women Left Behind
The ratio of men to women in California was 10:1. Some members of the fairer sex benefited from equal wages as men working in shops or performing services, many more were exploited in brothels and saloons.
Most wives were left behind, taking on the role of head of house and running and support of the household.
The Men Who Came Out On Top
Although over $40 million worth of gold was discovered in 1849 alone, only those with skill and luck were more likely to come out winners. After the larger, easy to pan for deposits dried up, so did most of the luck. Still, there were some notable finds in the goldfields.
- George Hearst — Father of William Randolph Hearst.
- Jean-Baptiste Charbonneau — Son of Sacajawea.
- Jim Beckwourth — Former slave and fur trapper. Helped to establish the Beckwourth Trail.
Mining The Miners
Overwhelmingly, the real winners during the gold mania were the merchants. Prospectors who were used to making an average of $1 to $2 a day back home were now making $20 a day. So, they were willing to pay astronomical rates for the gear and grub that would continue to support their search.
This created a big demand for the necessities and big fortunes for the entrepreneur willing to supply them. You may recognize some of these notable opportunists and their post-rush accomplishments.
- Henry Wells & William Fargo — Bankers
- Domingo Ghirardelli — Chocolatier
- Leland Stanford — Founder Of Stanford University
- James Athearn “J. A.” Folger Sr. — Folgers Coffee
- John M. Studebaker — Automobiles
More Living History In Elko, NV
So how did the adventure end for gold miners who traveled the California Trail? As boom turned to bust, a new state and true melting pot of cultures was the ultimate legacy. At the California Trail Interpretive Center, we invite you to learn more about the remarkable men and women, who settled the west — their incredible journeys and stories.
Contact us today to learn more about our newest exhibits and upcoming events. We look forward to bringing history alive for you.