Sunday, January 24, 2016

This Day in History: January 24, 1848—Gold! Gold! Gold!

R. D. Stoney (attributed to), Gold Mining in the Mother Lode, c. 19th century
California Historical Society
On January 24, 1848, James Marshall was inspecting a recently built saw mill at Coloma on the south fork of the American River when he caught a glimpse of something shining at the bottom of a ditch. Picking it up, he recalled, “It made my heart thump, for I was certain it was gold.”
So began one of the great adventures of the American West. As word spread of Marshall’s discovery, millions of people from all over the world arduously made their way to northern California—by ship, overland trail, and through the jungles of Panama. In two years, the population of California skyrocketed, from about 10,000 to more than 200,000 people.

In the years that followed fortunes were made, lost, or never realized. But California—and the West—would never be the same.
Sutter’s Mill, c.  1849–50
California Historical Society
This photo-reproduction of R. H. Vance’s daguerreotype, c. 1849–50, shows James Marshall standing in front of Sutter’s Mill in Coloma, native land the Indians called Cullumah. The sawmill is named for the Swiss immigrant John Sutter who built it and who established Sutter’s Fort at the juncture of the Sacramento and American Rivers. The daguerreotype was destroyed in the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and fire.
 Capt. Sutter’s Account of the First Discovery of the Gold, 1854
California Historical Society
On October 9, 1849, the San Francisco Pacific News published Sutter’s account of the visit Marshall made to Sutter’s Fort just after he found gold. Sutter recalled, “He mounted his horse, and rode down to me as fast as it could carry him with the news.” This letter sheet, lithographed and published by Britton & Rey, San Francisco, reproduces Sutter’s text, along with a portrait of Marshall “taken from nature at the time when he made the discovery of gold in California,” and an illustration of the sawmill.
“Gold Mine Found,” Californian, March 15, 1848
California Digital Newspaper Collection
At first Marshall and Sutter tried to keep Marshall’s find a secret, but the news could not be contained. On March 15, 1848—in the first printed notice of the discovery of gold—the Californian reported that gold was being found “in considerable quantities.” On May 29 the Californian reported that “The whole country . . . resounds with the sordid cry of ‘Gold, gold, gold!’ while the field is left half-planted, the house half built, and everything neglected but the manufacture of shovels and pickaxes.” It was the paper’s last editorial: the entire staff had departed for the gold fields.
Position of the Upper and Lower Gold Mines on the South Fork of the American River, 1848
California Historical Society

This map was included in reports and artifacts from the gold mines sent by Richard B. Mason, military governor of California from 1847 to 1849, to President James Polk. Mason’s report was published as part of the president’s State of the Union address on December 5, 1848. Polk’s confirmation of the existence of gold in California in his address to Congress elevated gold fever to national and international status. By the end of 1848, an estimated 5,000 people were mining in California.

Group of Miners, c. 1850s
California Historical Society
In 1849, as reported in The Annals of California (1855), nearly 40,000 immigrants landed in San Francisco, lured by the prospect of fortune. They arrived by overland trail or by ship around Cape Horn, by way of Panama, and from China and Japan. Additional thousands of seamen deserted their ships once they docked in the bay.
A Gold Hunter on His Way to California, via St. Louis, c. 1850
California Historical Society
This satirical drawing shows a prospector walking to the gold mines, weighed down with everything he needs for gold digging., “I am sorry I did not follow the advice of Granny and go around the Horn, through the Straights, or by Chagres [Panama],” he bemoans.
Chinese Gold Miners in California, date unknown
California Historical Society

Beginning in 1849 thousands of foreign gold seekers—Asians, Mexicans, South Americans, African Americans, Europeans, Australians, and more—poured into California, joining Americans, Californios, and natives in the search for gold. But gold digging was not an equal opportunity endeavor: discrimination in the form of unfair laws and taxes made it virtually impossible for Chinese, Mexican, and other foreign miners to own or work gold claims. Many African American slaves from the South who had entered California before it became a slave-free state in 1850 were sent to the mines to dig for gold. Natives panned for gold alongside whites, but many were exploited and used like slaves.
Charles Drayton Gibbes (Cartographer), A New Map of
the Gold Region in California, 1851
Library of Congress
This map of California’s gold region by Charles Drayton Gibbes was one of the first maps to identify the boundaries of the state’s counties. In his sixteen-page accompaniment, Gibbes included a description and brief history of the state, its climate, soil, crops, and waterways, information on the mines, and advice for equipment. In his estimation, at least $100 million dollars had been dug from California’s gold region since gold was discovered.
View of San Francisco, Formerly Yerba Buena, in 1846-47
before the Discovery of Gold (detail), 1884
Library of Congress
Yerba Buena Cove, 1849–50
Frank Soulé, John H. Gihon, James Nisbet, The Annals of San Francisco, 1855
The City of San Francisco. Birds Eye View from the Bay Looking South-west, c. 1878
Charles R. Parsons / Currier & Ives; Library of Congress
Change was in the air, and nothing would stop it. San Francisco grew from a small town of about 1,000 to 25,000 people in three years. In 1849 the city’s port was teeming with abandoned boats as their crews and passengers headed for the gold fields. By the end of that year, San Francisco’s harbormaster recorded that 782 ships had arrived since March 26 alone. To accommodate the city’s rapid growth, the abandoned ships were dismantled and their lumber was sold for construction.
And what about the future of the state? Charles Drayton Gibbes was realistic, though optimistic, when he wrote in the annotation for his 1851 map:
 California is not an enchanted land, where gold can be had for the wishing, and where men can grow rich without toil, or while wasting their energies in idleness and vice. To the prudent, industrious, and enterprising, it offers every reasonable facility, not only for obtaining a livelihood, but ultimately a competence. . . . [T]he general condition of society may be expected to assume gradually a higher character, and compare favorably in refinement and cultivation with that of other and older States of our great Republic.
It is these expectations, and more, with which we embrace our state’s future in our own transformative era.

Shelly Kale
Publications and Strategic Projects Manager


  • Diane Barclay, The California Gold Rush, History through the Collection Series, Part 1 (San Francisco: California Historical Society, 2001)
  • William Deverell and David Igler, eds., A Companion to California History (Oxford, UK: John Wiley & Sons Ltd, 2014)
  • “Discovery of Gold,” American Memory, Library of Congress,
  • Charles Drayton Gibbes, Accompaniment to Gibbes’ New Map of the Gold Region in California (Stockton, CA: J. Drayton Gibbes / New York: Sherman & Smith, 1851)
  • Gold Rush Timeline,
  • J. S. Holliday, Rush for Riches: Gold Fever and the Making of California (Berkeley: Oakland Museum of California/University of California Press, 1999)
  • Kenneth Owens, “Far from Zion: The Frayed Ties between California’s Gold Rush Saints and LDS
  • President Brigham Young,” California History 89, no. 4 (2012): 5–23
  • Frank Soulé, John H. Gihon, James Nisbet, The Annals of San Francisco (New York: D. Appleton & Company, 1855),
  • Lewis J. Swindle, The History of the Gold Discoveries of the Northern Mines of California’s Mother Lode Gold Belt as Told by the Newspapers and Miners, 1848–1875 (Victoria, B.C.: Trafford Publishing, 2000)
  • Charles B. Turrell, “An Early California Photographer: C. E. Watkins,” News Notes of California Libraries 2, no. 1 (Jan. 1918): 29–37.

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