Ring Resources: The Gold Rush

The California gold rush began with the discovery of gold in Coloma, California in early 1848 and lasted until approximately 1855. Over the course of seven years, about 300,000 people went to California from the United States, as well as other parts of the world and can be found in many different items, including rings and jewelry. Seeking fortune, many men left their homes and families to strike it rich by mining for gold and made dangerous trips either across the country through rough terrain or by ship, sailing around the tip of South America. The immense changes that the Gold Rush brought altered the population and economic infrastructure of California.

The beginning of the gold rush is said to occur when James Marshall found a gold nugget in part of the American River when he was working to build Sutter's Mill in January 1848. News spread of the find when a San Francisco newspaper published the information, prompting interest in the area. As word moved eastward, newspapers publishing the story notified more and more people of the gold that was available in California. The New York Herald carried the story in August of 1848 and President Polk addressed Congress about the situation in December of that same year.

Migration to California increased once news of gold spread across the country. The residents of the California territory and its surrounding areas were the first to arrive to search for gold, followed by others who came further distances. The year 1849 saw a large influx of people both from America and all over the world, including Australians, South Americans and Asians, particularly the Chinese. These people were referred to as 49ers, because of the large numbers that came to California during the year 1849. While most came for the gold, others set up shops in the area, trying to make money by selling goods needed for mining or offering a place to stay. Most of the miners were men, but many women also came to California, either alongside their husbands or to provide services through prostitution, cooking or cleaning.

Early gold mining was fairly simple, as many people had not yet arrived in California; the gold was still fairly easy to come by. Most prospectors used a method called panning, which involved scooping up a pan of dirt, water and gravel and slowly swirling the mixture until the contents settled. The larger pieces of gold could remain in the pan while the water and silt were removed. As more people arrived in California, claims and mining areas began to dry up and the miners developed more advanced methods of extraction. This included building structures to move water and dirt by rocking or churning using a water wheel.

After the loose gold found in the riverbeds was removed, miners moved to extracting gold by digging into the earth. Larger pieces of machinery were built as methods of drilling and extracting gold moved into mining shafts underground. Miners used hydraulics to drill into rock and stampers to crush rock pieces around the gold nuggets. By approximately 1855, most gold was mined through machinery under the earth, as the loose gold that had once been easily found in riverbeds and streams was long gone.

Many mining camps became small towns and communities grew. Miners often lived lonely existences, as many had left their homes and families to strike it rich and were now living in a new territory. Small communities grew into areas where people lived as well as held drinking and gambling establishments, houses of prostitution, boardinghouses and outposts that provided dry goods and food. Due to the increase of wealth for many in the area, opportunistic store owners could charge high amounts for goods and services; and miners who could successfully bring in gold might make eight times their wages at a former place of employment. The cost of goods rose sharply, with prices such as two dollars for and egg or one dollar per apple being reported. A loaf of bread cost approximately 75 cents, compared with prices in the east, which ran about 4 cents per loaf.

Many people took advantage of the money coming out of California. Some moved to the area to start businesses of goods and services that later went on to become well-known in their respective fields. For example, Henry Wells and William Fargo began a stagecoach company to help people with banking and transportation. Levi Strauss capitalized on the market for clothing for miners by selling canvas pants; his legacy continues today. The Gold Rush era also produced many stories and letters to loved ones, some of which are currently archived in museums and collections. The authors of these tales: people who travelled to California to strike it rich or their relatives, who were left behind to wait, gave accounts of their life and how the gold rush affected their families.

The area of California was often a wild frontier during the time of the gold rush. The rise in financial prosperity brought an increase in gambling as well as stealing and violent crime. The large numbers of people were difficult to control as there was not enough law to cover all areas. Gambling took place within saloons as well as mining camps as either a form of entertainment or a potential means to increase or win back lost fortunes. Other criminal activity, such as claim jumping and stagecoach robberies occurred as outlaws took advantage of the area that was in a free-for-all, trying to make a fortune.

Because of the large volumes of people travelling to California to either mine or make other types of profit during the gold rush, California grew in population in the hundreds of thousands. The area of San Francisco alone reached 150,000 people by 1870. The volumes of people and the uncovered gold brought an economic stimulus to the area, as establishments and schools grew and prospered; the area devised a constitution and the infrastructure changed. Roads and railways were developed, and people no longer had to travel through dangerous overland territory to reach California. Instead, railways and established steamships carried people to the area to develop new lives and take part in the resources.

While economic stimulation moved the area into an updated status for the people of the territory, the gold rush had negative effects on the land and other people as well. Native Americans who had previously lived in the territory were being decimated due to murder, lack of food or disease. The miners who staked claims in the area polluted much of the water and blocked access to animals for hunting and fishing purposes. Many Native Americans were seen as hostile and were killed; their women and children kidnapped. Additionally, the population felled trees, destroyed landscapes and rerouted rivers and streams, all in attempts to find gold but simultaneously destroying the ecological balance that had once lived in the area.

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