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California became an American territory when the United States defeated Mexico in 1847. John Marshall discovered gold the next year, bringing people from all over the world to the port of San Francisco and the surrounding area. These prospectors scoured riverbeds and mountainsides, and eventually used dynamite to mine the hard rock. The influx of people caused many changes in the territory – from inflation and the establishment of banks, to the permanent settlement of the far-western coast of the United States.
The state of California belonged to the Spanish in the 1600’s, and it was lost when Mexico gained independence from Spain in 1821. It did not remain a Mexican possession for long. In 1846, soon after the war for Texas Independence was won by General Sam Houston and his army, U.S. President James Polk sought to increase the size of the United States by annexing the West Coast of the continent. He offered Mexico $40 million for the territory, but his offer was flatly rejected. Other European countries eyed the lands of California for their own expansion. In the midst of these failed negotiations, American surveyor James Charles Fremont began the Bear Flag Rebellion, which declared Californian independence from Mexico.
The Mexican government refused to allow the U.S. to take the land away and declared war against the United States. Zachary Taylor and later, Winfield Scott, lead the American armies against the Mexican enemy. After several battles, Mexican General Antonio Lopez Santa Anna surrendered the disputed Mexican territories over to the U.S. on September 17, 1847. Both countries signed the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, which ended the Mexican War and forced Mexico to hand over to the United States the area of New Mexico and California. California became an American territory in 1850.Gold!Soon after the war, on January 24, 1848, James Marshall discovered gold in California. He was checking the operation of a sawmill near present-day Coloma, California, located on the American River. The mill was located fifty miles from the land owned by his Swiss-German partner, John Augustus Sutter. Sutter left Europe due to bankruptcy, and came to California in 1839 after getting a land grant for 48,000 acres from Mexico. He hoped to regain his fortune by farming.
Once Marshall told his partner of his discovery, Sutter tried to keep it a secret. He knew that he did not have a solid claim on the land where the gold was found. He also feared that his farm would be ruined by prospectors looking for riches. The secret of the gold discovery became public knowledge and reached an opportunistic Mormon shopkeeper named Samuel Brennan. Brennan used the hysteria surrounding the gold discovery to increase his personal fortune by raising prices on common goods. In April 1848, Brennan, bought as many supplies as he could to stock his stores. He took a quinine bottle full of gold dust and ran through the streets of the small town of San Francisco screaming, ‘Gold! Gold! From the American River!’ He also wrote an article on the subject in his own newspaper, the ‘California Star.’
In 1848, only those who lived in the California area responded to the cry. These prospectors flocked to the land near Sutter’s farm and sifted through the sand and gravel of the riverbed with baskets and frying pans. Even Sutter’s farm hands left their jobs to search for gold, abandoning his crops and leaving him to ruin.
It took longer for the news to spread to the eastern United States. Those living far away needed more proof that the discoveries were real. The U.S. government provided that proof. The California military governor, Richard Mason, came to inspect the site where Marshall first discovered gold. He brought along his aid, Lt. William T. Sherman. They confirmed the presence of the precious metal in an official report that was later publicized in various newspapers around the country. President Polk also mentioned California’s gold in his State of the Union address made on December 8, 1848.
Now that all of America was certain about the validity of the gold rush, many people, mostly men, left their jobs and their families to seek their fortune. A number of people living on the East Coast had to face a difficult journey. Some chose to travel via land, but were slowed by a lack of a direct road or waterway. They followed what became known as the Oregon-California Trail. This rough trail lead prospectors on a four-month trip across the country. Others left the East Coast by boat and sailed all the way around the tip of South America to get to California. It was a dangerous journey that also took four months. A few who used the sea route tried to shorten their traveling distance by crossing the small land bridge of Panama, only to face the treacherous rainforest.
Many people from foreign countries also came to California to find their fortune. People from Australia, China, Chile, Turkey, Ireland, Germany and France all came to the port of San Francisco once the cries of gold reached the foreign ports. The small town’s population exploded from 850 to 80,000 almost overnight. These foreigners and Americans, all known as the ’49ers, had one thing in common – the hope that they would become rich.
Gold hunters began their search at the American River. The baskets first used to sift through the gravel from the riverbed evolved into metal pans. By 1852, most of the easily found surface gold had been discovered. This forced prospectors to change their mining methods. One method was to put large amounts of dirt into big toms and use river water to wash the soil away from the heavier gold. Small canals called fumes were used to direct water to the operation site. A rarer method was hydraulic mining. Using water under high pressure, large sections of mountainsides were unearthed. The soil was then sifted through. The clumps of dirt would often get stuck in near-by rivers and cause flooding of personal property and even areas of cities. When all the gold that could be found through these methods was gathered, prospectors had to turn to a process that used explosives to find gold within hard rock.
As gold became harder and harder to find, xenophobia became a problem among the many cultures that had settled in the city of San Francisco. Foreigners who had once been welcome in the city were now treated with contempt. Native Americans, who generally did not get caught up in the gold hysteria, were the first victims. Approximately 300,000 Native Americans were living in California area prior to the goldrush years. The discovery of gold resulted in an influx of people who had little or no respect for the tribal ways of the Indians. Miners encroached upon Indian lands, forcing the natives to leave their homes. It is estimated that some 250,000 natives were displaced as a result of the pressures of the gold-seeking miners. Chinese immigrants also had to contend with a great deal of harassment. Like most foreigners, the Chinese became a prime target for thieves and robbers. Many Chinese hid their findings by melting their gold down and making it into woks and kitchen utensils. By darkening the crafted objects with black soot, they were able to disguise the gold as regular kitchen tools.
Many Californians who lived through the gold rush experienced a number of economic changes. Merchants charged higher prices for supplies as people began to stream into California. Money was more available than food. Price increases affected everything from eggs to hardware. Steamboat operators could make $40,000 in thirty days.
Banks began to spring up because of the volume of money that was being handled. They produced their own coinage since there was no U.S. mint located in California until much later. They also helped merchants and large companies do business. Banks also provided a secure place for lucky miners to keep their wealth. Wells Fargo was one of the banks established in the gold rush era. It was created by Henry Wells and William Fargo and became one of the most trusted financial institutions.
In general, most of the miners fared poorly. They had abandoned everything at home, only to find they had given up more than they could find in California. Some could barely afford to feed themselves. It was the merchants and suppliers like Brennan who made the biggest fortunes off of the gold rush. Another man, Levi Strauss, also made money by catering to the miner’s needs. He was a traveling merchant who sold trousers made of sailcloth and copper rivets. Such garments would later become known as denim blue jeans.
Gold was later discovered in other states such as Nevada and the Dakotas, turning the attention of prospectors elsewhere. Still, the California gold rush had left its mark. The western coast of the nation was now thickly settled, and gold mines were soon replaced with farms.
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