Goldrush

In 1848, gold was discovered at Sutter’s Mill, east of San Francisco.  San Francisco, at the time, was a small settlement of roughly 800 people.  California was a part of Mexico.  The discovery followed the end of the Mexican-American War which resulted in California and much of what is now the southwestern portion of the United States being ceded to the US.  The future state of California was handed over to the United States about 2 weeks AFTER the discovery of gold.   Stutter wasn’t actually happy about the discovery.  He wanted to build a farm on the land and would have preferred to keep gold out of it, but it was difficult to keep such an exciting find a secret.  Very quickly, his laborers had deserted and the entire city of San Francisco had become a ghost town as industrious individuals relocated to the gold fields in ever increasing numbers, hoping to get rich.  Because California was a part of Mexico, it was Mexican laws that applied to the discovery of gold.  Most of the land was public, not privately owned.  Mexican mining laws allowed miners to stake a “claim” and hold it as long as they were actively working.  As soon as they stopped working the claim, they lost “ownership” and others could “claim jump,” moving in to try their luck on the same claim.

The first miners to arrive in the gold fields east of San Francisco were local, west coast people, people with easy access.  These first miners were able to just pick up large chunks of gold from the ground.  It was easy to get rich.  By the time Americans on the east coast heard about the rapidly spreading wealth and then travelled in large numbers across the country, getting rich was becoming more and more difficult.  From the east coast, prospective miners had several options for reaching California.  They could travel by sea around South America, a long and perilous journey.  They could travel by sea to Panama and then spend a week crossing the isthmus by mule, another perilous journey.  Or, they could come across the great expanse of the west by land on the California Trail, yet another long and perilous journey.   Yet, despite the dangers, thousands went west.  When miners stopped finding large chunks of gold lying around on the ground, they started digging and panning.  Miners would put a shovelful of dirt, etc. in a pan of water, shake it around, and let the weight of the gold separate it from the rest of the dirt.   As it became more and more difficult to find gold in the pans, techniques became more and more industrialized and the miners went from working for themselves to working for a mining company.   And throughout the process – it became more and more difficult for anyone to get rich.  By 1850, the population of San Francisco had grown to 25,000 people.  And the non-native population of California, estimated about 800 in 1848 had exploded to 100,000 people by the time California became a state in 1850.  By 1852, only four years after it started, gold production had peaked.  It was very hard to get rich, and in fact, many people went home with no more than they started.

When word trickled east about the gold in California, it stirred the imagination of Loring Porter Preston.  He probably left home some time in late 1849 or early 1850, arriving in California in time to be counted in the Placerville census in November of 1850.  He was living in a tavern, his occupation listed as “miner for gold,” along with most of the other occupants.  Placerville was originally called Dry Diggings, named for the method the miners used to search for gold, carrying dry dirt to the stream to separate the gold.  It was later given the ominous name of Hangtown, an indication of the lawlessness that arrived at the same time as the massive influx of people.  When Placerville was incorporated in 1854, it was the third largest city in California.  Loring P. Preston stayed in California for 6 years while his wife and children held down the fort in New York.  He returned home via Panama in 1856 and was reunited with his family, no visibly richer than he was before.

 

SOURCES

The Gold Rush of 1849 – History.com narrative of the gold rush

The California Trail – Wikipedia Article on the California Trail (also see Placerville article)

California Gold Rush – Wikipedia Article on the Gold Rush (see cool map)

 The California Gold Rush of 1849 – Coloma, CA Chamber of Commerce with history as well as info on visiting today

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