Donald Elder: Events in American History – THE GOLD RUSH AND THE 49ers

Oct 27, 2016 by

An Interview with Professor Donald Elder: Events in American History – THE GOLD RUSH AND THE 49ers

Michael F. Shaughnessy –

  1. Professor Elder, one event in American history which was truly exciting and led to our westward expansion was the California Gold Rush. When exactly did this occur, and how did it come about and how was it received at that time?

Unlike other historical events that have numerous contributing factors, the California Gold Rush occurred because of one clearly identifiable moment. In 1840, a Swiss emigrant named John Sutter (he had Anglicized his birth name of Johann Suter after he left his homeland) received a land grant near present-day Sacramento, California from the Mexican government. An American explorer named John C. Fremont had fomented a rebellion in California in 1846, and by the end of 1847 it seemed likely that Mexico would lose control of that region. Sutter chose to remain in California, believing that his land grant still entitled him to his property.

Hoping to sell parcels of his land to settlers, Sutter decided to build a town that could serve as a center of commerce. Needing lumber for that purpose, Sutter hired James Marshall to build a sawmill. A carpenter by trade, Marshall had come to California as part of Fremont’s party, and liked the area so much that he decided to stay. Marshall chose to use the American River as the source for power for his sawmill, and built a water wheel to operate his cutting apparatus. Marshall dug a headrace to bring water to the wheel, and a tailrace to take the water away.

On January 24, 1848, Marshall looked at the tailrace to see if sediment or debris might have built up to the point of stopping the flow of water, and during his inspection he noticed small pieces of shiny metal in the waterway. Picking one up to inspect it, Marshall began in his words to “think mighty hard.” Suspecting that he might have found gold, Marshall took the objects to Sutter. The two ran a basic metallurgy test, and determined that Marshall had indeed found gold. Initially, Sutter hoped to keep this finding a secret. He feared that news of such a discovery would bring adventurers to his property rather than settlers who would buy his land.

Unfortunately for Sutter, news of this discovery soon got out after his employees purchased merchandise at a nearby store. Samuel Brannan, the establishment’s owner, deduced where the gold had come from, and bought all the picks and shovels that he could obtain. He then proclaimed the news of the discovery, and began selling his goods to prospective gold miners. This news then gradually spread throughout the United States, and then the world. If anyone doubted the veracity of the story, President James K. Polk dispelled them by confirming the discovery of gold in his State of the Union address in December of 1848.

Clearly, Marshall’s discovery had thus triggered an event with international implications.

2. Now, we have a number of phrases associated with the Gold Rush, such as the 49ers. How did this tag phrase come about and were there others?

When Marshall found gold at Sutter’s Mill, news of the discovery disseminated slowly because of California’s relative isolation. Details about the gold strike had to either go overland on horseback or on ships sailing around Cape Horn to the East Coast. For that reason, only a few thousand people learned of the discovery in time to go to California in 1848 to search for gold. With the discovery of gold confirmed by President Polk in December of 1848, many more individuals decided to journey to California to seek their fortunes. Some came on board ships, while others made their way by land to California.

Thus, while the gold rush technically started in 1848 and continued for over a decade, 1849 saw the largest influx of prospectors. Because of that, these miners became known as the 49ers. In addition to this nickname, the name “Argonaut” was also applied to the California gold prospectors who had arrived there by sea. Since the vast majority of the prospectors came by land, however, the nickname “49er” is the one usually applied to those who moved to California in search of gold.

3. Obviously data about that time period is scarce, but can we estimate the number of people involved, and the actual number of people who found gold in “them thar hills” as they say?

Estimates vary on the number of people living in California at the time of Marshall’s discovery. These range from a low of 7,000 to a high of 15,000. In a similar fashion, historians can only guess how many people moved to California in 1848. Generally, these range from 5,000 to 10,000. The same problem exists for determining how many people actually came to California in 1849, but all the experts agree that at least ten times as many people came that year as opposed to the preceding year. By the time the California Gold Rush ended, somewhere in the neighborhood of 300,000 people had come there to search for gold.

4. What was the general impact of the “Gold Rush” on the country?

The California Gold Rush had an immediate and immense effect on the United States. First, it dramatically affected the economy of the nation. Although estimates vary, most historians believe that in just the first five years of the California Gold Rush alone, miners extracted 370 tons of gold. In today’s terms, that would be worth 16 billion dollars. Although some of that wealth went to other countries, most of it entered the American economy and provided an immediate stimulus. The gold mined in California injected wealth into the economy, but the miners also affected the economy through their demands for lumber, tools, and agricultural products. But as much as the California Gold Rush impacted the nation’s economy, it arguably affected the political realm even more. Because of the gold rush, California’s population numbered well over 60,000 at the time that the United States officially acquired the territory from Mexico in late 1848.

That meant that California met the population requirement for statehood, and the incoming American president recommended that California become a state without even passing through a territorial phase. Because virtually no miners had brought slaves with them, the new president recommended that California enter the Union as a free state. This gave free states a majority in the US Senate, an event that caused slave states to fear the eventual domination of the political process by their adversaries. This lead them to demand the opportunity to create a possible slave state in the territory that would become Kansas—a stance that resulted in the politically divisive Kansas-Nebraska Act. Had the admission of California not upset the carefully crafted sectional balance, then, the Civil War may well have never happened. Thus the California Gold Rush had both immediate and lasting effects on the United States.

5. Who were some individuals who left their mark, so to speak on this event?

As we have seen, John Sutter and James Marshall provided the trigger effect for the California Gold Rush through their discovery in January of 1848. Samuel Brannan brought the news of the discovery to the outside world, and James K. Polk gave Brannan’s claim legitimacy. A few other individuals also deserve mention in relation to the California Gold Rush. Levi Strauss, for example, came to California during the gold rush as a business man, and soon recognized that miners had the need for durable clothing. Accordingly, he began to produce a line of jeans that bear his name to this day. Two other California business men—Collis Huntington and Mark Hopkins—saw that a railroad connecting their state to the rest of the nation would be commercially viable because of the gold rush. Their efforts would lead to the creation of the Central Pacific Railroad, one of the two lines that built the first transcontinental railroad.

Finally (and ironically), the California Gold Rush impacted the work of Karl Marx. Marx had released The Communist Manifesto in 1848, and in it he had predicted that the bourgeois societies of Europe stood on the brink of revolution because of economic inequality. But soon, the California Gold Rush began to affect Western Europe, and economic conditions there rapidly improved. Marx recognized how gold had altered economic conditions, and wrote Das Kapital to describe these effects. Because of this, the California Gold Rush not only enhanced capitalism but also helped to shape the most famous critique of that system.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.