The California gold rush, the cherry on America’s dreams of manifest destiny—the concept that this country should stretch from sea to shining sea—began January 24, 1848 when James Marshall found gold in the millrace of a sawmill he was building in partnership with John Sutter in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada Mountains. Although the war with Mexico had been settled in California no treaty between the United States and the Mexican government had yet been signed. Legally California was in a completely unsettled situation, neither Mexican nor American.
There were less than ten thousand people of European descent in California at the time. After word of the huge amounts of gold finally reached the east coast, and then the rest of the world, as many as one hundred thousand people made the difficult journey to the gold fields by the end of 1849 and many, many more were still to come. It was the greatest spontaneous mass migration in human history.
These posts are a product of my interest in this colorful, impulsive and mostly unsung era. I seek the threads that led to the great growth of the United States with institutions like the early Wells Fargo operations that grew into the bank we know today and the Pacific Mail Steamship Line that still plies the seas as American Presidential Lines. The saloons, a prominent feature in every western movie, got their start in the bawdy gambling houses of the gold rush. The lynch mobs that were a recurring theme in those same western films began with the desperate attempts to bring law and order to a wild land filled with wealth that attracted both the finest of men and the lowest of criminals and all in an astoundingly short time.
Please add your comments, feelings and impressions on what you find here. I hope you enjoy the stories I’ve dug up on this remarkable time in our history.
John Putnam is the author of Hangtown Creek, a thrilling saga of adventure, romance, and coming of age in the early days of the California gold rush, available in softcover, as well as for kindle and nook.