1848 Gold Rush

January 24, 1848

Gold Rush

John Augustus Sutter, born in Baden, Germany, was a seeker of fortune. Having failed in business in Germany, he came to New York on a steamer in May, 1834. He made his was to Missouri, remaking himself into a gentleman and former captain in the Swiss military. After leaving Missouri he traveled throughout the West and Pacific region. He spent time in Oregon before sailing to Hawaii. From Hawaii he travelled to a Russian colony in Alaska. Lured by open land and a mild climate, he settled in California in 1839.

In California, Sutter obtained permission from the Mexican government to establish a fifty thousand acre settlement east of San Francisco that he named New Helvetia. Sutter finally had achieved his dream–thousands of acres of land, thirteen thousand cattle, and a ten-acre orchard. He built a fort with walls thee feet thick and fortified with cannons. It was on a rise at the junction of the American and Sacramento Rivers. The fort protected his supplies and provided a home for his workers. There was a bakery, a carpenter’s shop, gunsmith, and doctor’s office. It became a regular stopping place for Americans traveling to California.

In 1847, Sutter made plans to expand his New Helvetia empire. He directed James Marshall, his carpenter, to find a suitable place for a sawmill. Marshall found his spot forty-five miles up the south fork of the American River in a valley named Coloma in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada. The plan called for digging two long channels, a headrace and a tailrace, to and from the river. Water would rush down the headrace to turn the wheel of the mill before returning through the tailrace to the river.

Heavy rains and flooding threatened to wash out the area of the sawmilll. Marshall each morning walked the length of the tailrace, nearly two hundred yards long, and inspected it for any stones or gravel that might have washed away the night before. On the morning of January 24, 1848, something shining caught his eye. He reached down and a pebble of gold about half the size and the shape of a pea. Then he saw another . . .

Marshall wrapped up his discoveries and took them to his employer, John Sutter. Sutter did some tests to be sure it was gold. Sutter decided to ask his employees to keep secret the discovery of gold. First, he did not want to have strangers luring away his employees and overrunning his land. Second, he did not have title to the land where the sawmill was built. He believed the land belonged to a local Indian tribe, to whom he offered some trade goods in exchange for a three-year lease of a dozen square miles. But he was unable to get the government to recognize the lease. The governor said it was impossible to figure out who actually owned the land.

Sam Brannan had opened up a general store at Sutter’s Fort. On May 12, 1848, he carried a bottle of gold flakes and dust and paraded the streets of San Francisco announcing the discovery. He planned to make a fortune supplying the miners from his general store.

Brannan’s theatrics turned San Francisco into a ghost town. Thousands flocked to the hills seeking gold. By July twenty percent of the non-Native American population of California were out hunting gold.

Population Boom

People came to California by land and sea. They came from the eastern states. They came from Europe. In 1847 California was home to 13,000 including native born. By 1852 its population had swollen to 260,000. San Francisco become the most cosmopolitan city in America.

Economic Impact

New businesses sprang up to provide the needs of the miners and the expanding population. Levi Stauss started making blue jeans out of denim tent material. They were just rugged enough to serve the minors well. The gold rush added as much as $500,000,000 to the nation’s wealt.

Environmental Impact

Once the placer mining slackened, the small panning operations were replaced with hydrolic mining. Rivers were dammed to supply water for washing out gold. Mountains were washed out with the silt and gravel clogging rivers and burying orchards. Thirty-nine thousand acres of farmland were destroyed. Men were disabled, maimed and killed in industrial accidents and dirty work environments.

Political Impact

In 1849, the military governor called for a constitutional convention for California. The forty-six delegates voted unanimously to prohibit slavery in the state. The new state constitution prohibited all forms of involuntary servitude, except for punishment. Also women were guaranteed to be able to keep their property acquired before or after her marriage as separate property.

The Missouri Compromise of 1820 prohibited slavery above the 36° 30′ latitude. The Southern states claimed the new territory, but the Northern states would not let it go. David Wilmot of Pennsylvania attached a proviso to an appropriations bill stating that no territory acquired from Mexico would be open to slavery. The proviso did not pass. But another compromise was offered. California entered as a free state. Washington, D.C. saw slavery abolished. The compromise was the Fugitive Slave Act which allowed southern slaves owners to pursue the run-away slaves into the north.

The Fugitive Slave Act acted as a catalyst to bring the Civil War earlier. It only caused Abolitionists to hate slavery more.


The Gold Rush following the discovery of gold in 1848 caused a rapid expansion of population in California, leading to statehood as a free state, thus upsetting the balance of power between Free states and Slave states.


  • Video

  • Lecture
    Rowe 10 Days Episode 3 Ch. 3 Gold rush
  • Study Guide

3 thoughts on “1848 Gold Rush”

  1. Pingback: poker uang asli

Leave a Reply

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

What City Do You See?      

Exploring History through Ancestry and Literature