The California Gold Rush is one of those events that tends to have been heard of by the public, but is often overlooked by popular historians today for a number of reasons, among them that it is partially an economic story, and thus considered less "sexy" than the more "traditional" topics of politics and the military. Nonetheless, the Gold Rush is a monumental event in the history of America which had massive repercussions on the history of the West, causing the rapid colonization of California by White immigrants (and a handful of Chinese immigrants), and creating the ethnic mix that California is so known for today - since it is a race relations story as much as it is anything else, fraught with interest for anyone interested in American history. (But more on the particulars of that later.)
Sutter's Fort - California, 1849 (not to be confused with Sutter's Mill)
The land, of course, originally belonged to Native Americans before being settled by Spanish speakers from Spain and its colony in Mexico (whose independence was later recognized by the mother country in 1821); but changed hands in the U.S.-Mexican War of the 1840's, although it was not officially recognized until later. The Gringo invaders benefited from a revolt in California against the Mexican government which is today known to historians as the "Bear Flag Revolt," which was led by a Gringo immigrant to Mexican California named William B. Ide. The revolt created the independent state sometimes called the "Bear Republic" in June 1846; so that when U.S. troops occupied the area in July 1846 (a month later), the independence of California was basically doomed by the American invasion. I should note, though, that it was not officially annexed by the United States until the postwar peace treaty in 1848 (some two years later).
Sutter's Mill, 1850 - two years after the Gold Rush had begun with the discovery of gold at this place
It was in this complicated situation of de facto American control of California that the Gold Rush began. It started with the discovery of gold at Sutter's Mill in January 1848, one month before the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo ended the war that February (which made the American ownership of the region official, much to the chagrin of Mexico and its former citizens in California). The discovery of gold was publicized to great effect by those already there (most notably, the Mormon journalist Samuel Brannan) who wanted to attract more settlers to California, and so the influx of new arrivals began almost immediately - arrivals from everywhere: White Americans from the East, European immigrants from across the Atlantic, Hispanic immigrants from countries in Latin America (including Chile), and Chinese immigrants from across the Pacific being the most numerous groups. When you throw in the Native Americans and Mexican "Californios" who were already there, it made for quite an ethnic mix (which is not unlike the diversity there today); and each one had its own goals in this situation - goals that were not always compatible with those of other groups; and often tragically resulted in discrimination from the Whites, whose numerical dominance of the region doomed these other ambitions from the start. (A sad story, and extremely telling about this time.)
Merchant ships at San Francisco Harbor, circa 1850
The economic aspects are also of vital importance, since the Gold Rush is often considered an iconic example of a "bubble" - the word that economists use to mean "a speculative scheme that depends on unstable factors that the planner cannot control" (in the words of the definition at the Princeton University website). This caused a massive investment of time and money into the efforts of mining gold, which eventually drove the profits down as cutthroat competition increased. The early arrivals made massive fortunes with very little effort, while the later arrivals often worked for years without making a cent - working like dogs in the dirt with the illusory hope of making it rich, when many of them ultimately made nothing at all, and found that they had spent their labor for naught.
Sluice for separation of gold from dirt with water
It was often noted by people at the time that the real money in the Gold Rush's later phase was not from mining the gold, but from "mining the miners" - or in other words, providing goods and services that the miners needed; such as lodging, laundry, and food - all in scarce supply in a region dominated by the miners, whose isolation from the rest of the world made the importation of these materials difficult, and made the provision of these materials by others an exceedingly lucrative business, that was actually more profitable than the mining itself in these later phases. More than one man and woman grew rich from supplying the miners with these needed provisions, and it was in these other industries that the real money of these later phases of the Gold Rush tended to be made.
Portsmouth Square - San Francisco, 1851
The thorny issue of race relations would have massive effects on how the story of the Gold Rush would play out - and not just in the ways that the ethnic groups clashed locally, but in ways driven by the distant controversies over slavery, which caused California to be admitted to the Union as a free state as part of the Compromise of 1850 - a compromise that allowed some of the states to be admitted as "free states," while others were admitted as "slave states" (where slavery was considered legal). In this way, the states agreed to maintain the balance of power between slaveholders and other Whites, as a way of trying to prevent the Southerners from trying to secede. California was one of those admitted to the Union as a free state (fortunately for its African-American inhabitants); which was important for more than one reason when this was the decade right before the outbreak of the Civil War, when a state's position on the issue of slavery could determine which side it was on in this coming struggle. The race relations issues were thus not entirely local affairs, but driven by massive currents of racial conflict in the distant East as well, whose politics would always have a great effect on the happenings in the West.
Chinese gold miners in California
But the most important race relations episode for the Gold Rush may have been one which was much closer to home, which was the clashes between the White settlers and the Native Americans. The Whites began a systematic extermination of native peoples that was actually encouraged by government financing, sometimes even openly sold to the voters as extermination - much the way they might have tried to exterminate the local wolf population, or other wildlife whose presence was "unwanted" on the frontier. Although there were Native Americans who survived the bloodbath, historians have rightly tended to view these events as a genocide, which was one of the most tragic episodes in this country's history - something that can't be omitted in a true history of the Gold Rush, unfortunately; because as sad as it is, it is without a doubt a part of this story.
The "Mormon Battalion," the only religiously based unit in United States military history
But to end this post on a more uplifting note, let me conclude with the angle that comes from the minority group that I belong to - namely, Mormons. Although the documentary does not mention this, it might be appropriate to relate here that the Mormons had been asked earlier by the U.S. government to send a battalion to fight in the war with Mexico - something which was not appealing to a religious group that had been persecuted so badly by their fellow Americans in the East, with the federal government deciding to turn a blind eye to it (and with some state governments even encouraging it, through actions like the Extermination Order in Missouri - one of the forgotten aspects of early Mormon history). Mormons of that time, needless to say, did not feel much reason to be patriotic to the United States; but they nonetheless reluctantly complied with the federal government's request for troops, knowing that they had little choice but to try and keep the peace with Washington, to avoid further persecution in the future. Fortunately, though, the "Mormon Battalion" (as it is sometimes known) did not actually have to fight in the war with Mexico, because the war was largely over by the time they got there; and the "Mormon Battalion" was no longer needed. (An episode not recounted by this Gold Rush documentary, but which might be helpful as background for my rather brief discussion of the Mormon role in the events of the Gold Rush.)
Samuel Brannan, Mormon journalist who helped to publicize the discovery of gold at Sutter's Mill
Although the publicity for the discovery of gold in the first place largely came from the Mormon journalist Samuel Brannan, the church was one of a number of religious groups who counseled against the "get rich quick" schemes of the mentality of the Gold Rush, and advised its members to stay in Utah, rather than go to California in search of gold. This turned out to be wise advice, since the Mormons who joined their countrymen in "gold fever" ended up sharing in their collective fate of ultimate failure to find anything, let alone get rich from it; while the ones who stayed in Utah were able to make considerable money in providing supplies to miners on their way to California, and reap the profits that were then available in these neglected industries for supplies and services - something that Mormons have long interpreted as prophetic wisdom (and perhaps rightfully so); but in fairness to our critics, we were not the only religion to dispense this wisdom; since others were just as concerned about the way that the miners were then abandoning their families in search of easy money, and taking terrible risks that drove a number of them to bankruptcy and ruin. PBS naturally paints this as out-of-control "greed" and "unbridled" speculation (and with some justification), but offers no solutions to this problem that would take care of it without infringing on economic freedoms (not offering any solutions at all, actually), so the power of their criticism to inform us about wise policy would thus seem somewhat limited on this account. The documentary should not be taken as anything more than a history of the events themselves, and it is fortunate that it confines itself to talking about what actually happened, rather than standing on the soapbox about what should have happened (although it does come close to it in talking about this subject).
Whatever your feelings on the politics, though, PBS has put together a remarkable history of the California Gold Rush that belongs on the shelf of anyone interested in the American West, or in the complicated race relations of this period in our history.
If you liked this post, you might also like:
U.S.-Mexican War 1846-1848 program
Ken Burns' "The West"
Transcontinental Railroad movie