The 19th century was nearly over: More than 300,000 people traveled to Northern California seeking their weight in gold. While some sailed around Chili or traversed the Isthmus of Panama, others journeyed across the Pacific Ocean from China to form mining settlements.
Approximately $2 billion worth of gold was collected by 1853, and in less than a decade, an internationally contracted “Gold Fever” disappeared entirely.
1848: The Find of the Century
About 50 miles east of present-day Sacramento, John Sutter was constructing a water-powered sawmill on the American River. As carpenter James W. Marshall walked along a stream on Sutter’s property, he discovered flecks of gold shimmering below.
The two Californians soon became partners and agreed to prospect in secrecy. However, once a local newspaper got wind of their potentially lucrative find, 4,000 gold miners moved to Coloma by August 1848.
Who Were the Forty-Niners?
Roughly 80,000 people made their way to the California gold fields in 1849—only one year after Marshall’s discovery. This mass migration’s wealth-seekers were coined the “forty-niners,” and over 150,000 more trailed behind for another four years.
The Not-so-Quiet End of ‘Gold Fever’
Perhaps what’s most fascinating about the Gold Rush era is that it wasn’t actually lucrative for the vast majority of prospectors. Easily accessible gold motherlodes were hastily depleted, and prospecting camps were violent and lawless.
The introduction of large-scale industrialized mining caused instability in smaller local gold-based economies, which eventually drove hopeful miners out of the Coloma goldfields. Although the total amount of gold excavated between 1848 and 1853 was unprecedented, not even John Sutter benefited from his land’s buried fortune.