California Gold Rush
The History Cat Classroom
The California Gold Rush
The greed of human beings can be laughably predictable. From blowing your whole paycheck on lottery tickets to falling victim to Nigerian email scams, people have always been on the hunt for ways to strike it rich without the hassle of doing actual work. John Sutter, a Swiss immigrant with a shady past, was that type of guy. Sutter owed a lot of money to creditors and was facing a stint in debtor's' prison when he abandoned his wife and children and jumped shipped to California--then a part of Mexico-- where he managed to talk the government into giving him 50,000 acres north of what one day would become Sacramento. Using Indian slave labor Sutter set about turning his land into an agricultural utopia. On the Sutter ranch whippings, rape, and executions were commonplace. Tribes that refused to go along with his plans were deemed ‘enemies’ and were wiped out in early morning attacks that spared no one. But fate has a funny way of getting revenge. In 1848, a few nuggets of gold were discovered in a stream on the Sutter Ranch. Fearing that the place would soon be overrun by gold-hungry squatters, he tried to keep the discovery quiet. But someone talked and before long, word had spread that gold was literally lying all over Northern California. At first, most Americans on the east coast were skeptical of rumors of gold just lying all over the place. And with good reason. 19th Century newspapers were notorious for running ridiculous stories like discoveries of blue unicorns living on the moon. But when President Polk confirmed the news to Congress, people realized that this was no hoax and they began falling over one another to get to California. The Sutter estate was soon overrun with trespassers who stole and looted whatever they could. Sutter died-- flat broke --in Pennsylvania. Sutter’s discovery sparked the largest migration in American history as tens of thousands raced to California hoping to cash in on the fastest retirement plan ever. Gold Fever had swept the nation.
Ho to California!
News of the gold strike attracted every type of character imaginable. Doctors, judges, farmers, business owners, sailors, murderers... One New Yorker remarked that half of the East Coast was being depopulated by emigrants rushing west. But getting from the east coast to California was not easy. Basically, you had three routes to choose from. You could take a ship around the tip of South America and up to California. Or take that same ship but get off at Panama, hire a guide and a mule to trek through 50 miles of malaria-infested jungle. The third option was the much more direct but dangerous overland route called the California Trail. Gold hunters converged on St. Louis to buy supplies for the 2,000 mile journey ahead. Most overlanders had no idea what they were doing and were easy prey for con men selling fake guidebooks, useless gold detecting machines, and lame horses. Emigrants commonly traveled in convoys of wooden wagons the size of a closet pulled by oxen or horses. The trek through the Great Plains was monotonous and dangerous. Broken wagons, trash, dead animals and few human skeletons became markers for those headed west. The biggest killers were starvation and dysentery from drinking polluted water. A few couldn’t hack it and turned back but most pressed forward lured on by the promise of striking it rich. As gold seekers poured in, the population of cities like Sacramento and San Francisco exploded. San Francisco grew from a population of about 800 people in 1848 to 25,000 the next year!
Life in the Rush
The story of San Francisco's boom is the same as every other mining town in the Old West. As thousands of people poured in the scene became total chaos as tents and wooden shacks were thrown up along muddy “streets” to create San Francisco's first houses and businesses. Restaurants, hotels, saloons, brothels, gambling houses, and supply shops sprung up out of the dirt. San Francisco in 1849 was like one giant frat house. With little else to do for entertainment the men set up bullfights in the streets, boxing matches, or just blew their money at the poker table. Many visitors to The Golden City wrote back home amazed by the number of drunks passed out in the mud. With all this chaos, you’d think that the scene would resemble something from a zombie apocalypse film. Surprising to no one, violence was as commonplace as a soccer mom driving a minivan. In the days before jails and a police force arguments were settled the old-fashioned way: fists and guns. An argument would erupt over a card game or a bump on the street. Words would be thrown, a bullet fired. The friend of the deadman would get revenge by stabbing the killer and a lynch mob would hang the stabber. Every town had a Committee of Vigilance that acted as the unofficial court. Trials handled like middle school lunchrooms, a crowd would gather listen to the evidence--no lawyers, no juries, and immediately hand down a sentence. With no jails to hold prisoners justice was swift. If you were found guilty of a serious crime you were likely to be hung, flogged, or run out of town, depending on how serious the crime was. As you can imagine this type of law and order often led to innocent people being convicted simply because they “looked guilty”.
Women in Mining Towns
Most Americans thought the gold mines of California were no place for a lady. Unless they came in the painted variety. With all of that drunkenness, and living in tents, and not bathing it's no wonder that 95% of all Californians were men. Often before a man packed up and headed west he had to break the news to his wife and mother that he was leaving them behind to go off on an adventure of a lifetime while they stayed home and took care of the kids with little or no income. Bye honey!
Some women chose to head to California--some even as gold miners--but for an enterprising woman, there was money to be made. Women who chose to migrate to California took up doing the domestic arts they had done back home--for an insane profit. Most gold miners had been forced to realize how hard "women's work" really was when they had to do the cooking, cleaning, and sewing themselves after putting in a hard day's panning in the gold fields.
Because of short supply and the cost of transporting goods to California prices for everything were sky high. Miner's often were shocked to pay double or triple for everything from kettles to shovels.This was called "mining the miners". And there was gold in them thar miners. A used pair of shoes might cost as high as $50 a pair. One early miner complained of paying $43 for a breakfast that would have cost only .25 back home. Boarding houses raked in the dough by charging $10 and even $15 a month for a room. In the days when most people back east made a dollar a week, there was serious cash to be made in California. But the biggest profits came to those who could provide a good home cooked meal.
Luzena Wilson was one of those rugged pioneer women that knew an opportunity when she saw one. When her husband told her that he wanted to leave Missouri and head to the goldfields of California Wilson packed up her three kids and the family made the overland trek. Arriving in Sacramento she found that as one of the few women there she had a special skill: her homemade biscuits. Wilson was just cooking dinner at her family's camp one night when a miner came along and offered her $5 for just one of her biscuits. At first she was too stunned to reply, $5 was an outrageous sum of money for a biscuit. But the guy thought Wilson was holding out for a higher price and upped the ante to $10 (about $240 in today's money). The Wilson's realized that more money could be made from selling biscuits than actually panning for gold. They sold their oxen and opened a hotel. The hotel was no Westin--or even Motel 6--by today's standards. But she turned a profit selling home-cooked meals to homesick miners.
But then disaster struck. A flash flood wiped out the hotel and its entire supply of grain. In the days before disaster insurance the Wilsons had literally been wiped out. Being the strong, independent type, she packed up the family and moved to Nevada City for a fresh start. The town only had one hotel so Wilson decided to bring the competition. She began chopping wood and driving stakes into the ground where The El Dorado would one day stand. But the miners in Nevada City didn't care if the hotel's "restaurant" was nothing more than a plywood board strung across two logs. By the time her husband returned that evening she already had twenty miners seated paying top dollar for a meal.
But disaster struck once again when eighteen months later fire burned down the El Dorado. All she had left was the charred sign which she took with her. Luzena moved back north to Vacaville and established a third hotel, The Wilson, which held. Wilson invested her money in a number of properties and died a wealthy widow in 1902. Which is more than can be said for most of those unfortunate miners.
Minorities in the Gold Rush
People in the United States were not the only ones rushing to get gold. People from all around the world made the trek to California in hopes of striking it rich. One of the first groups of immigrants to arrive on the scene were the Chinese in 1848. At first, the American miners simply thought the Chinese miners were amusing. They would visit the camps of Chinese miners and get a good chuckle at their “funny” wide-brimmed hats and the way they ate their food with chopsticks rather than a fork and spoon. But that ended a few years later as foreign miners were seen as competition in the gold fields.
In 1852, there were serious problems with the crops in China. As a result, thousands of Chinese people left their homeland, and many of them came to the United States to escape the impending famine. More than 20,000 showed up in the San Francisco area compared to fewer than 3,000 who came the previous year. Within the decade, Chinese immigrants made up about 20 percent of the total number of miners in the main Gold Rush areas.
As the Chinese immigrant population grew, the other miners quickly grew tired of them. They committed violent acts against the Chinese, their camps were often prime targets for thieves. But it was not just the other miners picking on the immigrants. The government did the same thing. In 1852, before the Chinese miner population grew exponentially, several laws were created targeting them. For one thing, the Foreign Miners Tax was aimed at all non-American miners, but mainly the ones from China. A monthly $3 tax was levied that they were required to pay. In addition to that, the California Supreme Court ruled that Chinese immigrants were not allowed to testify in court. This law was originally applicable to Native Americans and African Americans, but extended to the Chinese in 1854.
Despite intense racial discrimination, California was seen as a haven for free blacks and runaway slaves. Frederick Douglass published success stories of African-Americans and encouraged them to head west to escape the intense bigotry that they faced in the eastern states. One black miner wrote home to his wife "This is the best place for black folks on the globe...All a man has to do is work, and he will make money." The promises of a better life brought thousands of African-Americans to California during the boom years. At the start of the rush in 1848 there were hardly any blacks in the future Golden State, but by 1850 there were more than 2,000.
Many of these African-Americans came to mine gold and like so many other enterprising folks, stayed on to "mine the miners". Blacks opened businesses to provide haircuts or a hot meal to the miners . Others like Jeremiah B. Sanderson came to with a higher purpose in mind. Sanderson wanted to build some of the first schools for black children which he did in San Francisco, Oakland, Stockton, and Sacramento. Sanderson also fought for hard for racial equality in an era when Jim Crow was king. Fear of a "black tide" sweeping over California prompted the state legislature to pass an 1858 law barring future emigration by African-Americans. Because of his efforts California's schools were integrated in 1874. But racism was deep-rooted in those days.
Why It Matters
The California Gold Rush sparked the largest migration in American history. Within a five years the non-native population soared from a few thousand to over 300,000. For the native people this was a catastrophe. Before the gold rush 100,000 natives called the place home. Unfortunately, most lived on the land where the biggest gold strikes were found. Conflicts erupted as miners pushed them off the land and exterminated entire villages. In 1851, California Gov. Peter Burnett declared that “a war of extermination will continue to be waged ... until the Indian race becomes extinct.”. California grew so quickly that it went from a backwoods territory in 1848 to the 31st state in 1850. Statehood triggered another conflict that would set the country on the road to civil war. Under the Missouri Compromise free and slave states were admitted to the Union together to keep the balance in Congress. California technically lay within the “slave state” zone but most of its residents wanted it to be a free state. This opened up a Pandora's box over the future of slavery in the west. The South would allow California to become a state only if a tougher fugitive slave law was enacted. The deal was made setting off a tidal wave of northern outrage over being forced to catch and return runaway slaves. Violence erupted and the country drifted closer to war.
Imagine the sunburn you'd get from being outside from sunup to sundown every day for six months. No sunblock. No lotion. That was a reality for the California-bound 49ers -- most wound up with leathery, sun-baked skin. But that was just the beginning.
Imagine sweating profusely in 90 degrees heat day after day -- but never taking a bath or shower. That too was typical of life on the trail. And remember, this was before the days of t-shirts and shorts. Women wore long dresses for the most part, and men wore long pants. And there wasn't even much changing of clothes. They wore the same clothes day after day.
Could it get any worse? Yes. They often had no choice but to drink rancid water, which had the inevitable result: diarrhea. For many, it was a chronic condition. All these factors combined to create some rather deplorable hygienic conditions. Even the native tribes were repulsed by the smell. The Native Americans, who bathed regularly, thought the emigrants were uncivilized because of their poor hygiene.
San Francisco 1850s and Now
In 1850 San Francisco had 537 registered saloons.
There was little opportunity to do anything except hit the hooch
Luzena might not have been the prettiest lady on the frontier but her biscuits were sure to bring all the boys to the yard.