The Gold Rush
An important part of the history of U.S. westward expansion is the move to California, a state on the pacific coast of the continental United States. The journey to California was a difficult one by land and took most settlers several weeks. It was longer and arguably even more difficult by sea. Why did so many people risk dangerous journey across the country, braving harsh winters and desolate deserts? Because there was gold in those California hills!
While processing lumber in 1848, workers at a sawmill owned by a man named John Sutter discovered gold. Sutter's Mill, as the location was called, was located in a city called Caloma. Word quickly spread and by 1849 gold seekers were coming from across the Americas, Europe, China, and Australia, all looking to strike it rich in the rivers and mountains of Northern California.
It is said that at the beginning of the gold rush, one could walk around the area and pick up pieces of gold off of the ground. The prospect of becoming rich by panning for gold proved an alluring concept for a lot of people, so for the next 6 years, it is estimated that 300,000 prospectors came to California.
We now think of San Francisco as a bustling, populated urban city but in 1846, San Francisco had only 200 residents. In the years following the discovery of gold, thousands of merchants, miners, and settlers sailed into its bay. They set up camps wherever they struck gold. In addition to the people arriving in the bay, thousands more took the over land route across the continental United States. They traveled by wagon, braving harsh weather and disease. By the year 1852, there were over 36,000 people in San Francisco.
An unfortunate effect of the California gold rush was its effect on the native peoples of the American west. Diseases like smallpox and influenza particularly affected them. Violent conflicts arose between the indigenous people and miners trying to stake out claims. The miners often considered the native people a hindrance or as competition.
The history of California is very much tied to the gold rush of the mid 1800s. Almost overnight California became known as a land of prosperity and opportunity. It was a place that you could make a name for yourself or start life over. The reality is that very few prospectors ever came out rich. Most ended up with little more than they came with, but California's legacy is that of a land of promise.
Today, California is often referred to as the Golden State. It is the official state nickname. The American Football team in San Francisco is called the 49ers, a reference to the people who moved to the state in 1849. And the state motto is "Eureka", in reference to the cry of joy over finding gold, "Eureka! I have found it."
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