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Courtesy the David Rumsey Historical Map Collection.

Although the gold rushes of the 19th and early 20th century were by all measurements immensely important events—events that changed America’s international identity, national culture and the very shape of its land—they did not that make the hundreds of thousands of hopefuls who journeyed to the gold fields rich beyond their wildest dreams. Instead, the gold rushes helped pave the way for a new America—a country whose territory stretched from coast to coast, whose morals were a curious mix of frontier individualism and old world propriety, whose economic and social influence over the world would continue to grow for over a century, and whose relationship with race, gender, class, and national origin formed a tangled web, still being unknotted today.

The gold rushes had a profound and lasting impact on U.S. geography as well. They catalyzed massive population migrations which brought government and commerce that transformed expansive territories into new, bounded U.S. states in the West like California (1850) and Idaho (1890), and tiny settlements into large American cities like San Francisco and Denver.  Although the earliest groups of gold rush migrants traveled by steamship and overland, migration to the West and related economic needs spurred the growth of railroads connecting the U.S. coasts, culminating in the creation of the Transcontinental Railroad in 1869. The new railroad bridged the gap between east and west and opened up unpopulated areas in the country’s interior for development, settlement, and exploration, following the paths paved by the gold rush migrants.