On January 24, 1848, carpenter James Marshall discovered gold at Sutter’s Mill, a sawmill on the American River in Coloma, California. This news quickly spread across the country and around the world, igniting the California Gold Rush. Between 1848 and 1855, 300,000 fortune-seekers came to California, transforming its population, landscape, and economy. The largest wave of migrants—about 90,000 people—arrived in 1849, earning them the nickname “forty-niners.”
In 1848, the US had just taken California from Mexico as a result of the Mexican-American War, and the region’s population consisted primarily of Native Americans and people of Spanish or Mexican descent. Gold seekers arrived by both sea and overland routes across the West like the California Trail. As people flooded into mining camps, “boomtowns,” and the city of San Francisco, the Gold Rush brought together Europeans, South Americans, Chinese immigrants, and Americans from all walks of life. The tremendous influx of people, paired with open contempt for Native American claims to their ancestral land, resulted in devastating losses for California’s Native American population. Gambling, violence, and vigilante groups were common as local government and law enforcement were often nonexistent or ill-equipped to deal with the flood of new arrivals.
For fortune-seekers, gold mining was difficult work and hitting “pay dirt” was no guarantee. Miners would “stake a claim” to a particular location, securing the rights to any gold that they found there. Early gold mining techniques included various forms of panning—using sieve-like devices such as rockers or sluice boxes to separate gold nuggets from rocks and dirt by pouring water through them. As the Gold Rush progressed, miners used more invasive techniques like hydraulic blasting. Some, particularly early Gold Rushers who arrived in 1848, found impressive fortunes in California gold, but most prospectors failed to strike it rich. For those who found gold, it often became currency to pay for food, supplies, and other necessities so they could keep looking for more; local merchants who catered to the miners are the ones who really hit it rich. The sources in this set document the broad “forty-niner” experience.