The Gold Rush The Placer County Museums 4th Grade Program

On January 24, 1848 James Marshall discovered gold at John Sutter’s sawmill. However, news of the discovery did not reach newspapers in the east for almost a year. News spread along the west coast and gold seekers arrived by spring of 1848. On December 5, 1848, President Polk confirmed the story of gold discovery in California, and the world rushed in.

Claude Chana, a French emigrant, is attributed with the first gold discovery in Placer County, near present-day Auburn in May 1848.

There were four primary routes. The voyage from China took one to three months and cost $40-$60. Many of these young men, looking to escape conflict and unrest, never intended to stay in California. The Overland Route served the greatest number of emigrants. This 2,000-mile journey took five to six months. By 1850, the fastest route was via the Isthmus of Panama. This 35-day journey involved a steamship from New York to Panama, a hike through the jungle, and another ship to San Francisco. The sea route around Cape Horn was the longest trip, taking four to eight months over 20,000 miles.

Gold Types

There are two types of gold. Lode gold, which remains in the mountain and placer gold, which has eroded out of the mountain.

The gold pictured here is on display at the Placer County Museum in Auburn's Historic Courthouse.

How do you find gold?

Gold pans are a simple way to find placer gold in streams and rivers. Miners scoop up gravel and swirl it inside the pan. Heavy gold sinks to the bottom and the lighter material washes out.

Rockers work like a gold pan. Miners shovel gravel into the top where a screen catches the largest rocks, and the smaller materials fall through. Water is poured over them, and as it is rocked, the lighter materials flow out of the rocker and the smaller heavier material, like gold, is caught in the riffles.

Long Toms succeeded the rocker. They were usually 10 to 20 feet long with riffles along the body. Gravel and water was fed into the top, and the materials caught on the riffles would be panned out for gold.

Hydraulic mining quickened the process of erosion by forcing water through a hose, into a hydraulic monitor and out the nozzle with devastating force into a hillside. The resulting debris was sent through a sluice box, an extended version of a long tom, to be processed for gold.

Hard rock mining was more difficult and time consuming. To reach lode gold, large networks of tunnels had to be dug into the mountain sides. Before the advent of dynamite in 1867, miners used black powder to blast away rock. To drill holes for explosives, men would work with a metal drill and hammer.

Muck buckets were used to remove rocks. After it was hauled to the surface it was taken to a stamp mill to be crushed. The resulting sandy slurry was spread over a table sheeted in copper and coated in mercury. The gold would stick to the mercury and would later be separated by heat and refined.

Life of a miner

Life was not easy for miners. Summers were brutally hot, and winters were frigid and wet. Many miners packed up their canvas tent and moved to the “dry diggings” during the winter to avoid potential floods. Daily life was difficult. Personal hygiene, food, and medical supplies were limited and simple accidents or poverty could kill a miner.


The Gold Rush brought a range of diverse cultural and ethnic groups to California. Latino miners and other groups from Central and South America were some of the first to the gold fields. Emigrants from the east coast and across the world quickly outnumbered the Native American populations, who were tragically impacted. By 1852, the Chinese were the largest ethnic group in Placer County.

Racism, resentment, and jealousy lead to the Foreign Miners Tax. The tax was first introduced in 1850 and levied a twenty dollar (equivalent to $500-$600 today) per month tax on each foreigner engaged in mining. This was met with protests from white immigrants from Europe and the act was rewritten to exempt any “free white person.” The law was appealed in 1851, but reinstated in 1852, this time at $3/month.


California entered the Union as a free state in 1850. Despite this status, the Fugitive Slave Act allowed slave owners to pursue escaped slaves in California. However, freed and escaped slaves came to California to start a new life.


As time went on, many gold rush towns were abandoned or their populations dwindled dramatically. By the 1890s, though mining continued, a second gold rush was found in our rich soil as the agriculture industry flourished in Placer County and the state.