Who came to the Gold Rush?
Beginning 1848 and lasting into the 1850s, it is believed about 300,000 people migrated to California as a result of the Gold Rush. Those who rushed towards the mines were called the "'49ers" (most came in the year 1849). Approximately 92% of them were men, and they had left their homes, life savings, and, often, their own families in pursuit of striking it rich.
People came from all different backgrounds, but the first to come were the people by boat. Immigrants traveled from places like Mexico, Hawaii, Chile, Peru, and China. People from the eastern part of the country with "gold fever" had too rushed over to California, including escaped slaves and free African Americans. All these people were similar in some way: they were up for adventure and were hoping to strike it rich.
Where was the Gold Rush?
The Gold Rush began when flakes of gold had been found in Sutter's Mill, part of the American River in California.
Miners came from all over to Sacramento Valley, California, and the surrounding area. As a result of the sudden rise in population, boom towns sprung up all throughout the area.
Gold was first found in the Sacramento Valley on January 24, 1848, by James Wilson Marshall. Within just 6 months of this gold discovery, 75% of the men living in San Fransciso went to the mines. On December 5, 1848, President Polk had told of the gold in California in his inaugural address, sending many men on their way. The mining reached its peak in 1852, but profits decreased from there.
Travel to the Gold Rush took many months, depending on the starting location. People from the eastern states had two main options: to travel by horse-drawn wagon along the California Trail, taking an average of six months, or travel by boat around the tip of South America or through the Panama Canal.
The immigrants, many coming from China, were forced to face the rough seas of the ocean. On these journeys, people faced starvation and boredom.
See How People Made The Journey
Even after what might have been days traveling in a wagon, life for the miners in the Gold Rush was challenging, difficult, dangerous, and risky, leaving them feeling lonely and homesick. Finding gold was more of luck than skill. They often lived in tents, sleeping on the damp ground. Typically, their diet consisted of bread, corn, eggs, rice, and milk. They bathed rarely, and therefore the camps were unsanitary; many people caught diseases. Winters were harsh, and with a lack of fruit, many fell ill with scurvy. Prices of goods were very high in the towns, too.
In fact, many miners actually returned home poorer than they were when they left, never accomplishing their goal of "striking it rich" in the mines. They would work for nine hours or more a day.
Later, once gold became more scare and finding it was more difficult, miners began working for large corporations who "ruled" the mines as paid laborers, making their job less risky.
The Dangers of Mining
Mining was no easy task. Besides having to leave their wife and children at home and spend much, if not all, of their life's savings, life at the mine had its challenges.
Many tragic accidents occurred, including men who drowned in rivers and gun accidents. Nothing was ever sanitary, and it was not uncommon to catch a disease. Fires scorched through camps on occasion, too, and harsh winter conditions were of no help, covering the ground in piles of snow and ice. While working, miners breathed in sulfur and other chemicals harmful to their lungs. Among the people was violence and hostility, especially towards immigrants. Bandits further contributed to the problem.
Plus, if they did not find enough gold or have other money, it was possible for miners to not even be able to purchase food, which was always very expensive (the food had to be shipped). It was also a challenge to buy supplies, with prices being as high as they were.
How Did They Mine?
Throughout the Gold Rush, many mining techniques were used, depending on the location and how much gold was left in the ground.
The most basic mining technique was using hand tools like picks, shovels, and knives. At the rivers, the most common, and yet least effective, mining technique was used. Called panning, miners attempted to pick out gold from gravel using a pan and water. Miners also used cradles/rockers, which extracted gold by taking advantage of its heaviness as a dropped down a screen separate from the gravel.
Later on in the Gold Rush, when gold was becoming more scarce, hydraulic milling came into play. Cannons shot jets of pressured-water at gravel banks hundreds of feet high, allowing thousands of cubic feet of gravel to be washed away without hand labor. This method was used by the large corporations, who began giving miners jobs as paid laborers. However, it caused great amounts of destruction to the natural landscape.
Comstock Lode, located in the Virginia Range, Nevada, took people's attention away from the Gold Rush. Silver was first discovered here in June 1859 by Ethan and Hosea Grosh (though the mine was named after Henry Comstock, who had some possession of the land) and was the first major silver discovery in the United States. Like the Gold Rush brought people to California, many came to Nevada to mine. The growing population led to the boom town, Virginia City, Nevada, and had helped Nevada gain statehood.
At its peak, the years 1876-1878, the deposit was extracting an amount of silver worth 36 million dollars annually. However, by the year of 1898, the Comstock Lode was virtually abandoned.