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Election of 1848 and the California Gold Rush

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  • 0:05 The Election of 1848
  • 1:29 Gold in California
  • 3:57 The 49ers
  • 5:03 California Applies for…
  • 6:13 Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Alexandra Lutz

Alexandra has taught students at every age level from pre-school through adult. She has a BSEd in English Education.

General Zachary Taylor was elected president in 1848, hoping to see the peaceful addition of land from the Mexican cession. 'Old Rough and Ready' wasn't prepared for the California gold rush.

The Election of 1848

Even though the Mexican-American War had been controversial, Americans were feeling pretty good about the Democrats and all the new territory President Polk had added. But Polk had promised during the election of 1844 that he would not seek a second term. In his place, the Democrats nominated Michigan Senator Lewis Cass, who had endorsed popular sovereignty for the Mexican cession. Frustrated over his pro-slavery leanings, prominent anti-slavery Democrats stomped out of the nominating convention and formed the Free Soil party with Martin Van Buren as their candidate.

The Democrats split into two parties over differing views on slavery
Democrats Split

Even though the Democratic Party had fractured, they seemed assured a presidential victory because of surging nationalism following the war. Knowing they needed to take advantage of this tide rather than fight it, the Whigs once again passed over Henry Clay and chose war hero General Zachary Taylor as their candidate. The fact that he was a slaveholder appealed to Southerners, but his 40 years of national military service made him stand in opposition to sectionalism and states' rights, which was a plus for Northerners. Taylor eked out a victory in the 3-way race. Nicknamed 'Old Rough and Ready,' he took a no-nonsense approach to governing the nation as one might expect of a military man, and set about letting Congress and the people know that he was in charge.

Gold in California

But there was one tide that even 'Old Rough and Ready' couldn't stem. Earlier in 1848, California was part of the land added to the U.S. in the Mexican cession, but the debate over slavery had stalled any decision-making about organizing the territory as far as Americans were concerned. It was a difficult time for the former Mexican residents and one Californian seemed to be at the end of his luck.

James Marshall had left Missouri in 1845 and traveled to California for his health. He found work as a carpenter overseeing the construction of a sawmill for John Sutter, a colonial magistrate for the Mexican government. Just a week before the treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo was finalized, Marshall was inspecting the creek as it left Sutter's Mill and saw something shiny. He said, 'I picked up one or two pieces and examined them attentively, and having some general knowledge of minerals, I could not call to mind more than two which in any way resembled this--sulphuret of iron, very bright and brittle; and gold, bright, yet malleable. I then tried it between two rocks, and found that it could be beaten into a different shape, but not broken.' As it turns out, the metal that James Marshall found in Sutter's Mill was gold.

Sutter and Marshall tried to keep the discovery of gold a secret, but it was eventually publicized
News of Gold Spread

At first Sutter and Marshall tried to keep it a secret. Unfortunately, neither of them knew much about mining, so Sutter hired some men to work for him. These employees were more successful than they let on - stealing most of the gold and spending it around town. This got the attention of a local newspaper publisher who proclaimed to the world that there was gold in Sutter's Mill. Marshall and Sutter were literally forced off the land by the influx of people. Before the gold rush subsided in a few years, 300,000 prospectors from nearly every continent had overrun California. Short of sending in the army against its own people, there was nothing the federal government could do to stop them. Even Sutter's land rights were challenged and overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court. Sutter's only compensation was that the courts agreed if the land hadn't been his, then he shouldn't have had to pay taxes on it. He moved back to Pennsylvania and lived off the tax settlement; he had lost everything else. James Marshall ended up in a cabin in the California hills and tended a subsistence garden to feed himself.

The '49ers

In 1849 alone, the rush of nearly 90,000 so-called 'forty-niners' brought California's rural ranching lifestyle to an abrupt end. Tiny San Francisco, with its deep-water port, became the landing point for half of the prospectors from around the world, growing from a settlement of 200 people to a booming metropolis of nearly 35,000 in 1850. The arrival of families meant the development of towns and roads, schools and protestant churches. Greedy settlers challenged Mexican and Spanish land grants. If the claim couldn't be proven in court within two years - an expensive and nearly impossible task - the property was sold by the state, almost always to white immigrants. Ranches across the Mexican cession that had been in families for as many as 250 years were gone overnight if they didn't have the original land deed still legible with an intact signature that they could present in court speaking English. In just one year, California was filled with Americans wanting statehood.

Settlers challenged Mexican and Spanish land grants and families lost their land
Land Deeds

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