Gold Rush Lesson for Kids: History & Facts

Instructor: Crystal Ladwig
Imagine finding gold while playing in your backyard. What would you do? One man found gold in California while building a sawmill in 1848, and it started the biggest gold rush in American history. Read on to find out more.

I Found Gold!

Could you imagine just finding gold one day? That happened to James Marshall in 1848 when he was hired by John Sutter to build a new saw mill. The two men tried to keep the discovery a secret. But they failed miserably. The finding of gold at Sutter's Mill sparked the California Gold Rush where hundreds of thousands of people moved to California between 1848 and 1855 seeking their own fortunes.

Most gold was found as flakes or nuggets, but a few were really large.
California Gold

The 49ers

Before gold was found at Sutter's Mill, less than 1,000 non-Native Americans lived in California. By 1849, one year later, that number increased to more than 100,000. Within a few more years, the number reached more than 300,000 making the California gold rush the largest mass migration in U.S. history. This means more people moved there in the shortest amount of time than ever before.

The people who moved to California during this time are called 49ers since most of the people moved to California in 1849. These people were from all over the world and were either looking for gold or building a business to provide for prospectors, which is what they called people looking for gold.

Sadly, as the number of non-Native Americans grew the number of Native Americans in California decreased. Before the gold rush, there were more than 300,000 Native Americans in California. In less than 20 years, that number would be down by 100,000, most dying from diseases, mining accidents, and even murder.

Most 49ers sought gold through panning, a process of washing gravel and dirt to see if they could find gold in the pan.

Poor 49ers

Most prospectors didn't get rich, but many businessmen did. Prospectors needed a lot of supplies. Store owners sold these things at high prices and prospectors bought them up.

One of the most famous store owners was Levi Strauss, who wisely shifted his plans to sell canvas wagon covers when he learned that the miners needed more sturdy pants. His solution, Levi's jeans. You might even be wearing some right now.

Booming Ghost Towns

When gold was found at a new place, a town called a boomtown would quickly grow as prospectors came to find gold and businesses came to sell to them. Some of these towns survived, like San Francisco Yep! That's why the San Francisco 49ers have the name they do.

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