The Gold Rush Forty-Niners: History & Definition

Instructor: David Lobb
The 'Gold Rush forty-niners' was a term used to identify men who left their jobs to find gold in California in 1849. Study the history and definition of the Gold Rush forty-niners and explore the migrations, mining settlements, and the end of the gold rush. Updated: 02/03/2022

The Gold Rush Begins

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The acquisition of new territories at the close of the Mexican-American War brought new questions to light for a relatively young America. How would the new territories be governed, and would they be free or slave states - these were the questions of the day. By January of 1848, a new dimension had been added to the questions the territories aroused: gold had been discovered in California.

James Marshall

While panning in the American River in the Sacramento Valley, a carpenter named James W. Marshall found gold. Swiss immigrant John Sutter employed him. Before the war with Mexico, Sutter had convinced the Mexican governor of California to give him land on which to plant a colony of Swiss immigrants. He built a huge enclosed village and mill. Marshall helped build the mill.


Who are the Forty-Niners?

Word of Marshall's discovery spread quickly and President Polk confirmed the strikes in his last annual message of that year. Polk's acknowledgement that the precious metal had been discovered in California turned the gold fever into worldwide contagion. Stories circulated of limitless gold deposits, and, throughout the nation, men quit their jobs or sold their businesses to head West in early 1849. These men were termed the 'forty-niners,' and they were also called 'Argonauts' after the heroes in Greek mythology who went on a quest for the Golden Fleece. Influential newspaper editors, such as Horace Greeley, encouraged such fantasy - his New York Daily Tribune declared an 'Age of Gold.' It seemed as if everyone's fortune lay in California.

The Migrations

Best estimates hold that some 80,000 gold seekers reached California, and almost half of those were Americans. Most went overland, the rest by way of Panama or Cape Horn. They thronged to the western slopes of the Sierra Nevada Mountains and settled in the valleys and canyons there.

Panning for Gold
panning for gold

The 'village' of San Francisco grew rapidly into a city, growing from just 459 to 20,000 residents in just a few months. The influx reduced the Mexican population there to a minority, and sporadic conflicts with Indians in the foothills decimated the native peoples. By 1850, Americans accounted for 68% of the population, but the communities were diverse. There was a wide array of ethnicities and cultures present, including folks from as far away as Australia, Hawaii, and China.

The Mining Settlements

The mining frontier created by the Gold Rush was perhaps the most unstable and exceptional frontier in American history. Unlike the land-seeking pioneers who traveled the overland trails, the miners were mostly unmarried young men from a variety of places and represented a wide spectrum of ethnic and cultural backgrounds.

Few miners were interested in permanent settlement. They wanted to strike it rich and return home. The mining camps in the California valleys sprang up like mushrooms and disappeared almost as quickly. Several settlements bore the name Ophir, named for the biblical site of King Solomon's wealth. Others were called Long Bar, Poverty Bar, or Missouri Bar, after the gravel or sand bars where gold was found. As soon as rumors started of a new strike, miners converged on the area, joined shortly after by the motley crew of shopkeepers, merchants, and camp followers who made their living servicing the gold seekers. Then, when no more gold was found, they picked up and moved on.

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