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The gold rush: what was it like?

Everyone knows the term "gold rush", but not everyone knows what it really was and what role it played in history. We'll tell you about the most famous gold rush - the California Gold Rush.

Advertisement for a transport to San Francisco, California at the time of the Gold Rush.
Advertisement for a transport to San Francisco, California at the time of the Gold Rush.

Where did the most famous gold rush begin?

It all began on January 24, 1848, when James Marshall, a worker at the Sutter Mill in California, discovered something shimmering in the cold winter water. He then showed the nugget to his companions and announced that he had found a gold mine.

This brilliant find marked the beginning of one of the most significant events in world history, the effects of which we still feel today. James Marshall tried to keep his discovery a secret, but witnesses to the event quickly told their acquaintances, and news of the gold in the river spread throughout the area. People from nearby settlements left their stores and went in search of gold. Thus began the gold rush.

The first millionaire in California

San Francisco in 1849
San Francisco in 1849


While everyone else was looking for gold, one enterprising merchant, Samuel Brennan, found another way to get rich. He ran a business near Sutter's Mill and also worked as a journalist for a local newspaper. When he learned of the gold deposits from the mill workers, Brennan decided to make a business out of it.

He began selling in his store the items needed by the prospectors - buckets, pots, clothing for the search, food, and more.

To increase demand for the goods, he wrote about the Gold River in his newspaper. And with this PR campaign, he further fueled his excitement: He filled a bottle with gold sand and drove to the nearest city, San Francisco. There he walked the streets, waving the bottle around and calling for gold in the American River. Thanks to sales in this business, Samuel Brennan quickly became California's first millionaire.

How gold was mined

All that was needed to dig for gold were the simplest of tools: something with which to reach the site and a bucket in which to wash the gold out of the ground. Anyone could become a gold miner, and no taxes were levied on the finds. Everyone worked for himself, but some people divided the found gold among themselves. In the time of the gold rush, the Californian entrepreneurial spirit was born.

Sure, prospecting for gold from dawn to dusk was grueling work, but the hope of getting rich made people forget about sleep and rest. Stories of others who had found fortune in the American River motivated the gold miners to work even harder.

At the beginning of the gold rush, each prospector mined $100 worth of gold a day. Three of them "earned" $16,000 a week. It got to the point where people were finding nuggets the size of turkey eggs.

Settler Gold Diggers

News of the gold that could be taken for free continued to spread. In late summer, the first gold prospectors arrived from outside California. First came people from Oregon, then from the Sandwich Islands (now Hawaii).

In the fall, new prospectors arrived from northern Mexico, and in the winter, many people arrived from Peru and Chile in South America. In all, about 80,000 immigrants came to California in 1849.

Still, there was enough gold for everyone, and new discoveries were made every day. The enormous extent of the gold deposits became clear.

When the gold ran out

Bannak, a ghost town
This is what Bannack looks like today, a ghost town that was one of the centers of gold mining in the 1860s. Montana, USA


In the 1850s, prospectors came from all over the world - Britain, Europe, China, Australia, North and South America. When the first gold was discovered, San Francisco was a small town of about 1,000 people. A few years later, it had more than 30,000 inhabitants. California was admitted as the 31st state of the USA in 1850 in the course of the gold rush.

But it became increasingly difficult to find gold, often days of hard work yielded nothing. Gold mining peaked in 1853, and with each successive year, less and less gold was found, but more and more people came to California to try their luck. Eventually, thousands of disappointed prospectors returned home without finding anything of value.

Other Gold Rushes

There were other large gold mines in the U.S., including some before the California Gold Rush. In 1799, a farmer's son in North Carolina found a piece of gold in a creek, prompting 30,000 people to go in search of it. And after California, prospectors worked in Colorado and Alaska.

Remarkably, the California gold rush is not the biggest. Almost 160 years earlier, in the 1690s, more than 400,000 prospectors from Portugal and 500,000 slaves from Africa moved to the mountains of Minas Gerais, where a large deposit was discovered.