The Gold Rushes of North America (1847-1900)

A Calliope Fact Sheet
Copyright Calliope Film Resources, Inc.

Student Permission to Quote | Note to Teachers

Part I. "The Age of Gold has Dawned on Earth"

On December 7, 1848, an ornate tea caddy arrived in Washington after an arduous three-month journey. It was filled, not with tea, but with gold discovered at John Sutter's sawmill in California.

The samples were exhibited. Newsmen flocked to cover the story. President Polk himself publicly confirmed the discovery of "extensive and valuable" mines which before were only rumored, recommending that Congress establish a territorial government and a Federal mint in the mysterious westward realm that the U.S. had recently taken from Mexico.

As news spread, the California Gold Rush was under way. So was the eager promotion of a myth.

Indeed, word of the first gold strikes, reaching the East, carried poetic imagery befitting the birth of a myth:

"Another bag of gold from the mines and another spasm in the community. It was brought down by a sailor from Yuba River and contains 136 ounces. It looks like the yellow scales of the dolphin passing through his rainbow hues at death."

In the weeks that followed, newspapers freely passed along reports of "lumps the size of a man's hand" -- "an inexhaustible supply." Advertisers peddled medicines, money belts, portable houses, and California Gold Grease, a $10-a-box concoction which was applied to the body. When the purchaser rolled down a gold-spangled hill, "gold and nothing else" would stick to his skin.

In a matter of days thousands of Easterners were organizing into companies of between a dozen and 150 members to invest in supplies and transport to carry them-- some along the overland trails, others by steamship and clipper via Panama -- to America's real-life El Dorado.

At sermons of departure up and down the Atlantic Coast , ministers preached cautionary lessons to endangered souls bound for California: "Will you not bring back with you a restless, morbid desire for change, excitement and wild adventure? . . . Tell me, rather, of blasted hopes, of severed ties, of suffering, want, starvation, vice, death and endless ruin, and declare over this aggregate of woe whether gold is not purchased at too dear a price!"

Sermons notwithstanding, congregations emptied out. A mass migration was under way throughout the East.

Tales of adventure and easy riches fired the popular imagination readily -- it was a time when new and restless ideas were coming together:

The discovery of a land of gold in the far reaches of the American West seemed amazing and yet also quite natural -- the ancient dream of effortless and staggering wealth had come true, a just reward for America's already prodigious accomplishments, and perfect proof of the nation's shining future -- all rolled together into a grand opportunity for new adventure and further achievement.

What did the migrants hope to find?

  • Jim Taylor, a former slave, went "in hope of redeeming a wife and seven children" who were still the property of slaveowners in the South.
  • James Vann, editor of a Native American newspaper, asked: "Shall we Cherokee not take advantage of the times and be found trying to get to this glorious country?" He organized a gold company and set out from Oklahoma with fourteen Native Americans, one hundred whites, and five slaves.
  • Drawn by "the talk of money in California," Margaret Frink started out from Indiana: "I have heard rumors a woman could get $16 a week for cooking for one man."
  • "To enrich ourselves, if possible, by every honorable means" was the common purpose of the Washington City and California Mining Company organized by J. Goldsborough Bruff, a father of five and a West Point-trained architect-draughtsman whose personal goal was to compile the "perfect guide" to the overland trail. This he did, chronicling the day-to-day migrant experience in a journal of encyclopedic proportions.
  • "I am so enchanted with the wild beauty all about us . . . It is all new to me, the plants, trees, rock, all strange." John W. Audubon, a naturalist like his father John James, was drawn by the chance of a lifetime -- to observe nature's display in an uncharted environment. "As we take our horses to a beautiful creek to drink, a curious fish come to look at their noses."
    • J. W. Audubon's California destiny was to lead a cholera-depleted company across grim deserts.
    • His 200 priceless watercolors and sketches of Mexico and California were later to vanish in a shipwreck.
  • Susan Parrish set out from Iowa with her father, "a wanderer after rainbows most of his life." The gold mines were "a kind of pot of gold that we set out to find . . . It was never definite, but it lay always with alluring promise somewhere in the great West."
  • "To reinvigorate my health." Alonzo Delano, later a well-known humorist, joined the gold rush on the advice of his physician. Ironically, Delano survived a cholera-infected steamship... an overland pilgrimage that became lost after only two weeks on the plains... storms so violent they were "a kind of terra firma shipwreck"... crossings "like a battlefield" over raging rivers and around poisoned wells. Still more ironically, his health improved steadily. When he stumbled at last into Sacramento Valley, "lost and bewildered," he could scarcely recognize "men and women moving about their usual avocations."

Read about the three most famous rushes...

Part II. California

Part III. The Comstock

Part IV. The Klondike

Students! You have our permission to quote from (not copy from) these pages about the Gold Rushes -- provided that you acknowledge it in your bibliography as follows:

Calliope Film Resources. "The Gold Rushes." Copyright 2000 CFR. 
http://www.calliope.org/gold/gold.html . 
[And add the date on which you visited this web page.]

Teachers! The North American Gold Rushes sped westward expansion of the United States and opened the nation's modern multicultural era. Gold Rushes Bibliography.

Use these pages to enhance curriculum. The Gold Rushes can be a cross-disciplinary gateway to major topics in American History, Social Studies, Environmental Studies, and multicultural histories.

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Updated Jan 1 2009
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