How California Got Expensive: Remembering the Gold Rush

While it took some time for the news of gold in California to make it all the way back to the President and Congress, the precious metal was actually discovered at Sutters Mill in Coloma, California on January 24, 1848.

California Gold Miners, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

US President, James K. Polk then announced the discovery in an address to Congress on December 4, 1848, nearly a year later and set off the greatest gold rush in history.  According to Wikipedia, nearly 300,000 people “rushed” to California to search for gold and were dubbed the forty-niners because they didn’t start coming en masse until 1849.

In his address to Congress, Polk says: “It was known that mines of the precious metals existed to a considerable extent in California at the time of its acquisition. Recent discoveries render it probable that these mines are more extensive and valuable than was anticipated. The accounts of the abundance of gold in that territory are of such an extraordinary character as would scarcely command belief were they not corroborated by the authentic reports of officers in the public service who have visited the mineral district and derived the facts which they detail from personal observation.”

On December 11, 1848, a few days after Polk’s announcement, the Brooklyn Daily Eagle reported that “Already people have become California mad.” The article goes on to talk about all of the boats set to leave from New York, Philadelphia and Baltimore in search of “El Dorado.”

The Gold Rush helped San Francisco evolve from a tiny settlement of a couple hundred people to a city of about 36,000 in roughly three years.  The toll of the Gold Rush on indigenous peoples was, of course, terrible, many Native Americans were pushed from their homes to make way for the miners. 

Levi Stauss, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Additionally, while many miners made some profit, very few became enormously rich and many were just lucky if they came into contact with gold residue let alone big chunks of gold.  One study mentioned by Wikipedia suggested that the merchants providing services to the miners become more rich than the miners themselves. Levi Strauss, the inventor of blue jeans and founder of famous clothing company, Levi Strauss & Co., became incredibly wealthy from selling his tough work pants to the local miners and other workers in San Francisco.

The Gold Rush also gave California a nickname which stuck, the “golden state,” and also inspired the term the “California Dream,” which for many supplanted the idea of the “American Dream.”

It also kicked the area into high gear in terms of development, becoming a proper state and creating infrastructure for its newly growing population.

Polk told Congress that, “This abundance of gold and the all-engrossing pursuit of it have already caused in California an unprecedented rise in the price of all the necessaries of life.”

So basically, California got expensive and stayed that way.

Want to know about the California Gold Rush?  Here are some great resources to get you started: