Start of the California Gold Rush

Start of the California Gold Rush

U.S. #954 marks the 100th anniversary of the start of the gold rush.

On January 24, 1848, gold was discovered at Sutter’s Mill, beginning the California Gold Rush.

The first group of American settlers reached Mexican-owned California in 1841.  Wagon trains of settlers soon followed.  So many American settlers poured into California that the United States offered to buy the land, but Mexico refused to sell and the two nations eventually went to war in 1846.

U.S. #3316 – A common scene in California following the gold discovery.

As the war raged, American settlers continued to flock to the area.  Among them were sawmill owner James Sutter and his foreman, James Marshall.  On January 24, 1848, Marshall found flecks of gold in the ditch of the mill’s water wheel located on the American River.  Marshall and Sutter tried to keep it quiet and were more interested in constructing the sawmill, but they allowed their workers to look for gold in their spare time. Meanwhile, the Mexican-American War officially ended that February and the U.S. gained possession of California.

Rumors of the gold discovery swirled until merchant and publisher Samuel Brannan broke the news wide open.  Sutter purchased supplies from Brannan, paying him in gold.  Brannan, a Mormon, visited Sutter’s mill and as a representative of the Mormon church, received tithes from Sutter’s workers in the form of gold.  Struck with inspiration, Brannan purchased every shovel and prospecting-related supply in San Francisco and then strode through the streets of the city holding up a sample of gold and shouted “Gold! Gold from the American River!”

Item #81561 – Commemorative cover marking the anniversary of the first gold discovery.

A rush of gold-seekers flooded California.  The first wave of prospectors in late 1848 were from Oregon, the Sandwich Islands (Hawaii), Mexico, Peru, and Chile. But in 1849,  people from all over the world came to stake their claim.  They came to be known as “Forty-Niners,” after the year of their arrival.

Initially, there was little communication between the East and West Coasts.  But it soon became important for people, goods, and mail to cross the country quickly and safely.  The two routes available were over land or by sea.  When the gold rush began, sailing ships were the fastest way to travel.  The trip from the East took anywhere from four to eight months if the ships sailed around the southern tip of South America.  A shorter route took gold seekers to the Isthmus of Panama, where they would unload, travel across the narrow strip of land by mule and canoe, then wait for a boat to take them to San Francisco.  The mail was transported along with passengers.  During that time, steamships were also used.  The Pacific Mail and U.S. Mail Steamship Companies were primarily responsible for transporting parcels and letters.

Item #MA1544 – A Wells Fargo cover form the early days of the gold rush.

The trip by land was no less treacherous than a sea voyage.  Weather and hostile Native Americans were constant threats.  Stagecoaches, which had been used to transport mail on the East Coast since the beginning of the century, became the fastest method of transcontinental communications.  The Butterfield Overland Stage and Wells, Fargo, and Co. became the best known and most reliable companies.

By the end of 1849, more than 300,000 people had raced to California for gold, and about 100,000 of them remained.  San Francisco rapidly became a boomtown, and California – which had only become a U.S. territory in 1848 – became a state in 1850.   Brannan became the gold rush’s first millionaire and was instrumental in the growth of San Francisco.  Many fortunes were made, but Marshall, Sutter, and even Brannan died poor men.

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18 responses to "Start of the California Gold Rush"

18 thoughts on “Start of the California Gold Rush”

  1. The land route to California had many hazards, but hostile Native Americans was a minor one that has been exaggerated. The biggest problems were disease, poor food, polluted water, accidents, back breaking labor crossing the Sierra Nevada, the endless search for a “cutoff” (a shorter route), and drowning. Yes, drowning. They crossed swollen rivers, and many of the migrants didn’t know how to swim.

    • Disease only killed a small number. American Indians were more susceptible to it because they didn’t have the immunities that Europeans did. However, American Indian attacks were more common than you claim. It’s because of the attacks that the Indians acquired the illnesses.

  2. This was an exciting time. Easy money! My great uncle joined that race for gold in 1849. He either couldn’t buy a shovel or find a spot open on the river so he moved up to Portland. Two of his brothers and his father came out by covered wagon the next year and became steamship captains on the Columbia River. His son because the commissioner of Multinomah County. There is an Arboretum at the far end of a big park in Portland which is named after him. If it wasn’t for the smell of gold, all my relatives would still be on the east coast.

  3. U.S stamps are not only great pieces of art, but also tell so much history. What a great hobby. Thank you so much for This Day in History .

  4. Gold fever! Thanks for this great essay on the gold rush in California. I, too, love the stamp illustrations, the covers, and all of the other stamp related material that always accompany each essay, not to mention the links to other sources, such as photos, newspaper articles, YouTube videos, etc., that have been offered and shown in the past. Great work, Mystic.

  5. Steve, read a book or two. There were few Indian attacks until after the railroads were built in in the late 1860s and 1870s and settlers began moving in.

  6. Believe sawmill-owner Sutter’s first name was John, not James. Marshall’s first name, James, is correct. In addition to his other enterprises, Sam Brannan is credited with the founding of the Vigilance Committee (vigilantes), which cleaned up a lot of the corruption in San Francisco.

  7. Day in History—always a good read. Don’t know that any of my Brainerd ancestors went West after gold. They came West from New England and homesteaded in Wisconsin. Most worked as lumbermen, storekeepers/postmasters. First Brainerd to America came from England at age 8, in the 1640s maybe indentured to a Wadsworth family in CT. At age 20 he moved down the Connecticut River and helped to found the town of Haddam, CT. Daniel had 8 children with wife #1 and was married twice more.

  8. Gold was found on John Sutter’s land where they had built a saw mill. Soon people in the area forgot about taking care of the animals, the crops were stepped on and ruined. 100,000’s of thousands of gold seekers ruined Sutter’s business, his land and his home. The mania was out of control. His animals were stolen, and a small group set fire to his farm and home. He and his wife went to the U.S. Congress for restitution but were unsuccessful. He died in 1880 at Washington D.C., before a bill that would have given the Sutters’ $50,000 was passed. Sutter was buried in Lititz Springs, PA.

  9. John Sutter came to California by sea in 1839, not in 1846. My wife’s great great grandfather, Elias Barnett, was among the first group of settlers that came overland to California in 1841.

  10. Should note that communication between the Eastern States and California took approximately six months (by either sea around South America or wagon train) or four months (by cutting across Panama). The Pony Express while dramatic was no match for telegraph, which was built alongside the Transcontinental Railroad.


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