164 years ago, today, gold was discovered near Coloma, California at Sutters Mill by James Marshall. Today is the birthday of the most famous gold rush in the world.
I won’t go into the particulars of the many events following the discovery of January 24th. My point is that this event touched off a massive change of focus and direction for not only Alta-California and it’s transition into a U.S. Territory, then into statehood, but also for the United States and even the entire civilized world.
If we remember that the U.S. Civil War had not yet begun, but the struggle to balance the numbers of slave states vs. free states was foremost in the minds of leaders in Washington D.C. This was also the time when manifest destiny was still gaining momentum. The idea that the United States had a mandate from God to conquer the entire continent of North America was taken for granted by most white people in the U.S. It helped that Alta-California was a big part of the booty acquired from Mexico following the end of the Mexican-American war.
Looking at the territorial expansion from a different angle, we see that the demise of native amerindians was accelerated at this time. Not only was consideration of the lives of the eastern and plains tribes diminished in the need to acquire land, so were the lives of the native California tribes. All told, at least 100,000 California amerindians died as a result of the influx of treasure hunters.
The mad dash of mining claims also increased innate problems of racism and xenophobia amongst the seekers. The original Californios or decendants of the Spanish settlers were subjugated along with the California amerindians. Polynesians from the Sandwich Islands (Hawaii), the Chinese coolies who worked the land and other immigrants all took some brunt of the invasion of fortune seekers.
Less negative were some other results of the Gold Rush. The establishment of San Francisco as a major city. It sprouted from its meager 200 residents to around 36,000 by 1852. Other cities began their own growth spurts, too. Accompanied by the necessary roads, businesses and schools, the westernizing influences increased greatly. By 1850, California was admitted to the Union as a “free” state.
All of what eventually became of the westward movement into the remainder of the continental U.S. and California came about because of the hunger for gold by Americans and the rest of the world who arrived by horse, rail, and steamship. For better or worse, the other “booms” were to follow suit. Including the entertainment boom of the Hollywood era and the Dot Com boom of a few years ago.
The Blue Jay of Happiness wonders why the gold seekers weren’t called Forty Eighters instead of Forty Niners.