On August 19, 1848, the New York Herald reported the news along the American East Coast of the California Gold Rush. It was not new news to those further West, as the gold rush had started in January and was publicized in San Francisco in March. However, the New York Herald was the most profitable and popular newspaper in the US at that time, and by the dawn of the American Civil War the newspaper claimed a circulation of 84,000 copies and called itself “the most largely circulated journal in the world.” In any event, the news of the gold rush spread to a much larger audience than previously and spread the gold fever much wider than before.
James Marshall discovered gold along the American River in North-central California at Sutter’s Mill on January 24, 1848. Despite trying to keep the discovery a secret the news spread in all directions — initially to Oregon, Hawaii, Mexico, Central America, Chile, Peru and as far as China. By mid-June about three-quarters of the male population of San Francisco had left for the gold fields. By the end of 1848, around 20,000 had come to California to seek their fortune. By 1849 the number had grown to over 100,000. These “49ers” (named after the San Francisco football team) passed through what was to be called the “Golden Gate” of the San Francisco Bay. The bridge that now spans from San Francisco to Marin County gets its name from that gate. Prospectors could make a fortune — nuggets might be found lying on the ground on in streams — if they came early. Some 750,000 pounds or billions of dollars worth of gold was extracted from the mining area which peaked in 1852.
San Francisco went from a small village of 200 to a boomtown of 36,000 toward the end of the rush in 1852. Within 25 years the city had a population of 150,000. Merchants’ fortunes increased as they supplied goods, transportation and entertainment to the prospectors heading to the “Mother Lode.” Initially coming by sea these Argonauts, in reference to the classical story of Jason seeking the golden fleece, would round Cape Horn at the bottom of South America in 5–8 months from the East. The Isthmus of Panama might shorten that route, but the canal had not yet been constructed, and some of the journey was over land. Otherwise, the trek was was across the continent along what was called the California Trail. Following the Civil War, transcontinental railroads were built to connect East and West coasts.
The gold rush essentially created California. Lawmaking, government and civic improvements occurred rapidly. Days after the discovery of gold the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, which ended the Mexican-American War, left California in the possession of the United States. A constitution was written in 1849 and California became a free state in 1850 (without slavery.) The University of California was started in 1868. Its mascot is the Golden Bear, and its colors are blue and gold. And while it was long known by this name, it was not until 1968 that California was officially designated “The Golden State.”
Bill Petro, your friendly neighborhood historian
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