History of the California Gold Rush: How It Created the State


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. 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.” The news of the gold rush spread to a much larger audience than previously and circulated the gold fever much wider than before.


Gold Discovery

California Gold Rush MapJames Marshall was installing a water-powered sawmill along the American River in Coloma, California, when his carpenter discovered gold flakes in the stream bed 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 China.

By mid-June, about three-quarters of the male population of San Francisco had left for the goldfields. By the end of 1848, around 20,000 had come to California to seek their fortune. Ultimately, about a third of a million people came to California from around the world.

The military governor, Colonel Richard B. Mason, toured the goldfields and reported: two miners on Weber Creek gathered $17,000 of gold in just seven days; six miners with fifty Native American Indians took out 273 pounds of gold; sales at the goldfield merchandise store of Samuel Brannan’s – a San Francisco entrepreneur – had totaled $36,000 in the three months of May, June, and July.

Brannan became the wealthiest man in California by opening the first supply stores in Sacramento and other locations throughout the goldfields. It was Gold Fever.


Gold Rush: 49ers

Gold Rush PosterBy 1849 the number of those coming for the Gold Rush had grown from 20,000 to over 100,000. These “49ers” (who lent their name to the San Francisco football team) passed through what came to be called the “Golden Gate” of the San Francisco Bay.

The Golden Gate Bridge that now spans from San Francisco to Marin County gets its name from that gate. If they came early, prospects could make a fortune — nuggets might be found lying on the ground or in streams. Some 750,000 pounds, or billions of dollars worth of gold, was extracted from the mining area, which peaked in 1852.


San Francisco and the Gold Rush

California Gold Miners

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 and the Argonauts seeking the Golden Fleece, would round Cape Horn at the southern tip of South America in 5-8 months from the East. Half of the fortune seekers came by sea.

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 across the continent along what was called the California Trail. Following the Civil War, transcontinental railroads were built to connect the East and West coasts.


California and the Gold Rush

California Golden Bears

The gold rush essentially created California. The first Federal census in 1860 counted over 300,000 residents; the population had tripled since before the Gold Rush. Lawmaking, government, and civic improvements occurred rapidly.

Days after discovering gold at Sutter’s Mill, 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 – without slavery in 1850.


Gold and the University of California

1200px berkeley. loc 75693088

Berkeley, looking west across the San Francisco Bay to the “Golden Gate” in 1900

The University of California, with its view at an elevation of 420 feet above the San Francisco Bay, was started in 1868 in a town named after the 18th-century Anglo-Irish philosopher and Bishop George Berkeley, inspired by his lines:

‘westward the course of empire takes its way.’

The university’s 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.”


California’s Motto

The state seal motto of “Eureka” is the Greek word – εὕρηκα – for “I have found (it)” It was taken from the story of the ancient Greek scholar Archimedes’ discovery that the water level in his bath rose to the level represented by the volume of water displaced by his submerged body.


Bill Petro, your friendly neighborhood historian


If you enjoyed this article, please consider leaving a comment.
Subscribe to have future articles delivered to your email.

About billpetro

Bill Petro writes articles on history, technology, pop culture, and travel. He has been a technology sales enablement executive with extensive experience in Cloud Computing, Automation, Data Center, Information Storage, Big Data/Analytics, Mobile, and Social technologies.


  1. John Elliott on August 19, 2015 at 5:14 pm


    Modern Day 49ers:

    Years back we went to a Neuhauser family reunion in Newton, KS. The boys were about 8 & 10. Chris was getting big and one of Phyllis’ (and Polly’s) great uncles, once or twice removed, told Chris he was a gold miner in Colorado and could use a big kid like him. Chris was intrigued by him because he came all the way to the reunion on a motorcycle. I started talking to him. I think his name was Dale Weaver. He said he mined gold up in the mountains on abandoned claims. I asked him about the process & methods. At one point he said that he used cyanide extraction and then added that he had to be careful because a piece the size of a grain in rice could kill a person. I said nothing because I knew that much cyanide could kill off an entire town.

    I suspect he would have fit in well with the original 49ers.

    Give our love to Polly,


  2. Packard N Brown on August 21, 2018 at 5:12 pm

    During this same period in San Francisco, we can also thank the short-order cooks near the docks, who conjured up the dish cioppino (scraps of fish left over from the day’s catch) which proved to be a cheap staple for the miners. The modern version is outrageously delicious.

    • billpetro on August 22, 2018 at 4:15 pm


      Thanks. I didn’t know that.


Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.