A forty-niner peers into his gold pan on the banks of the American riverThe arrival of hundreds of thousands of new people within a few years, compared to a population of some 15,000 Europeans and Californios beforehand, had many dramatic effects.
First, the human and environmental costs of the Gold Rush were substantial. Native Americans became the victims of disease, starvation and genocidal attacks; the Native American population, estimated at 150,000 in 1845, was less than 30,000 by 1870. It is estimated that some 4,500 Native Americans suffered violent deaths between 1849 and 1870. Explicitly racist attacks and laws sought to drive out Chinese and Latin American immigrants. The toll on the American immigrants could be severe as well: one in twelve forty-niners perished, as the death and crime rates during the Gold Rush were extraordinarily high, and the resulting vigilantism also took its toll. In addition, the environment suffered as gravel, silt and toxic chemicals from prospecting operations killed fish and destroyed habitats.
However, the Gold Rush propelled California from a sleepy, little-known backwater to a center of the global imagination and the destination of hundreds of thousands of people. The new immigrants often showed remarkable inventiveness and civic-mindedness. For example, in the midst of the Gold Rush , towns and cities were chartered, a state constitutional convention was convened, a state constitution written, elections held, and representatives sent to Washington, D.C. to negotiate the admission of California as a state. Large-scale agriculture (California's second "Gold Rush") began during this time. Roads, schools, churches, and civic organizations quickly came into existence. The vast majority of the immigrants were Americans. Pressure grew for better communications and political connections to the rest of the United States, leading to statehood for California on September 9, 1850, in the Compromise of 1850 as the 31st state of the United States.
Between 1847 and 1870, the population of San Francisco increased from 500 to 150,000. The Gold Rush wealth and population increase led to significantly improved transportation between California and the East Coast. The Panama Railway, spanning the Isthmus of Panama, was finished in 1855. Steamships, including those owned by the Pacific Mail Steamship Company, began regular service from San Francisco to Panama, where passengers, goods and mail would take the train across the Isthmus and board steamships headed to the East Coast. One ill-fated journey, that of the S.S. Central America, ended in disaster as the ship sank in a hurricane off the coast of the Carolinas in 1857, with an estimated three tons of California gold aboard.
Within a few years after the end of the Gold Rush, in 1863, the groundbreaking ceremony for the western leg of the First Transcontinental Railroad was held in Sacramento. The line's completion, some six years later, financed in part with Gold Rush money, united California with the central and eastern United States. Travel that had taken weeks or even months could now be accomplished in days.
The Gold Rush stimulated economies around the world as well. Farmers in Chile, Australia, and Hawaii found a huge new market for their food; British manufactured goods were in high demand; clothing and even pre-fabricated houses arrived from China. The return of large amounts of California gold to pay for these goods raised prices and stimulated investment and the creation of jobs around the world. Australian prospector, Edward Hargraves, noting similarities between the geography of California and his home, returned to Australia to discover gold and spark the Australian gold rushes.
California's name became indelibly connected with the Gold Rush, and as a result, was connected with what became known as the "California Dream." California was perceived as a place of new beginnings, where great wealth could reward hard work and good luck. Historian H. W. Brands noted that in the years after the Gold Rush, the California Dream spread to the rest of the United States and became part of the new "American Dream."
Miners operate a hydraulic sluice in San Francisquito Canyon, Los Angeles County. The placer mine machine consists of adobe columns, pulleys, ropes, and wood boxes. Donkeys are loaded with ore bags.“ "The old American Dream . . . was the dream of the Puritans, of Benjamin Franklin's Poor Richard . . . of men and women content to accumulate their modest fortunes a little at a time, year by year by year. The new dream was the dream of instant wealth, won in a twinkling by audacity and good luck. [This] golden dream . . . became a prominent part of the American psyche only after [Sutter's Mill]." ”
Generations of immigrants have been attracted by the California Dream. California farmers, oil drillers, movie makers, airplane builders, and "dot-com" entrepreneurs have each had their boom times in the decades after the Gold Rush.
Seal of CaliforniaIncluded among the modern legacies of the California Gold Rush are the California state motto, "Eureka" ("I have found it"), Gold Rush images on the California State Seal, and the state nickname, "The Golden State," as well as place names, such as Placer County, Rough and Ready, Placerville (formerly named "Dry Diggings" and then "Hangtown" during rush time), Whiskeytown, Drytown, Angels Camp, Happy Camp, and Sawyer's Bar. The San Francisco 49ers National Football League team, and the similarly named athletic teams of California State University, Long Beach, are named for the prospectors of the California Gold Rush. The literary history of the Gold Rush is reflected in the works of Mark Twain (The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County), Bret Harte (A Millionaire of Rough-and-Ready), Joaquin Miller (Life Amongst the Modocs), and many others.
Today, aptly-named State Route 49 travels through the Sierra Nevada foothills, connecting many Gold Rush-era towns such as Placerville, Auburn, Grass Valley, Nevada City, Coloma, Jackson, and Sonora. This state highway also passes very near Columbia State Historic Park, a protected area encompassing the historic business district of the town of Columbia; the park has preserved many Gold Rush-era buildings, which are presently occupied by tourist-oriented businesses.
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