The first people to rush to the gold fields, beginning in the spring of 1848, were the residents of California themselves—primarily agriculturally oriented Americans and Europeans living in Northern California, along with Native Americans and some Californios (Spanish-speaking Californians). These first miners tended to be families in which everyone helped in the effort. Women and children of all races were often found panning next to the men. Some enterprising families set up boarding houses to accommodate the influx of men; in such cases, the women often brought in steady income while their husbands searched for gold.
Word of the Gold Rush spread slowly at first. The earliest gold-seekers to arrive in California during 1848 were people who lived near California, or people who heard the news from ships on the fastest sailing routes from California. The first large group of Americans to arrive were several thousand Oregonians who came down the Siskiyou Trail. Next came people from Hawaii, by ship, and several thousand Latin Americans, including people from Mexico, from Peru and from as far away as Chile, both by ship and overland. By the end of 1848, some 6,000 Argonauts had come to California. Only a small number (probably fewer than 500) traveled overland from the United States that year. Some of these "forty-eighters," as these very earliest gold-seekers were also sometimes called, were able to collect large amounts of easily accessible gold—in some cases, thousands of dollars worth each day. Even ordinary prospectors averaged daily gold finds worth ten to fifteen times the daily wage of a laborer on the East Coast. A person could work for six months in the goldfields and find the equivalent of six years' wages back home, which attracted people of all types and ethnicities including single men and women, families, and married men. Some hoped to get rich quick and return home, and others wished to start businesses in California.
By the beginning of 1849, word of the Gold Rush had spread around the world, and an overwhelming number of gold-seekers and merchants began to arrive from virtually every continent. The largest group of forty-niners in 1849 were Americans, arriving by the tens of thousands overland across the continent and along various sailing routes (the name "forty-niner" was derived from the year 1849). Australians and New Zealanders picked up the news from ships carrying Hawaiian newspapers, and thousands, infected with "gold fever," boarded ships for California. Forty-niners came from Latin America, particularly from the Mexican mining districts near Sonora. Gold-seekers and merchants from Asia, primarily from China, began arriving in 1849, at first in modest numbers to "Gold Mountain," the name given to California in Chinese. The first immigrants from Europe, reeling from the effects of the Revolutions of 1848 and with a longer distance to travel, began arriving in late 1849, mostly from France, with some Germans, Italians, and Britons.
It is estimated that almost 90,000 people arrived in California in 1849—about half by land and half by sea. Of these, perhaps 50,000 to 60,000 were Americans, and the rest were from other countries. By 1855, it is estimated at least 300,000 gold-seekers, merchants, and other immigrants had arrived in California from around the world. The largest group continued to be Americans, but there were tens of thousands each of Mexicans, Chinese, Britons, French, and Latin Americans, together with many smaller groups of miners, such as Filipinos, Basques and Turks. A modest number of miners of African ancestry (probably less than 4,000) had come from the Southern States, the Caribbean and Brazil.
There were also many women in the Gold Rush. They held various roles including prostitutes, single entrepreneurs, married women, poor and wealthy women and were of various ethnicities including white, Hispanic, native, Chinese, and European. The reasons they came varied: some came with their husbands, refusing to be left behind to fend for themselves, some came because their husbands sent for them, and others came (singles and widows) for the adventure and economic opportunities. On the trail many people died from accidents, cholera, fever, and myriad other causes, and many women became widows before even setting eyes on California. While in California, women were also widowed quite frequently due to mining accidents, disease, or mining disputes. While it was not an easy place for anyone, life in the west did offer many opportunities for women to break from their typical work.
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