The California Gold Rush

The historian Malcolm Rohrbough believed that success in the California Gold Rush depended completely on “capital and luck”.  Some would argue this is true while others believe although those two factors were important they were not the sole factors that determined people’s success in the Gold Rush.  Some people succeeded in the Gold Rush because they were in the right place at the right time with the resources that were necessary to be successful.  Other people failed in the Gold Rush because they arrived in California too late or they did not have the resources necessary to succeed.  Capital and luck were two important factors that often determined how successful people were during the Gold Rush but they were not the only factors.

The California Gold Rush began completely by accident and by luck.  No one was purposely looking for gold.  The Gold Rush began because luck was on the side of a man named John Sutter.  Sutter came to California from Switzerland because creditors were after him and he wanted to make a new life for him and his family.  Sutter eventually opened a sawmill in Sierra California because he thought there would be a great market of people with the incoming settlers (HIST 347 lecture, October 1, 2007).  The sawmill was opened in Coloma where an employee of Sutter named James Marshall spotted gold on the property in January 1848 (Starr, 78).  Marshall immediately gave the sample of gold to Sutter.  Sutter anticipated the excitement the gold would produce so he decided to keep the news of gold quiet.  Eventually the word spread about gold by the workers and children at Coloma and in came the California Gold Rush (HIST 347 lecture, October 1, 2007). 

Success in the California Gold Rush depended in part to where and when people heard about the Gold Rush.  Where and when people heard about the California Gold Rush was based on luck.  Whether or not the people could travel to the California Gold Rush depended on their capital.  People who already lived in California had the advantage of being close and were able to become apart of the Gold Rush in its early stages.  The people of California did not need a lot of capital to be apart of the Gold Rush because there was no need to travel far.  People from nearby states like Utah and Oregon did not hear about the Gold Rush until the summer of 1848 (HIST 347 lecture, October 3, 2007).  These states were still able to easily be apart of the Gold Rush but it may of cost them more capital then the people of California.  The autumn of 1848 brought in people from nearby countries such as Peru, Chile and Mexico (HIST 347 lecture, October 3, 2007).  These people still came early but yet again it cost them more capital to come to California because they were further away.  President Polk made the official announcement that gold had been discovered in California in December of 1848.  Polk’s announcement led to the “rapid, monstrous maturity” that was the Gold Rush of 1849 (Starr, 80).  In 1849 people called the “49ers” traveled from great distances to come to the California Gold Rush.  The 49ers paid tremendous amounts of money and often left their families to come to California.  (HIST 347 lecture, October 3, 2007).  The population whom migrated into California was mainly men.  The people who lived far away and who did not have the capital to come to California were not able to be apart of the Gold Rush. 

Failure in the Gold Rush sometimes came from people who had unrealistic expectations about what the California Gold Rush could do for them.  The failure of these people did not depend of capital or luck.  Men from everywhere were coming to California “on the gamble that they could strike it rich and thereby break through to a better life” (Starr 81).  That expectation was almost fairytale like.  Many people did not realize the struggle it was to get to California and the hard work they must put into mining once they got there.  Work conditions were so harsh in 1849 that “one out of every twelve forty-niner would lose [their] life” (Starr 85).   Failure also came by miners who were too late in hearing about the gold.  These miners timing was off.  When the miners heard about the Gold Rush was based on luck.  By 1853 most of the gold on the surface of the Sierra foothills had been taken away by the gold miners.  A method called hydraulic mining started to get the gold deposits that were below the surface (HIST 347 lecture, October 10, 2007).  Hydraulic mining put the small miners out of business.  Some miners went to work for the hydraulic mining companies but most miners left the gold fields for other occupations.  The number of miners decreased drastically and the majority of miners left were the Chinese (HIST 347 lecture, October 10, 2007).  Eventually hydraulic mining was stopped because it caused so much environmental damage (Rawls, 106).  The cease of hydraulic mining put all the left over miners out of work.  The new industry age that the Gold Rush brought wiped out the small miners because they had more capital and the ability to take mining gold to the next level.  

Some people were able to be successful in the California Gold Rush because they saw the opportunities the discovery of gold brought.   Not everyone who benefited from the California Gold Rush made money by simply digging for gold.  A man named Samuel Brannan had a general store in the Sutter village (HIST 347 lecture, October 3, 2007).  Brannan noticed that people were paying him with gold.  Brannan realized that he could make a profit off of the tools the miners needed for mining gold (HIST 347 lecture, October 3, 2007).  Brannan had the capital to sell tools such as shovels and picks to the miners because he already had his general store.  Brannan happened to in the right place, which was Sutter, at the right time, which was the beginning of the California Gold Rush.  Another group of people who benefited from the Gold Rush without digging for gold were the prostitutes.  The prostitutes were not successful because of capital or luck but instead they were successful because they were educated about the Gold Rush.  The prostitutes were aware that the majority of gold miners were young men who traveled to California (Hurtado, 76).  The professional prostitutes migrated into California because they knew that men left their wives and families to come to California  (HIST 347 lecture, October 3, 2007).  The Chinese women in particular came to California because they saw in the 1850’s the “substantial numbers of Chinese men” who were migrating to California (Hurtado, 90).  There were lonely men everywhere and the prostitutes saw potential to make a lot of money.  Most of the prostitutes were women of color because they traveled from different countries to California just for prostitution (Hurtado, 92).  Parlor houses became popular at this time giving even more work to women.  Parlor houses were eventually taken over by brothels, which were not as classy as the parlor houses.  Prostitutes then developed a bad reputation (HIST 347 lecture, October 10, 2007).  Other women who were not prostitutes benefited from the Gold Rush because they were educated about the Gold Rush as well.  Women knew there was a shortage of women during the Gold Rush and therefore a shortage woman to take care of the miner’s housework.  A lot of women got jobs outside their home doing women’s work (HIST 347 lecture, October 10, 2007).  Women did not need capital or luck to see this money making opportunity the Gold Rush brought to them.  The California Gold Rush opened up opportunities for some people after the rush was over.  These people’s success did not depend on capital or luck but rather the intelligence they had to see how they could expand their money from the Gold Rush.  The California Gold Rush stimulated growth of California’s first industries (HIST 347 lecture, October 15, 2007).  The “big four” including Collis Huntington, Mark Hopkins, Charles Crocker and Leland Stanford all came into California as middle class men.  The Gold Rush allowed them to finance and control the railroad (HIST 347 lecture, October 15, 2007).  Gold mining also required timber that created the timber industry.  Finally, hydraulic mining lead to the iron and machine shops in urban California (HIST 347 lecture, October 15 2007).  Businesses and people who saw ways to make money from the Gold Rush created these industries.  Capital may have helped these industries flourish but luck was not a determining factor. 

People were successful in the Gold Rush because of capital, luck, education and timing.  A combination of all these factors would lead to the most successful people, economically as well as socially, in the California Gold Rush.  The Gold Rush brought many opportunities to people who dug for gold as well as the people who saw the money-making opportunities the Gold Rush brought beyond digging for gold.  The same factors, capital, luck, education and timing, applied to these people as well.