The Gold Rushes.
True gold rushes, in the modern sense of the term, began when gold was discovered in California in 1848. There had been a small-scale prelude, when gold discoveries in Georgia, starting in 1828–1830, attracted a surprisingly large and cosmopolitan crowd. The rush to California dwarfed its Georgia predecessor. Its proportions were immense. Everywhere men abandoned their families, businesses, and, one might say, common sense, in order to start for this remote, little-known land where even the humblest and least experienced might hope suddenly to become a modern Croesus.
At least a quarter of a million men reached “El Dorado” during the five years (1848–1853) that constituted the gold rush proper, and there they produced an extraordinary quantity of gold, valued in excess of $200 million. Although most were Americans, the gold seekers came from virtually every part of the civilized world, including China. . . .
Life in the California Gold Rush.
Fundamental to comprehending the California gold rush and the great rushes that succeeded it is the fact that these were unplanned, uncoordinated movements of large numbers of free and independent individuals, who were subject neither to serfdom nor any other control save their own wills. Although many “forty-niners” organized themselves into formally constituted “companies” before they left home, virtually all these groups disintegrated immediately upon reaching California. The individual was left to work out his own destiny among strangers in a strange land that was utterly unprepared to cope with a horde of newcomers.
Although merchants and shipowners throughout the world quickly adjusted their operations to serve this booming new market, food and supplies of all kinds were scarce, expensive, and subject to erratic price fluctuations. Wages were abnormally high, but so was the cost of living. Housing was primitive and costly in the towns and did not exist at the mines, save as each man built his own or pitched a tent. . . .
Other North American Gold Rushes.
The rush to Fraser River [British Columbia, Canada] drew its recruits chiefly from California. There, by 1858, the boom days were over, and the state was filled with men who had learned how to prospect and mine, how to organize society and government on a mining frontier, and how to take advantage of speculative opportunities. With the output of the more easily worked goldfields declining and conditions no longer favorable to men with little capital, these veterans hoped for new lands as inviting as California had been in 1848 or Australia in 1851.
When Fraser River's attractions proved to be exaggerated, these men spread throughout the Far West, as new rumors of “rich finds” reached them. They became a new type of frontiersman—the leaders of the mining frontier, the first-comers to each boom, the experienced hands who showed tenderfeet how to mine and how to behave. They opened the great silver deposits of the Comstock Lode of Nevada, starting in 1859. They invaded the rugged mountains and forests of the northern Rockies to begin gold mining in Idaho, Montana, and the interior of British Columbia in the early 1860's.
“Old Californians,” as they called themselves, were among those who led the way to Colorado's steep canyons in 1859, penetrated the dusty interior of Nevada in the 1860's, struggled through the arid Southwest, and in the 1870's joined with greenhorns in rushing to the Black Hills of South Dakota, the Indian- plagued region around Tombstone, Arizona, and even southernmost Alaska and northern British Columbia.
What was the significance of the frenetic activity that constituted the gold rushes? First, it stimulated shipping, commerce, and manufacturing throughout the civilized world in the second half of the 19th century. Second, the huge increase in the supply of gold inflated the world's currencies and led to the adoption of the gold standard by most of the leading nations. Third, the presence today of great cities such as San Francisco, Denver, Vancouver, and Melbourne suggests that gold rushes abruptly introduced modern civilization into regions that hitherto had been isolated, slow-growing provinces or untouched wilderness.
True, the gold-rush towns were socially unstable and economically unbalanced. They existed only to serve an impatient crowd of men—women represented but a tiny portion of the population. Thus composed, many a gold-rush community proved ephemeral and is today a ghost town. In the absence of more enduring pursuits such as agriculture and stockraising, there was little to support a gold- rush region once its mineral deposits had ceased to yield a profit at the prevailing cost of wages, capital, and transportation.
Fourth, the gold rushes attracted stagecoach, express, freight, and even railroad service into sparsely populated lands. By providing local markets they encouraged farming, and they made possible a considerable regional accumulation of capital. Finally, the gold rushes introduced Americans to an industry that was unfamiliar to most of them in 1848. By the late 19th century American miners, mining engineers, manufacturers of mining equipment, and mining capitalists were in demand throughout the world.
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Last updated: 31 October, 1996