Today’s Wonder of the Day was inspired by Sally. Sally Wonders, “What was the California gold rush?” Thanks for WONDERing with us, Sally!

Ah, California! It’s home to the oldest tree in the world and the hottest national park. It’s known for beautiful beaches and star-studded sidewalks. Of course, the Golden State was also the setting of a major event in early U.S. history. What are we talking about? The California Gold Rush!

The California Gold Rush began on January 24, 1848, just days before the end of the Mexican-American War. It all started when James Marshall found gold at Sutter’s Mill. Marshall and John Sutter, the mill’s owner, planned to keep it a secret. However, secrets have a way of getting out.

The news of Marshall’s find spread through California. Soon, people flocked to the Sutter’s Mill area. By June 1848, much of San Francisco emptied as people left in search of gold. 

Of course, the word spread beyond California. Soon, people were coming from Oregon, Hawaii, Mexico, China, and elsewhere. Some struck it rich. However, many others worked hard in the mines for little payoff.

The United States took California from Mexico at the end of the Mexican-American War (and before that, the area had belonged to various American Indian tribes for centuries). However, the region wouldn’t become a state until 1850. When Americans on the East Coast heard about the gold, they headed west as well. By 1849, around 300,000 people had moved to the territory. They came to be called “Forty-niners” after the year many of them arrived.

The miners were not treated equally. Those who moved from China faced a great deal of trouble in California. The Foreign Miners’ Tax meant non-American miners had to pay the government $3 per month. That’s about $150 today. Those who were successful often became victims of robbery and violence.

When California became part of the U.S., it did so as a free territory. That meant slavery was illegal there. As such, many Black Americans moved to California. However, they still faced a great deal of racism. Nevertheless, some of the first gold mines in Sacramento County were owned by Black miners.

In 1848, around 150,000 American Indians lived in what is today known as California. The region was home to the Mojave, Karok, Maido, and several other tribes. By 1870, most had been killed by violence, disease, or starvation. That year, there were only about 30,000 native people left in California.

Of course, the Gold Rush also had an impact on the environment. This was especially true once large mining companies got involved. They used hydraulic drilling, which harmed both land and bodies of water. It even ruined crops. Regulations stopped this practice in 1884, but the consequences continue today. Many American Indian hunting and burial grounds were destroyed forever.

The California Gold Rush lasted until 1859, although individuals and companies continued to mine gold for decades longer. How much gold was found? The peak year was 1852, when miners uncovered about $81 million. Altogether, more than 750,000 pounds of gold were found during the Gold Rush.

Would you have moved to California during the Gold Rush? What would you have done to treat other people with respect? With some luck, you may have become one of America’s first millionaires!

Standards: CCRA.R.1. CCRA.R.2, CCRA.W.2, CCRA.W.4, CCRA.W.10, NCAS.A.1, NCAS.A.2, NCAS.A.3

Wonder What's Next?