On January 24, 1848, James Marshall announced the discovery of gold at Sutter's Mill. The California Star printed a special edition which was sent to St. Louis and quickly set the country aflame with gold fever. This two-hour PBS documentary covers the highlights of the enormous changes to a young country that were accelerated by this discovery.
The first year of the gold rush, 1848, was probably the best opportunity for your labor to return amazing dividends. Things that seemed too good to be true, really happened. Gold was near the surface, and you could turn up enough gold in a day's work to retire from it and buy a farm. A Californio teacher in the Los Angeles area came to try his luck and dug 8 POUNDS of gold -- worth about $14,000 back then.
The nuggets found were certified as real gold by government officials and then the real rush began. Gold fields had white, free blacks, Californios (Californians of Mexican descent) and even Chinese digging cheek-by-jowl. Even sailors abandoned ship to try their luck. The thinking was that as long as you were willing to do the work, you were welcome to try.
In 1849, however, the mood abruptly changed. Only white Americans held onto land claims, as Chinese, Mexicans and blacks were forced off their claims. In 1850, the California government passed a law taxing foreign miners. The Chinese grimly paid the tax and toiled on. The only Mexicans still in the game were hired hands for bigger operations. Also the legislature passed a law, ironically named the "Protection of Indians" act, that permitted any Indian who was not gainfully employed to be sold and his labor used for four months without compensation.
It is a truism that from 1849 on, the ones who profited most were those who "mined the miners" -- the merchants who supplied, fed, clothed, housed, and entertained those digging up the central California landscape. Levi Strauss supplied the work pants, and his name still lives on. A man named Brannon ran a dry-goods store that sold the men their shovels and picks. Needless to say, he did very well.
Meanwhile some voices (mainly Easterners) bewailed what the search for easy riches was doing to traditional values of hard work. Little did they know the long hours of backbreaking work that went into getting even $20 worth. The seeming randomness of strikes was discouraging. One may get only $7 in a day or week, while a claim right next to him turned up a huge nugget.
The surface gold had been quickly exhausted, leaving some seekers chasing a dream for years and sacrificing their health before giving up. California river banks were scoured out in an environmental disaster of Herculean proportions, to get at hidden veins. Some even tried diverting rivers to search the bed for nuggets.
Still, a few extraordinary mines produced incredible wealth. The Murphy Brothers struck gold within days of their arrival. By the end of their first year, they had a million and a half in gold (about $37 million in today's money). Three German miners worked a place called Rich's Bar on the north end of the gold field, producing $23 millions' worth ($561 million in 2005 dollars). Just a handful of these and other major strikes produced the bulk of California's gold output.
What ended the Gold Rush? It wasn't so much that the veins were mined out -- they still produced millions of dollars worth of gold each year. It was the discovery of silver in Nevada's Comstock Lode in 1859 that instantly changed the locus of mining in the West.
"The Gold Rush", PBS-American Experience, 2006, 120 minutes. Three-and-a-half stars; I prefer the various History Channel episodes on this chapter in US history, although the PBS map of gold strikes is unique and very helpful.