The Gold Rush
In 1849, a worker discovered nuggets of gold in the machinery at Sutter’s Mill. The news that chunks of gold were just sitting there on the riverbeds for the taking spread like wildfire. The Gold Rush was on. People from the East Coast and all over the world streamed into California by land and by sea, seeking a fortune in gold—or a fortune in serving or selling to the gold-seekers. Thousands of men panned every available stream for nuggets, then water-blasted hillsides away seeking the elusive precious metal.
Even then, the wanton destruction caused by the blasting was quickly seen to be a problem. And so the famous hard-rock mines of California began construction. Though panning continued (hope springs eternal, after all), by the 1860s most of the rough men had taken jobs working in the deep, dangerous mines.
With the influx of gold seekers, new cities sprang up almost overnight. The previously small town of San Francisco became the major port of entry for immigrants. Sacramento’s river location made it a perfect transportation hub and waypoint between San Francisco and the gold fields. Mining towns like Sonora, Volcano, Placerville, Sutter’s Creek, and Nevada City swelled to huge proportions, only to shrink back into obscurity as the mines closed one by one in the 20th century.
As American and European men came to California to seek their fortunes in gold, a few wives and children joined them, but the number of families in the average mining town was small. Yet a few lone women did join in the rush to the gold fields. These ladies took up “the oldest profession,” servicing the population of single male miners and laborers in desperate need of (ahem) female companionship.
The other major group of immigrants at this time came to California from a land distant in both distance and culture: China. Thousands of Chinese men came, not to mine, but to labor and serve the white miners. Most were forced to pass through the wretched immigration facilities on Angel Island in the middle of San Francisco Bay—sometimes being essentially imprisoned for months before either being allowed onto the mainland or summarily shipped back to China.
San Francisco’s Chinatown became a hub for the immigrants, a place where their language was spoken and their culture comprehended. But thousands headed east, becoming low-level laborers in the industry surrounding the mines, or workers on the railroads endlessly spooling out to connect Gold Country to the rest of the state and eventually to the East Coast by way of the Transcontinental Railroad.
© Liz Hamill Scott from Moon California, 2nd Edition