clipping gold foundOn 24 January 1848, at Sutter’s Mill on the American River in California, a carpenter named James Marshall picked up a chunk of gold the size of half a pea. So began the California Goldrush. Within months newspapers were reporting the find, and would-be miners headed west to look for gold themselves. In 1849 prospectors - nicknamed “Forty-Niners” - flooded in from all over the world, coming by lengthy ship voyages or taking the difficult, dangerous overland route across the USA.

California grew rapidly from a population in 1848 of about 8000 immigrants (not counting Native Americans or Mexican “Californios”) to almost 100,000 by the end of 1849. San Francisco had been a small town of 800 in 1847; by the end of 1849 it had grown to 15,000, and by 1851 34,000.

The Goldrush, with its notion that you could become rich in a moment, underpinned the American Dream. But the reality of mining was different. Miners worked long hours doing backbreaking work in cold, wet conditions, for little return. It was relatively easy to find tiny flakes of gold by searching the mud and sand from rivers, and that’s what kept people going, with the hope that those elusive bigger nuggets might be uncovered.

Prospectors soon discovered that in the remote camps they lived in, food, tools and other supplies were available only at vastly inflated prices. In fact, those who grew wealthy from the Goldrush were usually the suppliers of goods and services to miners rather than the miners themselves.

For some, the lawlessness of the place was appealing. Churches were rare, as were women and children, and the social glue of family and community was almost nonexistent. Men who had gone west with the intention of bringing fortune back east to their families sometimes decided to remain, preferring the looser social code. Gambling, prostitution and alcohol were all common, and that too is where a lot of miners’ earnings went.