American History 1785 - 1849

United States History The Gold Rush

William Smith Jewett
William Smith Jewett (1812-1873)
Portrait of General John A. Sutter, 1856

In January 1848 some men were building a sawmill for William John A. Sutter near what is now Sacramento, California. John Marshall was in charge of the building. He was walking along the stream leading to the mill when he came across some yellow stones in the stream. He had them tested. They were gold.


California was thousands of miles from the rest of the United States. It took almost a year for the news about finding the gold to get to the East. When the news arrived "gold fever" hit hard.


People from all parts of the United States headed for California.   All over the nation stores closed. Families broke up. Schools closed. People headed for California. These people were called 49ers because of the year 1849. Most of the people traveled overland in wagons. Most wagon trains left from St. Louis. The trip took many months. Some problems the 49ers faced were:

  • The weather could be dangerous (In the spring there was mud. The mountains were snow covered.) Many people died from exposure.

  • The Native Americans were hostile.

  • The desert was treacherous.

Most of the 49ers did not find gold. Some came home. Others stayed in California. They opened shops or farmed. By 1850 there were enough people living in the territory to apply for statehood. Some people wanted California to become a state. Others didn't. Arguments took place over whether it should be a free or a slave state.


Mountain Jack and a Wandering Miner
E. Hall Martin (1818-1851)
Mountain Jack and a Wandering Miner, c. 1850

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