On January 24, 1848, a carpenter named James Marshall discovered gold in northern California, setting off the grandest gold rush in American history.
Marshall made his discovery while building a sawmill on the south fork of the American River for wealthy landowner John Sutter. He spotted some shining flecks in the water, scooped them up, and declared, “Boys, by God, I believe I’ve found a gold mine.”
He took the nuggets to Sutter, who tried to keep the discovery quiet out of fear his land would be overrun. But word leaked out, especially after newspaper publisher and merchant Samuel Brannan bought all the shovels he could find and then paraded the streets of San Francisco waving a bottle of gold and yelling, “Gold, gold, gold from the American River!” He resold his shovels at a handsome profit.
The news filtered back east. After President Polk announced an “abundance of gold” that could “scarcely command belief,” the stampede was on. By 1849, tens of thousands of Fortyniners were headed for California. The New York Herald reported that “in every Atlantic seaport, vessels are being filled up, societies are being formed, husbands are preparing to leave their wives, sons are parting with their mothers, and bachelors are abandoning their comforts; all are rushing head over heels toward the El Dorado on the Pacific.”
They traveled overland and by sea, from the U.S. and around the world. As far away as China, California became known as Gum Shan – the Mountain of Gold. In about a year San Francisco grew from a hamlet to a city of 25,000.
A lucky few struck it rich in the gold fields. Most did not. Sutter himself died bankrupt after fortune-seekers invaded his lands. But the gold rush spurred the development of the West. By 1850, California contained enough people to become the thirty-first state.