After the Gold Rush

After the Gold Rush

Famous for the inpouring of miners and the promise of wealth, the California gold rush also had negative consequences for the environment and many of its residents.


4 - 12+


Anthropology, Geography, Human Geography, Social Studies, Economics, World History

NGS Resource Carousel Loading Logo
Loading ...

Spurred by James Marshall’s discovery of gold in the American River during the winter of 1848, a flood of fortune-seekers came to the California frontier. (At the time, California was under U.S. control.) Though the riches found in the state’s rivers and mines eventually amounted to little more than a flash in the pan, the lingering effects of the massive migration known as the California gold rush would dramatically alter the political, social, and environmental landscape of California.


According to Malcolm J. Rohrbough, a gold rush historian and the author of Days of Gold: The California Gold Rush and the American Nation, the countryside of California was torn up as the newly arrived settlers searched for gold. They used high-powered jets of water to wash away hillsides in a practice known as hydraulic mining, and burrowed thousands of mine shafts into the foothills of the Sierra Nevada Mountains.

“Environmentally, the discovery of gold was a disaster,” he says. “People described the California landscape as looking like it had been dug up by giant moles.”

Eventually, the effects of mining began to harm a new industry developing in California’s Central Valley during the mid-1800s. “The major impact it had was on agriculture, because the mining involved digging up the rivers and producing all this silt,” Rohrbough says. “It also involved, in many cases, using mercury in the process of separating the gold out. All of this flowed downstream, and it heavily damaged the rivers as far as agricultural use is concerned.”

Rohrbough says that throughout the 1860s and 1870s, a fierce conflict developed between the mining and agricultural industries. By the mid-1870s, the California government realized that agriculture was more lucrative than mining. They passed a series of laws that restricted the impact of mining on rivers.

“For example, they outlaw hydraulic mining,” the historian notes. “They severely restrict dredging.”

Social Growth

The California gold rush turned the once-rural expanse of California into an area dotted with towns and cities.

“The gold rush put San Francisco on the map,” Rohrbough says. “It also was instrumental in the founding and growth of Stockton and Sacramento.”

The importance of San Francisco was validated when it was decided that the first transcontinental railroad, a train line that connected the east coast and the west coast of the United States, would have its western terminus in the growing city.

“The transcontinental railroad in a sense solidifies San Francisco’s position as the dominant western city, which it will remain until the railroad spreads and brings Los Angeles into play,” Rohrbough says.

The influx of gold-seekers to California also affected the makeup of the state’s population. The Mexican people who had lived in the region when it was part of Mexico saw their influence erode.

The Americans began to exert their power by passing the Foreign Miners License Law, a discriminatory piece of legislation that charged foreign miners a $20 fee per month. “The fact that it was passed suggests that it was passed deliberately to try to exclude foreign miners from the best of the claims,” Rohrbough says.

Though the $20 a month foreign mining fee was repealed, a new $3 a month tax was aimed primarily at the Chinese miners, according to Rohrbough.

The historian notes the small number of women around the gold fields gave the women who arrived in California a multitude of ways to make money. “They [the California gold mining regions] were among the most male places in the world,” he says. “The scarcity of women certainly enhanced their advantages and their commercial opportunities.”

Golden State

According to Rohrbough, one of the California gold rush’s main contributions was the rapid “Americanization” of California. He says that the flood of gold-seekers was a major factor in California becoming a state in 1850, while the territories of New Mexico and Arizona, which were acquired at the same time, didn’t enjoy statehood status until 1912.

Before the gold rush, California was a frontier with only a tenuous connection to the rest of the United States. But the massive amount of Americans who settled in California stayed connected to their families on the East Coast and in the Midwest. They considered the state an extension of the United States, according to Rohrbough.

“I think it’s a significant event, because the California Gold Rush was the decisive influence in bringing together the east with the newly acquired western extensions of the American empire, especially California,” he says. “In other words, the Gold Rush didn’t separate the nation by creating an east and a west. It united the nation by bringing the west into the rest of the nation.”

Fast Fact

Capital Change
Monterey was the capital of California under Spanish and Mexican rule, beginning in 1777. When California became a U.S. state in 1850, the capital was moved to Sacramento where gold had been discovered just two years earlier.

Fast Fact

Golden Governors
Nine of the first 10 governors of the U.S. state of California were forty-niners, immigrants who came to the state during the gold rush. The first Californian governor of the state was Romualdo Pacheco of Santa Barbara, who served less than a year in 1875.

Fast Fact

Gold Rushes
The U.S. state of California isn't the only region redefined by a gold rush. Australia experienced the Victorian Gold Rush in 1851. The continents population almost tripled in 10 years. South Africa's Witwatersrand gold rush created the city of Johannesburg, now the nation's capital.

Media Credits

The audio, illustrations, photos, and videos are credited beneath the media asset, except for promotional images, which generally link to another page that contains the media credit. The Rights Holder for media is the person or group credited.

Stuart Thornton
Jeannie Evers, Emdash Editing, Emdash Editing
Kara West
National Geographic Society
Last Updated

April 17, 2024

For information on user permissions, please read our Terms of Service. If you have questions about how to cite anything on our website in your project or classroom presentation, please contact your teacher. They will best know the preferred format. When you reach out to them, you will need the page title, URL, and the date you accessed the resource.


If a media asset is downloadable, a download button appears in the corner of the media viewer. If no button appears, you cannot download or save the media.


Text on this page is printable and can be used according to our Terms of Service.


Any interactives on this page can only be played while you are visiting our website. You cannot download interactives.

Related Resources