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. 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.”
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 that the small number of women around the gold fields gave the females that 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.”
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.”