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What was the Gold Rush?

San Francisco Harbor at the height of the Gold RushIn 1848, gold was discovered in the Sierra Nevada, a mountain range in California. By 1849, over 90,000 men, known as “forty-niners” after that year, had flocked to the area hoping to make their fortune. Very few succeeded. Even if they found gold, it usually cost too much to mine it.



Chinese gold miners in California. In 1852 more than 20,000 Chinese people landed in San Francisco, seeking gold.

Discovery of gold

In January 1848, James Marshall was inspecting his employer’s sawmill in the Sierra Nevada, California, when he noticed something glittering in the water of the millstream. He picked it up: it was gold. The news of the discovery soon spread. People came from all over America—and many parts of the world—to seek their fortunes in the goldfields of the West. Some travelled overland across the continent. Others came by sea to San Francisco.

Even when prospectors found gold, they did not usually make their fortunes. This was because the price of the gold found was low. It barely covered the cost of living at the goldfields.

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