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Gold Rush

Ships moored in San Francisco Harbor at the height of the Gold Rush, 1851 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 of gold in California 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. By 1849 over 90,000 men, called “forty-niners” after the year, had flocked to the area hoping to make their fortune. Very few succeeded. 


At the goldfields

On a Californian goldfield, some prospectors look for gold dust in running water while others dig beneath the ground. A wealthier...Read More >>On a Californian goldfield, some prospectors look for gold dust in running water while others dig beneath the ground. A wealthier prospector has opened up a mine in the side of a hill.On arriving in the goldfields, miners staked their claim. Sites near streams were greatly preferred, as running water was the best way to find fragments of gold: it took away all the unwanted mud and gravel, leaving behind the heavier gold dust.
Miners often teamed up together to help speed up gold extraction. Some built rough wooden channels, hoping to trap fragments of gold in them. Others simply scooped up mud into pans or wooden troughs.
A forty-niner panning for gold, California, 1850

Panning for gold

The wealthiest man in California during the Gold Rush was a shopkeeper, not a gold miner: Samuel Brannan, who opened a chain of shops selling supplies to prospectors.

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