History 383 - Dr. Gayle Olson-Raymer

The California Gold Rush and the Contoversy over the State Constitution

Image from the Gold Rush


Goals for Today's Discussion:
  1. To examine the "bottom line" facts about and the major consequences of the California Gold Rush.
  2. To understand the different types of mining that took place in the Sierra
  3. To unravel the political intensions of Californians as they planned their new state government and created their first constitution.
  4. To examine the five major debates that occurred during California's Constitutional Convention.
  5. To examine a different perspective of the Americanization of California and the consequences of the California Gold Rush through the eyes of Rodolfo Acuna.
map california gold area 1850

Goal #1: To examine the "bottom line" facts about and the major consequences of the California Gold Rush

Gold Rush Facts:

  1. Gold was discovered on January 24, 1848 by James Marshall at Sutter's Mill in Coloma. Gold initially was valued from $12.00 to $35.00 an ounce. (In 2012, an ounce is worth approximately $1,500)
  2. The lure of sudden wealth brought about rapid, uncontrolled population growth of California.
  3. All the gold produced in the century between 1840-1940 was worth less than the value of 1 year's agricultural output of the state in the 1960s.

Major Consequences of the Gold Rush

  1. Many of the men already in California - sailors, soldiers, landless tenants - abandoned their jobs/trades to get rich quick.
  2. Americans as well as people from around the world came to California to get rich quick and then return home to live on their wealth.
  3. Some east coast businessmen who were already wealthy gained further wealth, especially by transporting people to California by sea.
  4. Chinese workers immigrated to the gold fields and attempted to assimilate into the economic life of California.
  5. Very few individuals really prospered from placer mining. Most of the large profits fell into the hands of corporations who could afford hydraulic and quartz mining. In 1855, Hinton Rowland Helper published The Land of Gold: Reality versus Fiction. In it he stated that after three months of digging in the mines, he had realized a profit of 93 and three-quarter cents. His conclusion, "California can and does furnish the best bad things that are obtainable anywhere in America."
  6. Hydraulic and quartz mining dramatically Photograph of mining damagedamaged California's landscape - damage that can still be seen in some parts of the Sierras today. Bayard Taylor's publication in 1852 of New Pictures from California described a hydraulic operation where a sixteen-foot nozzle directed water at a hillside at 120 pounds of pressure per square inch: "Like a giant bleeding to death from a single vein - the mountain washed itself away." In a later book published in 1854, he wrote the hydraulic mining had washed "enough material into the Yuba River to fill the Erie Canal." As can be seen in the photograph to the left taken on the American River in 1852, placer mining attracted huge populations of miners.
  7. Mexicans were dispossessed of their land and their political power - not just by racial policies and procedures directed against them, but also at the hands of Mexican rancheros who assumed that siding with the white settlers would guarantee them positions of power and prestige in the new state of California.
  8. Small-time politicians, or those seeking greater political power, came to California looking for new political opportunities. Many Southerners who feared the federal government planned to legally bring an end to slavery, saw bringing California into the union as a slave state as the key to their economic survival.
  9. California might have been better off if gold had never been discovered; given its other natural advantages, it might have become just a populous and prosperous - but such prosperity would have been more gradual, orderly, and civilized. This is a recent, revisionist interpretation of the consequences of the Gold Rush.

Goal #2: To understand the different types of mining that took place in the Sierras

Placer, Hydraulic and Quartz Mining (quotes from Leonard Richards, The California Gold Rush and the Coming of the Civil War. NY: Vintage Press, 2007)

Sketch of Placer MiningPlacer mining. Individuals and small companies washed "loose" gold from the riverbanks, streams, gulches, and sandbars. Richards' description is excellent:

"The technology was simple. Placer miners relied mainly on moving water and the heaviness of gold, which caused it to settle to the bottom of whatever recovery device they used. Three devices were common. the simplest and best known was the pan. More complicated was a rocker, a wooden box with riffles on the bottom that was rocked back and forth. More sophicated yet was a sluice, a long wooden box with cleats on the bottom that was placed in a running stream. Panning was hard work. The miner first shoveled pay direct into the pan, preferably one that had a flat bottom and tapered sides, about three inches deep and eighteen inches in diameter. Then he submerged the pan into water, rocked it back and forth to get a whirlpool effect, and allowed the lighter dirt, sand, and gravel to wash over the lip until only the heavier gold was left. The process took some time to master, and fifty pans were considered a good day's work." (pp. 83-84)

Over 500 placer camps existed in the Sierras during the Gold Rush.

By 1851, placer mining was gradually coming to an end. As more and more people flocked to the Sierra, there were too many people for profitable placer mining. Eventually, it became clear that individual, placer mining was no longer profitable; to profitably mine gold, Californians were going to have to invite corporations into the state - their hydraulic mining machinery was necessary to keep mining in business.

Hydraulic mining. Large corporations used sophisticated equipment to mine veins of gold embedded in hard rock and gravel ridges. Again, Richards provides a good description:

"Open pit mining...necessitated steam shovels. More expensive yet was hard-rock mining...it necessitated digging shafts, drilling holes for blasting, blasting with black power, mucking the loosened rock into ore cares that were transported by mules to the main shaft, then loading it into ore skips that were hoisted out of the mine, then crushing it at the stamp mill into sand-sized particles, and then chemically processing the particles." (p. 85)

Photo of hydraulic mining

Painting of hydraulic miningBy 1851, some miners who recognized that the placer gold was decreasing, began to get together with their neighbors and form partnerships and joint-stock associations - and so corporate, hydraulic mining with expensive equipment and hundreds of company men took over the gold mining efforts in the Sierras.

By 1860, hydraulic mining "was strictly big business, with a handful of owners and hundreds of wage laborers." (Richards: 87) Everyone knew it was destroying the land, but it was not until 1880 that the practice was banned. By then, it had yielded over $100 million in gold, or one-third of the total gold produced.

Dredging. As gold around the streams and rivers decreased, millions of tons of earth had to be dug up and sifted to recover a few ounces of gold. The dredging machinery became bigger and more imaginative. Early dredges had a single scoop while later ones had a whole chain of buckets.

Working deep beneath the surface, the Photo of dredge mining, Butte County in 1901dreging machines gouged tons of gravel, rocks and mud from the riverbed to recover a small amount of gold. The gold was separated on the barge, and the waste - called "tailings" - was thrown out on the bank. Soon there were mountains of tailings as tall as a seven-story building. These huge, barren mountains of waste rock are visible today as you drive through parts of the Sacramento Valley.

Quartz or hard rock mining. Even though the gold found around stream beds was soon exhausted, there was still plenty of gold left in California. But much of it was encased in quartz veins deep within the mountains. Hard-rock miners took over, using their pickaxes to dig shafts up to 40 feet deep. Thousands of miles of tunnels were dug and blasted through the mountains, shored up with timber cut from the local forests. They loaded the quartz ore into buckets and ore cars, then pulverized it in stamp mills. Mercury (it was called quicksilver then) was used to separate the gold from the fine powder.

Such work required large corporations that could afford the machinery and dynamite. Photo of Miners going into the Empire Mine in Grass valley in 1900Many used the Cornish pump - brought by Cornish miners and engineers from Cornwell, England - to remove water from the long shafts dug into quarz veins of gold. The main shaft in the Empire Mining Company that was incorporated in 1850, went down 102 feet. In the photo to the right, you can witness the depth of these mines and how miners ascended into them.

This was dangerous work. Explosions, cave-ins, flooding and poisonous fumes from the mercury killed and injured many miners. If done properly, hard-rock mining is less destructive than other forms of mining. But the early hard-rock miners were careless, and their refining techniques were crude. Tons of toxic mercury were washed down from the mountains, where it killed fish and wildlife. Large quantities of mercury still remain in the bottom of rivers and in San Francisco Bay, where they have entered the food chain.

By 1851 , seven or eight quartz mine corporations existed in Grass Valley alone. The Empire Mining Company operated until 1956 and produced an estimated 5.8 million ounces of gold from 367 miles of underground tunnels.


Goal #3: To unravel the political intensions of Californians as they planned their new state government and created their first constitution

Between the end of the Mexican American War and California’s admission as the 31st state, political authority in California was a hybrid arrangement that struck a precarious balance between American military government and local governmental procedures from the Mexican Era.

Class Assignment: Working in groups of 4-5, take 15 minutes to examine the Members of the California Constitutional Convention, 1849 and to address the questions posed at the bottom of the page. What these men argued about and what they accomplished during the six weeks they met in Monterey formed the basis of what was to become the 31st state.

The delegates in Monterey confronted 5 major debates while creating California's first constitution.

Map of larger proposed state of California in 1850

The new constitution was submitted to the voters in December, 1849 and passed by a vote of 12,064 to 811 - although the voting turnout was quite poor.


Goal #4: To examine a different perspective of the Americanization of California and the consequences of the California Gold Rush through the eyes of Rodolfo Acuna


Conclusions - The California Gold Rush and the Controversy over the State Constitution

  1. Immigrants did not come to California as pioneers hoping to build a new land; they came with the hope of getting rich quick. Most of the "49ers" stayed not because they had become rich, but because they had failed to accumulate enough money to get them back home.
  2. Few individuals made it rich in the gold mines; instead, most profit in gold country came from corporate stockholders and employees and the owners whose laundries, hotels, restaurants, bars, clothing and hardward stores, and brothels provided services for the miners.
  3. The corporate mines had an impact both on California, and on the world as a whole. As Richards explains:
  4. The Gold Rush had many short- and long-term consequences for California:
  5. Delegates to California's first constitutional convention debated many topics, most important of which were whether California should be a state or territory (state); California should be free or slave (free), married women should have property rights (yes); its borders should be large or limited to the Sierras (limited); and if corporate stockholders should have limited liability (no).
  6. Historians James J. Rawls and Walton Bean conclude that "The gold rush was the product of a kind of mass hysteria, and it set a tone for California and created a state of mind in which greed predominated and disorder and violence were all too frequent." (California: An Interpretive History, Ninth Edition, p. 115)

For more Gold Rush resources, see: