In 1846 about 10,000 Californios (Hispanics) lived in California, primarily on cattle ranches in what is now the Los Angeles area. A few hundred foreigners were scattered in the northern districts, including some Americans. With the outbreak of war with Mexico in 1846 the U.S. sent in Frémont and a U.S. Army unit, as well as naval forces, and quickly took control. As the war was ending, gold was discovered in the north, and the word soon spread worldwide.
Thousands of “Forty-Niners” reached California, by sailing around South America or walked the California trail. The population soared to over 200,000 in 1852, mostly in the gold districts that stretched into the mountains east of San Francisco.
Housing in San Francisco was at a premium, and abandoned ships whose crews had headed for the mines were often converted to temporary lodging. In the goldfields themselves, living conditions were primitive, though the mild climate proved attractive. Supplies were expensive and food poor, typical diets consisting mostly of pork, beans, and whiskey. These highly male, transient communities with no established institutions were prone to high levels of violence, drunkenness, profanity, and greed-driven behavior. Without courts or law officers in the mining communities to enforce claims and justice, miners developed their ad hoc legal system, based on the “mining codes” used in other mining communities abroad. Each camp had its own rules and often handed out justice by popular vote, sometimes acting fairly and at times exercising vigilantes; with Indians, Mexicans, and Chinese generally receiving the harshest sentences.
The gold rush radically changed the California economy and brought in an array of professionals, including precious metal specialists, merchants, doctors, and attorneys, who added to the population of miners, saloon keepers, gamblers, and prostitutes. A San Francisco newspaper stated, “The whole country… resounds to the sordid cry of gold! Gold! Gold!, whilst the field is left half planted, the house half-built, and everything neglected but the manufacture of shovels and pickaxes.” Over 250,000 miners found a total of more than $200 million in gold in the five years of the California Gold Rush. As thousands arrived, however, fewer and fewer miners struck their fortune, and most ended exhausted and broke.
Violent bandits often preyed upon the miners, such as the case of Jonathan R. Davis’ killing of eleven bandits single-handedly. Camps spread out north and south of the American River and eastward into the Sierras. In a few years, nearly all of the independent miners were displaced as mines were purchased and run by mining companies, who then hired low-paid salaried miners. As gold became harder to find and more difficult to extract, individual prospectors gave way to paid work gangs, specialized skills, and mining machinery. Bigger mines, however, caused greater environmental damage. In the mountains, shaft mining predominated, producing large amounts of waste. Beginning in 1852, at the end of the ’49 gold rush, through 1883, hydraulic mining was used. Despite huge profits being made, it fell into the hands of a few capitalists, displaced numerous miners, vast amounts of waste entered river systems, and did heavy ecological damage to the environment. Hydraulic mining ended when the public outcry over the destruction of farmlands led to the outlawing of this practice.
The mountainous areas of the triangle from New Mexico to California to South Dakota contained hundreds of hard rock mining sites, where prospectors discovered gold, silver, copper and other minerals (as well as some soft-rock coal). Temporary mining camps sprang up overnight; most became ghost towns when the ores were depleted. Prospectors spread out and hunted for gold and silver along the Rockies and in the southwest. Soon gold was discovered in Colorado, Utah, Arizona, New Mexico, Idaho, Montana, and South Dakota by 1864.