The California Gold Rush

Striking it rich

The origins of the Golden State

by Gabriela Schneider

In The Way West, Mom likes to emphasize her connection to the brave and determined homesteaders of the old west, the people who persevered through dangers and struggles to build new lives for their families. The pioneer spirit is certainly an enduring idea in the culture of California and the United States, but as Mom’s daughter Meesh points out in the play, it was not all so idealistic: “it’s really about … People coming out here and trying to make a quick buck.” Manifest Destiny had a mercenary aspect, and nowhere was that more clearly embodied than in the California Gold Rush.

Vintage gold rush-era advertisement "California Clipper 500" by G.F. Nesbitt & Co., printer

James Marshall found the nugget that would launch the Gold Rush in January of 1848, in the waters of the American River at Sutter’s Mill near what is now Sacramento. Even though news traveled slowly in those days, Marshall and Sutter could not keep the gold a secret for long. By 1849 word of gold had reached the eastern US, and California was suddenly inundated with people, nicknamed “forty-niners” after the year they arrived. The California Gold Rush has been called the largest mass migration in history. In 1848, there were about 8,000 non-native settlers in the region, but over the next seven years, 300,000 people came to California. Perhaps half came overland on the pioneer trails, and the rest reached the west coast by ship, sailing around Cape Horn from the east coast and Europe or across the Pacific from China and Australia. Shortly after the first gold had been discovered, California became a US territory as part of the peace treaty ending the Mexican-American War; just two years later, in 1850, it became a US state.

A prospector panning for gold during the California Gold Rush

Many sources claim the earliest prospectors could pick up gold nuggets right off the ground. As outrageous as that sounds, it is certainly true that since gold was concentrated in the riverbeds it was easy to extract by simple methods such as panning, which required no expensive equipment or special training. The gold in the rivers was so easy to get to that gold production peaked very quickly and then declined within a few years. Once more technically advanced mining methods came into use, mining companies made most of the profits, and by 1855 the Gold Rush was over.

Although the Gold Rush was not a speculative bubble per se, it followed a similar pattern of unsustainable growth, and set a cultural precedent for later bubbles. The feverish obsession with which people flocked to California to try their luck at gold mining became a part of the state’s identity—a California Dream. Whereas the original American Dream, based on the worldview of the Puritans, promised contentment and progress in exchange for hard work, the California Dream offered a tantalizing prospect of striking it rich or making it big. The Way West portrays the bubble mentality that led to the economic upheavals of the last decade as part of the legacy of this California Dream. While Mom’s stories of the pioneers are rooted in the original American Dream of earning one’s success, Meesh’s more biting interpretation exposes an uncomfortable truth of the Golden State. Sometimes the California Dream works; even when the prospectors themselves failed to strike it rich, the businesses that sprang up around them established a functioning economy for the new state, just as today Hollywood and Silicon Valley are centers of prosperity even though success there proves to be a pipe dream for many individuals. Sometimes, however, the dream is a bust for everyone, and the housing crash was so widespread and so damaging that it calls the entire foundation of the dream into question.