These early gold-seekers, called "forty-niners," traveled to California by sailing ship and in covered wagons across the continent, often facing substantial hardships on the trip. While most of the newly-arrived were Americans, the Gold Rush also attracted tens of thousands from Latin America, Europe, Australia and Asia.
At first, the prospectors retrieved the gold from streams and riverbeds using simple techniques, such as panning, and later developed more sophisticated methods of gold recovery that were adopted around the world. Gold worth billions of today's dollars was recovered, leading to great wealth for a few; many, however, returned home with little more than they started with.
The effects of the Gold Rush were substantial. San Francisco grew from a tiny hamlet of tents to a boomtown, and roads, churches, schools and other towns were built. A system of laws and a government were created, leading to the admission of California as a state in 1850. New methods of transportation developed as steamships came into regular service and railroads were built. The business of agriculture, California's next major growth field, was started on a wide scale throughout the state. However, the Gold Rush also had negative effects: Native Americans were attacked and pushed off traditional lands, and gold mining caused environmental harm.
The Gold Rush started at Sutter's Mill, near Coloma on January 24, 1848. James W. Marshall, a foreman working for Sacramento pioneer John Sutter found pieces of shiny metal in the tailrace of a lumber mill Marshall was building for Sutter, along the American River. Marshall quietly brought what he found to Sutter, and the two of them privately tested the findings. The tests showed Marshall's particles to be gold. Sutter was dismayed by this, and wanted to keep the news quiet because he feared what would happen to his plans for an agricultural empire if there were a mass search for gold. However, rumors soon started to spread and were confirmed in March 1848 by San Francisco newspaper publisher and merchant Samuel Brannan. The most famous quote of the California Gold Rush was by Brannan; after he hurriedly set up a store to sell gold prospecting supplies, Brannan strode through the streets of San Francisco, holding aloft a vial of gold, shouting "Gold! Gold! Gold from the American River!"
On August 19, 1848, the New York Herald was the first major newspaper on the East Coast to report that there was a gold rush in California; on December 5, President James Polk confirmed the discovery of gold in an address to Congress. Soon, waves of immigrants from around the world, later called the "forty-niners," invaded the Gold Country of California or "Mother Lode." As Sutter had feared, he was ruined; his workers left in search of gold, and squatters invaded his land and stole his crops and cattle.
San Francisco had been a tiny settlement before the rush began. When residents learned of the discovery, it at first became a ghost town of abandoned ships and businesses whose owners joined the Gold Rush, but it then boomed as merchants and new people arrived. The population of San Francisco exploded from perhaps 1,000 in 1848 to 25,000 full-time residents by 1850. As with many boomtowns, the sudden influx of people strained the infrastructure of San Francisco and other towns near the goldfields. People lived in tents, wood shanties, or deck cabins removed from abandoned ships.
In what has been referred to as the "first world-class gold rush," there was no easy way to get to California; forty-niners faced hardship and often death on the way to the gold fields. At first, most Argonauts, as they were also known, traveled by sea. From the East Coast, a sailing voyage around the tip of South America would take five to eight months, and cover some 18,000 nautical miles (33,000 km). An alternative route was to sail to the Atlantic side of the Isthmus of Panama, to take canoes and mules for a week through the jungle, and then on the Pacific side, to wait for a ship sailing for San Francisco. There was also a route across Mexico starting at Vera Cruz. Eventually, most gold-seekers took the overland route across the continental United States, particularly along the California Trail. Each of these routes had its own deadly hazards, from shipwreck to typhoid fever to cholera.
To meet the demands of the new arrivals, ships bearing goods from around the world%u2014porcelain and silk from China, ale from Scotland%u2014poured into San Francisco as well. Upon reaching San Francisco, ship captains found that their crews deserted and went to the gold fields. The wharves and docks of San Francisco became a forest of masts, as hundreds of ships were abandoned. Enterprising San Franciscans then took over these abandoned ships and turned them into warehouses, stores, taverns, hotels, and one into a jail.Many of these ships were later destroyed and used for landfill to create more buildable land in the boomtown.
Within a few years, there was an important but lesser-known surge of prospectors into far Northern California, specifically into present-day Siskiyou, Shasta and Trinity Counties. Discovery of gold nuggets at the site of present-day Yreka in 1851 brought thousands of gold-seekers up the Siskiyou Trail and throughout California's northern counties.Settlements of the Gold Rush era, such as Portuguese Flat on the Sacramento River, sprang into existence and then faded. The Gold Rush town of Weaverville on the Trinity River today retains the oldest continuously-used Taoist temple in California, a legacy of Chinese miners who came. While there are not many Gold Rush era ghost towns still in existence, the well-preserved remains of the once-bustling town of Shasta is a Californiia State Historic Park in Northern California.
Gold was also discovered in Southern California but on a much smaller scale. The first discovery of gold, at Rancho San Francisco in the mountains north of present-day Los Angeles, had been in 1842, six years before Marshall's discovery, while California was still part of Mexico. However, these first deposits, and later discoveries in Southern California mountains, attracted little notice and were of limited consequence economically.
By 1850, most of the easily accessible gold had been collected, and attention turned to the task of extracting the gold from more difficult locations. Faced with gold that was increasingly difficult to retrieve, Americans began to drive out foreigners to get at the most accessible gold that remained. The new California State Legislature passed a foreign miners tax of twenty dollars per month, and American prospectors began organized attacks on foreign miners, particularly Latin Americans and Chinese. In addition, the huge numbers of newcomers were driving Native Americans out of their traditional hunting, fishing and food gathering areas. To protect their homes and livelihood, Native Americans responded by attacking the miners. This provoked counter-attacks by miners on native villages. The Native Americans, out-gunned, were often slaughtered. Those who escaped the massacres were many times unable to survive without access to their food-gathering areas, and they starved to death.