Western Life

The California Gold Rush 1849: The Wonder and The Horror

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” This quote by Charles Dickens was meant to describe the upheaval caused by the French Revolution. But it could just as easily have been used to describe the chaos that erupted shortly after a certain carpenter named James Wilson Marshall, from New Jersey, found a few flakes of pure gold in the American River,somewhere near the base of the Sierra Nevada Mountains in California.

Initially he kept the discovery under wraps and tried to prospect for gold on his own. But news rapidly got around and newspapers started reporting that gold was to be had simply by panning the rivers. Initially no one took it seriously, but then a shop keeper (Sam Brannan) set off a perfect frenzy after he went parading through the town displaying a bit of gold that had been obtained from Sutter’s Creek.

Within a few days the whole town was almost empty and after that, the ‘gold diggers’ started coming in from all over the country, sometimes depopulating entire cities (San Francisco being a case in point, when most of its male population went gold hunting).

The gold fever had truly taken the whole country by storm. And no amount of fences, private property or Native Americans (of which there were around 150,000 or so in 1849) could stop them from tearing into the mountains, the rivers and just about anywhere they could find gold.

Within a few months the total non-native population of the state had surged to around 100 thousand from a mere 1000. They came by land and by sea, to tear into the very bowels of the earth and extract the precious metal. And they were not alone, rather they bought with them an entire population of camp followers. From women who were part of the ‘oldest profession in the world’, to card sharps, crooked gamblers, to store keepers who provided them the tools of their trade.  By the time they were through with the place, not just California, but the US itself would never be the same again.

Let us take the example of a global favorite. The (by now ubiquitous) Chop Suey. It looks Chinese, it tastes Chinese, it even sounds Chinese! But it was not invented in China, but rather, in the US and was a standard favorite of the gold hunters and miners, who wanted a quick bite after they came back to the camps, after a day’s hard prospecting. In this respect, Chop Suey become the very first all American fast food.

Furthermore, the cultural melting pot that was formed by the various ethnicities and nationalities that were working side by side with each other gave California, and by extension America, a real taste of multiculturalism as it exists today.

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