Excerpt from “The History of Mining: The events, technology and people involved in the industry that forged the modern world” – by Michael Coulson

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The experience of those taking part in the California Rush was easier than the privations that would be experienced by those making it to the Klondike in that later rush. However, getting to the Californian gold fields was no picnic. Whilst today there are many road and rail routes across and through the great Sierra Mountains into the Pacific USA, in the 19th century the overland crossing from the eastern and central states into California was fraught with danger.

The other routes used were sea routes, first the long voyage down to the tip of South America, round Cape Horn and up to San Francisco, before the relatively short land journey south to the gold fields. The time this route took and the considerable dangers posed by the huge storms that often blew around Cape Horn led to a third route being established, sailing to the Panama Isthmus and then going by land to the Pacific side to board ships to San Francisco at the Gulf of Panama. Whilst this latter route was obviously faster than the Cape Horn route it was not without danger as Panama’s climate harboured diseases such as malaria and yellow fever, which led to many fatalities amongst the travellers.


The transfer of California from Mexican to American ownership, the gold rush and the US Civil War followed swiftly one after the other. The allegiance of California during the Civil War was to the Union side but there was some agonising over the issue as there were those in California who wanted the state to allow the ownership of slaves, but at the same time for California to be essentially a non-slave state. This meant that those already enslaved elsewhere could not escape to California to become free men but that no free black man could be enslaved in the state. Although this curious exercise in semantics led to a number of legal disputes, in due course California established itself as an anti-slavery state and a supporter of the Union during the Civil War. This may have been decisive in financial terms as Californian gold was shipped to New York and provided a backing for the Yankee dollar that the Confederate currency never had.

In fact, the importance of gaining some legitimacy for the Confederate currency led to attempts by Californian supporters of the South to waylay bullion ships bound for New York from California. Such attempts failed and as the Confederate side steadily lost ground to Unionist forces, the legitimacy (and value) of the Confederate dollar was severely undermined. The critical cotton trade between the southern states and the spinners of northwest England was also seriously damaged by the conflict, which all but cut off an important source of foreign currency earnings which could have provided some support for the Confederate dollar – the British pound then being the world’s most influential currency – although in those days gold was the sole reserve asset.

Metals, as we have seen, have played an important role in the economic and social evolution of civilisation with the role of precious metals, particularly gold, being generally, but not exclusively, to provide financial support for commercial activity and development. In the case of the Civil War it could be argued that gold was an important factor in the survival and triumph of the Union concept and the eventual advance of the US to superpower status.

Certainly a victory for the Confederates could have led to the establishment of close political ties between the South and the UK to match the already established commercial and trading ties. If such an alliance had prospered world history in the turbulent 20th century might have developed very differently, although one very large snag would have been British opposition to slavery. However, the ability of the Unionists to access strategic supplies to force home a military victory through the solvency of their gold-backed currency meant that speculation about an independent South remained just that.
We could also speculate about what might have happened if Mexico had kept hold of California and reaped the benefit of the gold discoveries. It is likely that much less of the gold produced would have found its way to New York and Washington and the Unionists might have found themselves forced to do deals with foreign interests to achieve their aims and bring to an end one of the most vicious wars of the 19th century.


By the end of the 1860s, California’s gold fields had increasingly matured into corporate entities. The individual prospectors and adventurers had slowed to a trickle and the industry had begun to organise itself. Many of the earlier mines had become worked out and had closed, fortunes had been made or lost and in most cases, as with all gold rushes, the dreams of the many had tarnished and died. Those who chose to follow the gold rush through the share market rather than at the diggings occasionally made money on their speculations but more often turned out losers.

Amongst those who won and then lost a fortune was John Fremont, whose earlier years had been spent in the US army where he had led a number of expeditions over the mountain ranges of the western US into California and Oregon, and was widely admired for his boldness and vision. In 1847 after effective, if at times illegal, actions against the Mexican government in California, Fremont became the military governor of California, but he unfortunately got on the wrong side of some army infighting and was court martialled in Washington on trumped up charges and dismissed both from his governor’s post and the US army.

Before he was taken to Washington for the court martial, Fremont gave the American consul in Monterey money to purchase a ranch north of San Francisco. The consul, Thomas Larkin, instead purchased a large tract of land in Indian country in the Sierras named Mariposa, now Mariposa County which includes the Yosemite National Park. The purchase was to make Fremont a fortune as Mariposa turned out to be the southernmost end of the Californian gold mother lode, though at the time Fremont was furious with Larkin for his deception.

When Fremont returned to California to live at Mariposa he found himself in the middle of Indian unrest caused in part by the incursion of gold prospectors into the Sierras. Fremont’s land was also the subject of long-running legal disputes over the ownership of mineral rights. Miners, who worked the gold deposits found at Mariposa before Fremont returned to California, claimed that he did not own the underlying mineral rights and it took Fremont six years to get a favourable legal ruling. In the end Mariposa made Fremont a very rich man but he was to lose most of it in due course, as he lost control of the Mariposa deposits – some of which he himself had developed – due to his frequent absence on political business in the East.

Fremont became one of the first two senators for California in 1850. Later, in 1856, Fremont became the first presidential candidate of the newly formed Republican Party and although he lost the election he continued in politics thereafter and returned to the army on the Union side when the Civil War broke out in 1861. After losing control of the Mariposa mines he invested the huge profits he had made from gold in other business enterprises, such as railroads, but they all failed, and politics and the army earned him very little. He died a poor man in Brooklyn at the age of 74.

But Fremont was just one of a number of key characters in the Californian Rush who made and lost fortunes. John Sutter, whose Coloma sawmill it was that James Marshall was working on when the first gold was discovered, was another. Sutter had no ability to manage the conflicts raised by the proximity of his land to the goldfields, the need for labour to operate and expand his sawmill business and his ambitions to build a major administrative centre in the area. His gold prospecting in the hills above his land, whilst successful, was poorly organised and he eventually abandoned the operation and returned to the sawmill and his other businesses. Unfortunately they had deteriorated in his absence and when miners diverted the American River the mill ceased working.

The golden age for Californian gold lasted 20 years until the 1870s when most of the 49ers had either made their fortune or lost their shirt, and all had grown old. After this period California, which had attained statehood in 1850, continued to attract settlers in large numbers but gold was no longer the target, instead it was the state’s verdant environment, fine climate and opportunities to prosper that attracted. As for gold mining, as with many other gold rushes around the world, the easy pickings were made early and in due course large amounts of capital, beyond the resources of prospectors, had to be raised to mine at depth and haul the large quantities of lower grade ore required to make a gold mine economic.

Today California is a difficult state in which to mine because of environmental regulations. Production at the state’s largest mine, the Mesquite, is currently close to 200,000 ozs per year, which compares with 4 million ozs along the Mother Lode at the height of the Gold Rush in 1852. By 1865 output had collapsed to barely 800,000 ozs as placer mining was replaced with hard rock production. That figure had halved by 1929 but then the sharp increase in the official price of gold in the 1930s sent Californian production soaring to 1.4 million ozs by the end of the decade, before sinking back again.