The Gold Rush started on January 24, 1848, when James. W. Marshall – working for Sacramento pioneer John Sutter, discovered shiny pieces of metal at Sutter’s Mill, near Coloma in California. After taking them to Sutter, the two men tested the metal and found it to be gold. Far from being euphoric at the find, Sutter was dismayed as he envisaged his dreams of an agricultural empire going up in smoke once prospectors rushed to the area. Because of that fear Sutter tried to keep news of the find under wraps, but all to no avail as rumours soon spread.
By March 1848, news of the find had reached San Francisco where newspaperman and merchant Samuel Brannan, after being shrewd enough to set up a store to sell gold prospecting supplies, strode through the streets of San Francisco, holding up a piece of gold and shouting: “Gold! Gold! Gold from the American River!
By August 1848 the news had reached New York and on December 5th was confirmed to Congress by President James Polk sparking an invasion of Sacramento and the surrounding area by waves of immigrants, who would later be referred to as the “forty-niners”.
Confirming his fears Sutter was ruined; his workers deserted him seeking gold fortunes of their own, and immigrants squatted on his land helping themselves to his cattle and crops. However, by the time the 49ers arrived the easily accessible gold had long been scooped up by the original prospectors of 1848. As waves of new immigrants flooded the area around Sacramento it effectively became a squalid tented city. With no hotel in Sacramento to speak of, or any other places of shelter for that matter, the mass of new arrivals literally slept in the streets, until they got a job, or left for the prospecting fields.
It was a lawless place in California at the time of the gold rush. The goldfields were declared public land, with no property rights, no taxes and no fees. Land was ‘claimed’ by prospectors, who could keep the claim as long as they worked on it. Once work stopped or the site was abandoned then the land could be reclaimed. This loose definition led to disputes about ‘claim-jumpers’, which were often settled in a violent manner.
Most of the estimated 300,000 would-be prospectors that came to California after 1849 found little gold, but did help establish Sacramento as a major town, confirmed by it becoming the terminus of the Transcontinental Railroad in 1869. In only 20 years the settlement had burgeoned into a bustling hub for California. And, while his father’s dreams of an agricultural empire were dashed by the Gold Rush, John Sutter Jr, together with Sam Brannan became the City of Sacramento’s founding fathers.
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