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The California Gold Rush of 1849 started with an immigrant cattle rancher, 21 workmen, a sawmill, a river, a secret, and a greedy man. The story began simply enough with a rancher named John Sutter who was building a very successful farming empire in Coloma, a wilderness area of the territory of California. He needed to have a convenient source of lumber so he could expand his ranching operation. He sent James Marshall and 20 workmen to build a sawmill on the banks of the American River. This was the perfect location for Sutter’s sawmill but this location would change California history. In January of 1848, as the sawmill was nearing completion, Marshall spotted something shiny near the riverbank. The workmen were finding those shiny stones everywhere. Later, it was determined that those shiny rocks were gold nuggets! Sutter and Marshall decided to keep the discovery a secret. They knew the discovery of gold would change everything.
Then a man named Sam Brannan, a merchant from San Francisco, saw his opportunity to get rich! And he did it without ever mining for gold! He had heard about the news of gold on the river, the news most people dismissed as being just a rumor. Sam also knew about the law of "supply and demand" so he ran through the streets of San Francisco shouting about the discovery of gold. Brannan showed everyone a bottle filled with gold dust so they believed him. Mr. Brannan had a brilliant plan. Before he spread the news about the discovery of gold he had bought up all of the supplies the miners would need: pick axes, shovels, and pans. He sold miners pans for $15 each when he had bought them for only 20 cents before the Gold Fever hit. He made $36,000 in just two months and that was worth even more in 1848! He eventually became the richest man in California.
The news spread fast! Gold was everywhere and anyone could become rich overnight! People from all over the world began to travel to California. The problem was that California was far away from just about everywhere so getting to the gold field was very difficult. There were two choices: by land or by sea. Travelling over land meant passing through wilderness and deserts and climbing over huge mountain ranges for over 2,000 miles. And it could take up to 6 months! Many walked, some took wagons, and there were dangers all along the way. Sometimes there wasn’t any water for long periods of time. Some gold-seekers never finished the journey. The sea route often took 6 months, too, because the ships needed to go around the tip of South America. There was seasickness, rotten food and spoiled water. Think about being trapped on a smelly ship being tossed by waves for 6 months!
Once the miners arrived in San Francisco harbor there was even a farther distance to travel but becoming rich quickly was just around the corner. Unfortunately, for most gold seekers, getting rich was just a dream. The miners were making a lot more money compared to their old jobs back home. But merchants were charging outrageous prices for all of the food and supplies the miners needed. The people who became rich were the merchants, like Sam Brannan, who saw an opportunity and made the most of it. Fortunes were made and a state grew quickly. One of the worst affects of the discovery of gold was how the rush toward westward expansion wiped out many Native American tribes. The goldrush also environmentally destroyed the land. All the gold mining caused the American River to be higher than the valley, causing flooding. It started at a simple sawmill, but gold fever changed lives and history.