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Westward Expansion

California Gold Rush

History >> Westward Expansion

The California Gold Rush took place between 1848 and 1855. During this time gold was discovered in California. Over 300,000 people rushed to California to find gold and "strike it rich".

Gold Is Found in California

Gold was first discovered in California by James Marshall at Sutter's Mill near the city of Coloma. James was building a sawmill for John Sutter when he found shiny flakes of gold in the river. He told John Sutter about the discovery and they tried to keep it secret. However, soon word got out and prospectors were rushing to California to find gold.

Picture of Sutter's Mill
Sutter's Mill
from the California Department of
Parks and Recreation
The Forty-niners

Before the gold rush, there were only around 14,000 non-Native Americans living in California. This soon changed. Around 6,000 people arrived in 1848 and in 1849 around 90,000 people arrived to hunt for gold. These people were called the Forty-niners. They came from all around the world. Some were Americans, but many came from places like China, Mexico, Europe, and Australia.

Digging for Gold

Many of the first prospectors did make a lot of money. They often made ten times in a day what they could working a normal job. The original miners would pan for gold. Later, more complex methods were used to allow multiple miners to work together and search larger amounts of gravel for gold.

What is "panning for gold"?

One method miners used to separate gold from dirt and gravel was called panning. When panning for gold, miners put gravel and water into a pan and then shook the pan back and forth. Because gold is heavy it will eventually work its way to the bottom of the pan. After shaking the pan for a while, the gold will be on the bottom of the pan and the worthless material will be at the top. Then the miner can extract the gold and set it aside.

Panning for gold
Panning on the Mokelumne
from Harper's Weekly

All these thousands of miners needed supplies. Typical supplies for a miner included a mining pan, a shovel, and a pick for mining. They also needed food and living supplies such as coffee, bacon, sugar, beans, flour, bedding, a tent, lamp, and a kettle.

The store and business owners who sold supplies to the miners often became wealthier than the miners. They were able to sell items at very high prices and the miners were willing to pay.


Whenever gold was discovered in a new place, miners would move in and make a mining camp. Sometimes these camps would rapidly grow into towns called boomtowns. The cities of San Francisco and Columbia are two examples of boomtowns during the gold rush.

Ghost Towns

A lot of boomtowns eventually turned into abandoned ghost towns. When the gold ran out in an area, the miners would leave to find the next gold strike. The businesses would leave too and soon the town would be empty and abandoned. One example of a gold rush ghost town is Bodie, California. Today it is a popular tourist attraction.

Interesting Facts about the Gold Rush Activities
Westward Expansion
California Gold Rush
First Transcontinental Railroad
Glossary and Terms
Homestead Act and Land Rush
Louisiana Purchase
Mexican American War
Oregon Trail
Pony Express
Battle of the Alamo
Timeline of Westward Expansion
Frontier Life
Daily Life on the Frontier
Log Cabins

People of the West
Daniel Boone
Famous Gunfighters
Sam Houston
Lewis and Clark
Annie Oakley
James K. Polk
Thomas Jefferson
Works Cited

History >> Westward Expansion

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