Although there were many gold rushes in world history, the California gold rush was a unique event. Unlike other places, the gold in California was both plentiful and easy to get--at least at first. The result would be profound changes in California, America, and the entire world.
Gold was first discovered in California by James Marshall in early 1848. Later that year, gold seekers from the west coast converged on the American River--50 miles or so from Sacramento--where Marshall first saw the shiny metal. Within a matter of months, word spread eastward and by 1849 thousands were en route to California. Some traveled overland on the already established Oregon-California Trail. Others traveled by ship around the tip of South America. Still others took shortcuts across Panama and Mexico. Regardless of the route, it was an intensely difficult journey.
The gold-seekers were dubbed "49ers" because most left home in 1849. Importantly, 49ers were not uniquely American. Quite the contrary, the California gold rush was a world event, attracting gold-seekers from Mexico, China, Germany, France, Turkey--nearly every country in the world.
Although gold was easy to find at first, it quickly became an difficult enterprise that yielded less and less. Those who did find gold often spent it all on the basic necessities of life. The biggest moneymakers were entrepreneurs who supplied the gold miners with much-needed supplies and services.
The legacy of the gold rush is substantial. First, gold brought people from around the world--people who stayed to form the multi-cultural nucleus of California that exists to this day. Secondly, the gold rush pulled America westward, ensuring that California and the rest of the west would become a part of the United States. Lastly, the gold rush awakened America to the idea of high risk entrepreneurialism, a concept that our capitalistic society continues to nurture.