Via Panama The quickest option but travellers risked malaria and cholera. Overland – The California Trail

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California – Gold Fever

In the early 1840s, California was a distant outpost that few Americans had seen. John Sutter was a Swiss emigrant who had come to California in 1839 with the idea of building a vast empire. At the end of 1847, Sutter sent a group of men, including James Marshall, to build a new sawmill near the river. The sawmill was nearly complete when, on January 24th 1848, Marshall spotted something shining in the river.

John Sutter

The metal was tested and confirmed as gold. However, Sutter wanted the area to be his empire and did not want to attract others to the area so it was decided to keep the discovery secret. But it was not long before news of the discovery leaked out. The gold rush that followed was to make California the richest state.

James Marshall

Travelling to California

Via South America

Six months of seasickness, rotten food, rancid water and boredom.

Via Panama

The quickest option but travellers risked malaria and cholera.

Overland – The California Trail. A 2000 mile walk in sweltering heat with little food or water.

Get rich quick

The road to poverty

Road to sickness

Sam Brannan was a San Francisco merchant who spread news of the discovery throughout San Francisco. He also bought every pickaxe, shovel and pan in the region. A metal pan that had cost 20 cents was sold for 15 dollars. In nine weeks Brannan made 36,000 dollars.

Many overland travellers were not prepared for the harshness of the journey. Supplies ran out very quickly and replacements were expensive. Sugar rose to $1.50 per pint, coffee $1.00 per pint, alcohol $4.00. Many were forced to pay $1, $5 or even $100 for a glass of water. Those without money died.

The routes west became crowded with wagons. Dust was kicked up by those in front, making it difficult to see and breathe. Wagons camped together overnight and dug toilet pits, often close to rivers resulting in polluted water supplies, diarrhoea, illness and death.

Dreams turn to despair

By the middle of 1849 the easy gold was gone. Yet, the 49ers with dreams of riches kept coming. A typical miner spent 10 hours a day in freezing water sifting through the mud with no end result but frustration and depression. Men drowned their sorrows in the saloons and bars. Crime was on the increase and the jails were overcrowded. Some gave up and went back to the east. Others stayed on hoping that tomorrow would be the day. For most of them tomorrow never came…


1. a. Why did John Sutter want to keep the discovery of gold a secret?

b. How do you think he felt when the news leaked out?

c. What effect would it have had on California if the news had remained a secret?

2. Why did the California gold rush cause the crime rate to rise so high?

3. Write a paragraph saying which route you would choose. Include the advantages and disadvantages of all the different routes to California.

4. Some people made a fortune out of the gold rush. Write a paragraph explaining the best ways to make money.

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