Thursday, September 17, 2009

Underrated Historic Event: The California Gold Rush

After considering a few new category ideas to examine, I thought I'd take a look at underrated historic events every now and then.

To kick things off I'll provide some information on what I think is one of the most unexamined, yet important events in American history; the California Gold Rush.

John L. O'Sullivan coined the term "manifest destiny" in the mid 1840s to describe, in his opinion, America's right to spread republican democracy across North America. The idea of manifest destiny was partly the reason for war against Mexico shortly thereafter. A win in the war with Mexico meant that the country could continue to expand, and would now stretch from the Atlantic coast to the Pacific coast.

Although the Treaty of Hidalgo (February 1848) officially ended the Mexican-American War, American settlers had already occupied what would become California and had declared it an independent republic. But, less than a month before the treaty was signed James Marshall found gold near the confluence of the American and Sacramento Rivers. California and the United States would never be the same.

The discovery set off a stream of migration to the gold fields that wouldn't end for years. People came from near and far to try to strike it rich. They came from Oregon, Mexico, China, Argentina, Australia, England, France, the Pacific Islands, and of course all points east in the United States. Those from the east coast came mainly by three routes. The longest was by sea around the southern tip of South America. The next longest was overland across the American plains and Rocky Mountains. The shortest was by sea to Panama and then across the isthmus to the Pacific. Thousands came by all three routs, and hundreds died in the gold fields or came back in poverty. Some few fortunate ones made their fortune, although those that did strike it rich usually attained their wealth by proving goods and services rather than from taking it from the streams and mountains in the form of yellow rocks and dust.

The California Gold Rush was much more of a multicultural event than some think. As mentioned above prospectors came from across the globe. Languages and customs clashed as men waded streams and partied in saloons. Southerners brought their black slaves to do the hard work of mining, and Native Americans in California that had never seen white men, black men, or yellow men, now had frequent encounters; many of which didn't bode well for the indigenous peoples.

Of course California's population explosion resulted in it becoming the 31st state in 1850. California's admission resulted in a compromise measure to keep a balance of power between the slave states and free states that made up the Union. California was admitted as a free state, so the slaves states were thrown the bone of a stronger fugitive slave law. Also included in the compromise was the organization of the Utah and New Mexico territories, and the prohibition of the slave trade in Washington D.C. (although slavery as a practice wasn't banned there). So, in effect the California Gold Rush was a major precipitating factor in the outbreak of the Civil War a little more than 10 years later.

California's role in the national schism has started to receive more attention in the past few years in books such as The Age of Gold: The California Gold Rush (2002) by H.W. Brands and the New American Dream, and The California Gold Rush and the Coming of the Civil War (2007) by Leonard L. Richards. Hopefully more work will continue on this important era and subject in America's history.

To learn more about the California Gold Rush I recommend the PBS documentary, The Gold Rush, and their interactive website located at:

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