Ancestry® Family History
California Gold Rush
The discovery of gold in California in 1848 set off one of the largest mass migrations in North American history. Over the following decade, an estimated 300,000 people from across the United States—and around the world—traveled to California to look for gold or make their fortune in the mining industry and boomtowns.
But this historical event was also a complicated and sometimes devastating experience for some. Not everyone who traveled to California found success. Migrants and Indigenous people suffered displacement, discrimination, disease, and even death. Others returned home to the East Coast, for example, deciding this new place wasn’t for them.
Why Is the California Gold Rush Important?
The California Gold Rush forever changed the social and economic makeup of the region. The sudden population increase propelled California to statehood and profits invigorated the U.S. economy. Prospectors extracted millions of dollars worth of gold every year: $41 million in 1850 and a peak of $81 million in 1852. (That's more than $3.1 billion in 2023 dollars.)
It also created stronger ties between the East and West Coasts, once the country’s first transcontinental railroad was completed in 1869, with its Pacific Coast terminus in Alameda, along the San Francisco Bay.
Because of the Gold Rush, San Francisco grew from a sleepy port town with fewer than 1,000 people in 1848 to a major city of over 25,000 just one year later.
When Did the California Gold Rush Start?
The California Gold Rush began in January 1848 when James Marshall, employed by John Sutter to build a sawmill, unexpectedly found gold flakes in a riverbed in Coloma, California, about 40 miles upstream from Sutter's Fort. Sutter, a Swiss immigrant, established the fort as a trade colony in 1841.
Although Marshall and Sutter met in secret to discuss the discovery, word quickly spread. By the summer of 1848, three-quarters of the men in San Francisco had gone to the Sierra Nevada Mountains to look for gold. News of the discovery also spread by ship, motivating people from around the world to come to California.
At first, many were skeptical of the stories they heard about California’s gold. But in December 1848, after President James Polk announced Colonel Richard B. Mason’s reports of astounding finds, like the two miners who had discovered $17,000 worth of gold in just one week, the public was convinced that the gold rush was real.
Who Took Part in California's Gold Rush?
In 1849, over 100,000 people traveled to California from around the world, earning them the moniker “Forty-Niners.” The 3,000-mile journey by land could take up to seven months, and prospectors and settlers had to contend with severe weather, disease, and the dangers of unknown territory. People bringing a large family or wagon loads of goods had little choice but to brave the long trek across the Plains and the Rocky Mountains, or through the south via Mexico.
Most people heading west traveled by sea. Those from the East Coast could sail some 17,000 miles around Cape Horn or take a shortcut: sail to Panama, cross the isthmus on foot, and then get on a ship to the West Coast. In some ways, the journey across the Pacific Ocean was easier, because fortune seekers from China, Australia, and New Zealand could travel along existing trade routes. It could take six or seven months to travel by sea from the East Coast but just three months to sail 7,000 miles from China.
Not everyone who traveled to California came to make their fortune in gold. Entrepreneurs planned to capitalize on the gold rush in other ways, like opening retail establishments or providing entertainment. For instance, Levi Strauss went to San Francisco in 1853 to open a dry goods store that sold clothing and blankets. Domenico Ghirardelli got rich selling chocolate and other specialty foods in the city. Hard-working gold miners also looked for entertainment in saloons, gambling halls, and by attending plays.
California’s Changing Demographics
At the time of the gold rush, Indigenous peoples—such as the Karok, Mojave, Ohlones, Chumash, Yokuts, Paiute, and others—made up the vast majority of the area’s population. Spanish- and English-speaking colonists accounted for only a fraction of residents.
But the gold rush soon brought a wave of immigrants from across the world—primarily from Europe, China, and South America—which caused significant demographic and economic shifts within the region.
California's new population was also overwhelmingly male, so women who went there found that their work was in high demand. Jobs traditionally held by women like cooking and housekeeping, paid very well. A woman could earn up to $200 per month for domestic labor, which was as much as a member of Congress made at the time.
The Gold Rush Sped Up California’s Statehood
First colonized by Spain, California was then controlled by Mexico. In 1848, the United States claimed the land in the aftermath of the Mexican-American War. The Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo was signed just days after gold was discovered in California, but before word had spread.
In 1849, new settlers and Hispanic Californios formed a provisional government and applied for statehood the following year. The gold rush put California's statehood process on the fast track, and California was admitted to the Union as a free state on September 9, 1850.
What Was Life Like During the Gold Rush?
The earliest fortune seekers looked for gold in the streams and tributaries of the American and Sacramento Rivers, then moved on to other rivers in the Sierra Nevada Mountains. They used a simple panning technique, swirling water in a pan to separate gold from sand. After the gold in the stream beds was gone, miners used pickaxes to dig into rocks and to find veins that contained gold.
Rugged gold mining towns with names like Sucker Flat and Hangtown sprouted up along the mountains. These places were widely considered to be lawless and unsanitary. Whether they lived in a mining town or camped on their “claim,” miners were subject to disease, harsh weather, and they sometimes experienced isolation. Men often spent their nights gambling and drinking. Stories of vice were so widespread that churches sent clergymen to the boomtowns in hopes of saving souls.
Gold mining was labor-intensive work that relied largely on luck. Many prospectors learned that they could make more money farming or working in businesses that served the miners and mining towns.
Some mining settlements became ghost towns as soon as the gold was gone, but others, like Auburn, became established towns. The Sutter’s Fort trade colony became so overrun with people that it grew into the city of Sacramento, now California’s capital.
How Did California’s Gold Rush Affect Native Americans?
The lands now known as California had been inhabited by over 500 distinct Indigenous ethnic and cultural groups for tens of thousands of years. But the colonization of Alta California by Spain and Mexico, and the influx of newcomers during the gold rush years, resulted in over 80 percent of California's Indigenous population being eradicated by the mid-19th century.
The enslavement of Native Americans is also part of Gold Rush history. While Spanish and Mexican colonists had engaged in the practice, the discovery of gold accelerated the trafficking of Native men, women, and children by new white settlers. John Sutter's trade colony, for example, depended on various forms of forced labor, and the State of California passed legislation in 1850 that legalized Indian servitude.
Violence by settlers against the Indigenous population was also widespread. Native American survivors told stories of murders, kidnappings, and sexual violence if they resisted the mining of land. California's Native American Heritage Commission estimates that at least 100,000 Native Americans were killed in the first two years of the gold rush.
The Gold Rush and Chinese Immigrants
Specific immigrant groups like the Chinese also experienced harsh treatment and discrimination. Many white settlers resented the presence of Chinese immigrants, who accounted for almost a third of the people who came to California at the height of the gold rush.
Anti-immigrant fervor prompted the state's legislature to pass the Foreign Miners Tax Law in 1850. Immigrants were charged $20 a month, though the amount was later reduced to $4. But this law was unevenly enforced, with most Europeans not forced to pay the fee. The Foreign Miners Tax Law was voided by the passage of the federal Civil Rights Act of 1870. By that time, California had collected several million dollars from the Chinese, which is estimated to have been at least 25 percent of the state’s revenue.
Faced with unfair policies and mining taxes, many Chinese immigrants moved to cities like San Francisco, where they established new businesses in the country's first Chinatown.
California Gold Rush Record Collections on Ancestry®
Exploring a wide range of Ancestry® record collections for California can help you uncover your family stories from the gold rush years. Beyond early California birth, marriage, and death records, here are some of the other records that cover the state’s earliest years.
Review census records.
- The 1850 Census was the first federal census to include California, but San Francisco records have been lost. Records for other California counties may provide incomplete information. For example, a page from Spanish Canion in El Dorado County shows “80 Chinese” as a single entry because “they refused to give their names or other information,” according to the enumerator.
- The 1852 California State Census includes several columns for racial or ethnic categories.
- If your ancestors were in California for the 1860 Census, there's a good chance that they arrived during the gold rush and decided to stay. Check the ages and birth locations for children, as they could also suggest when the family arrived in California.
Check city directories and voter registers.
- The precursor to phone books, these list city residents’ names, occupation, and address. The earliest directories for San Francisco and Sacramento date to 1861.
- Voter registers can work in tandem with city directories, as they often provide information about age and naturalization. California’s earliest ones date to 1866.
Search land claim records.
- If your family lived in California before it became a state, they may have owned property under Spanish or Mexican rule. Early records about land grants can be found in California, U.S., Spanish Land Records, 1784-1868. Some documents include property maps.
- After California became part of the U.S., early landowners may then have filed claims with the new government. The California Private Land Claim Dockets, 1852-1858, include a record date and the landowner's name.
Look at tax records.
- Those who owned land, taxable personal property, or who paid a licensing fee (for a retail business or livery stable, for example), may be found in IRS Tax Assessment Lists. These records date back to 1862 for California.
Browse historical newspapers.
- Read the same California newspapers your ancestors did to get a sense of what their life was like. Newspapers like The Sacramento Bee and Placerville's Mountain Democrat, for example, were based in the heart of gold country. Check the California, U.S., Newspapers.com™ Stories and Events Index to see what you can find.
Discover Your Family's Connection to the California Gold Rush
Does your family have connections to California’s earliest days as a state? Find out if any of your relatives were part of the migration sparked by gold fever. Explore records from the California Gold Rush years on Ancestry today.
References (all accessed June 22, 2023)
"Act for the Government and Protection of Indians." PBS. https://www.pbs.org/wgbh/americanexperience/features/goldrush-act-for-government-and-protection-of-indians/.
“After the Gold Rush.” National Geographic Society. https://education.nationalgeographic.org/resource/after-gold-rush.
"Alameda Terminal of the First Transcontinental Railroad." Office of Historic Preservation, California State Parks. https://ohp.parks.ca.gov/ListedResources/Detail/440.
"Auburn's History." City of Auburn, California. https://www.auburn.ca.gov/459/Auburns-History.
“California Gold Rush.” Encyclopædia Britannica. https://www.britannica.com/topic/California-Gold-Rush.
“The California Gold Rush.” PBS. https://www.pbs.org/wgbh/americanexperience/features/goldrush-california/. California State Legislature, “Foreign Miner's License.” SHEC: Resources for Teachers. https://shec.ashp.cuny.edu/items/show/1714.
"Chinese Immigrants and the Gold Rush." PBS. https://www.pbs.org/wgbh/americanexperience/features/goldrush-chinese-immigrants/.
“The Discovery of Gold.” The Library of Congress. https://www.loc.gov/collections/california-first-person-narratives/articles-and-essays/early-california-history/discovery-of-gold/.
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“The Forty Niners.” The Library of Congress. https://www.loc.gov/collections/california-first-person-narratives/articles-and-essays/early-california-history/forty-niners/.
"Gaming and Entertainment in Gold Rush Towns." PBS. https://www.pbs.org/wgbh/americanexperience/features/goldrush-gaming-and-entertainment/.
“The Gold Rush and Westward Expansion.” Smithsonian American Art Museum. https://americanexperience.si.edu/wp-content/uploads/2015/02/The-Gold-Rush-and-Westward-Expansion.pdf.
“The History of Ghirardelli Square.” Ghirardelli Square. https://www.ghirardellisq.com/history.
“History of the Levi’s 501 Jeans.” Levi Strauss & Co. https://www.levistrauss.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/01/History-of-Levis-501-Jeans.pdf.
“The Mines.” The Library of Congress. https://www.loc.gov/collections/california-first-person-narratives/articles-and-essays/early-california-history/mines/.
O'Brien, Cynthia and Jamie Kiffel-Alcheh. "Native People of California." National Geographic. https://kids.nationalgeographic.com/history/article/native-people-of-california.
“Short Overview of California Indian History.” State of California Native American Heritage Commission. https://nahc.ca.gov/resources/california-indian-history/.
"Sutter's Fort State Historic Park." California Department of Parks and Recreation. https://www.parks.ca.gov/?page_id=485.
Takaki, Ronald. Strangers from a Different Shore: A History of Asian Americans. Little, Brown, and Company, 1998.
Terrell, Ellen. “Chinese Americans and the Gold Rush.” Library of Congress, January 28, 2021. https://blogs.loc.gov/inside_adams/2021/01/chinese-americans-gold-rush/.
“Towns and Cities.” The Library of Congress. https://www.loc.gov/collections/california-first-person-narratives/articles-and-essays/early-california-history/towns-and-cities/.
“Using the 1852 California State Census in the California History Room.” California State Library. https://library.ca.gov/wp-content/uploads/2021/08/StateCensusResearch.pdf.
“Value of $81,000,000 from 1852 to 2023.” CP Inflation Calculator. Official Data Foundation. https://www.officialdata.org/us/inflation/1852?amount=81000000.