California Gold Rush of 1849
By Taylor Spencer
The Anthropocene is the proposed title of the new, human-dominated geological epoch. While we can acknowledge that human activity has for centuries altered the Earth, discussing mankind’s attempts at lifestyle improvement and technological advancement provides insight as to how we understand our place in the world and more importantly, our relationship with the environment. From an ecological perspective, the story of humankind is often guided by a declensionist narrative; pessimistic, demonstrating decline and a lack of progression toward a more sustainable future. Despite this, there are tools that we, the drivers of this new epoch, can use to teach each other how to live in the Anthropocene today and to provide the necessary framework for future generations to thrive alongside the environment as well. The California Gold Rush of 1849, represented by the gold nugget, will be investigated to gain a higher understanding of its historic importance, as well as its present-day relevance. The Gold Rush not only changed the mining industry, but it also had short- and long-term anthropogenic impacts on the environment which can be analyzed, revised, and applied as solutions to current issues.
California was not always the glorified U.S. state home to many beautiful, rich movie stars and models. In fact, during the 1700s, the Spanish government was determined to colonize California (Holliday et al, 2015). Unfortunately, no more than a handful of missionaries could be convinced to settle in the seemingly barren state (Holliday et al, 2015). As a result, convicts were exiled from Mexico, a Spanish colony at the time, to bulk up the population (Holliday et al, 2015). Until 1846, Spain’s frail grasp on California was just enough to hold out against other interested nations, however, tensions between the United States and Mexico made the state a vulnerable target (Holliday et al, 2015). Following the Mexican-American War, the United States and Mexico signed the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo on February 2nd of 1848 (Gray, 2016). This treaty not only ended the war, but it also granted the U.S. the western half of the United States from Texas to Oregon, including California (Gray, 2016). Only a few short weeks later in the valley of Coloma, a carpenter by the name of James Wilson Marshall discovered gold flakes in the American River which runs through the Sierra Nevada Mountains (Holliday et al, 2015). Marshall first alerted his supervisor, John Sutter, who recorded the event in his personal diary:
Marshall arrived in the evening, it was raining very heavy, but he told me he came on important business. After we was alone in a private Room he showed me the first Specimens of Gold, that is he was not certain if it was Gold or not, but he thought it might be; immediately I made the proof and found that it was Gold. (“The Diary of Johann August Sutter / with an introduction by Douglas S. Watson,” 2016)
The “rush” in the “California Gold Rush” may have been a little misleading; many were skeptical of the riches buried beneath the Sierra-Nevada. It wasn’t until about mid-May of 1848, after several newspaper articles detailing the event, that prospective miners began to travel in droves hoping to get rich quick off of this newly discovered treasure (Holliday et al, 2015). Miners came from across the United States, as well as across the ocean. “Thirty-five days to gold regions,” blared an 1849 newspaper advertisement offering to transport miners from Nicaragua in exchange for 200 dollars (“California Gold Rush,” 2016). As a result of the influx of miners, $2 billion worth of gold was mined from the state of California between 1848 and 1852 (“The Gold Rush of 1849,” 2016).
Eager, though often inexperienced, prospective miners from all over the United States flocked to the Sierra-Nevada, taking a large gamble on the rumored gold and giving up their comfortable lives to become ‘49ers. During the beginning of the Gold Rush while the gold was still plentiful, panning, although a strenuous method, was preferred and generally more simple for the less-experienced miners (Hayes, 2016). In addition, between 1848 and 1853, other methods using cradles, rockers, and long-toms, contributed to the extraction of ten to twelve million ounces of gold — about the weight of forty-six adult elephants (Hayes, 2016). Over time, gold mining changed from an independent get-rich-quick scheme to a bustling industry. By 1853, however, the gold in the rivers and mines became scarce, prompting the miners to go further beneath the surface.
The gold mining industry of California saw several advancements after 1853 which allowed for a higher yield of extraction and ultimately changed the mining industry forever. New techniques were employed to meet the demand for gold. However, the increase in revenue meant decimating much of California’s natural landscape. First came the method known as hydraulic mining. In this process, high pressure water was used to erode the canyons which were thought to contain gold. Then, the sediment would be sifted through and the gold collected (Hayes, 2016). Luckily for the miners, they were right; this process was successful. About eleven million ounces of gold were mined by 1884, a great success for many (Hayes, 2016). However, success hardly comes without a cost and unfortunately, it was the environment that suffered the loss. Not only were large parts of the canyon eroded, but the water used to do so had to be redirected from faraway reservoirs by digging ditches. It took only a little over ten years to devastate the environment with over 5,000 miles of waterways (Hayes, 2016).
An unfortunate disadvantage of hydraulic mining meant that large amounts of gold were often too small to be caught by the sifters used in the process. As a result, the small gold flakes would be carried along with fine-grained sediments to the floodplains of the Central Valley (Hayes, 2016). To extract the gold, miners employed the technique known as dredging. Dredges would pull up sediments from over one-hundred feet below the floodplains, which would then be sent through processors to separate the gold from the waste material (Hayes, 2016). The unusable sediments would then be tossed at the other side of the floodplain to prevent remixing. Even more successful than hydraulic mining, dredges separated over twenty million ounces of gold that the hydraulic mines otherwise missed (Hayes, 2016).
Despite the incredible profits reaped as a result of this new method, the environmental consequences of dredging were drastic. Not only were farmlands in the Central Valley destroyed by the floods, but the soil, groundwater, and other natural resources were polluted by mine drainage (Hayes, 2016). Farmers and others nearby often suffered from arsenic and mercury poisoning. Relocation of the farms required further deforestation of the landscape and displacement of native peoples and animals (Hayes, 2016).
Arguably the greatest impact of the California Gold Rush was large scale deforestation. Not only was it a direct result of mining, but it also had indirect causes. The near-instant influx of people to the Sierra-Nevada meant the urbanization of otherwise rural areas (Hayes, 2016). The building of major cities and blossoming real estate market required vast expanses of forest vegetation to be cleared (Bolsinger et al, 1993). In fact, large cities in California such as Sacramento are just remnants of old mining towns that continued to grow during the Gold Rush. To sustain the increasing population of California, elimination of natural vegetation for agricultural purposes such as farming and grazing fields for cattle was also immense during this time (Bolsinger et al, 1993). The surge in the agricultural industry of California as a result of mining had several unintended consequences. One was that the increased use of nitrogen-containing fertilizers for farming meant higher emissions of the greenhouse gas nitrous oxide. Another was that irrigation of farming fields used large amounts of water; a practice that is highly unsafe for a region susceptible to periods of drought. Unfortunately, the state of California is still ridden by the effects of gold mining today. The miners that settled in California during the Gold Rush often stayed to pursue other business avenues such as farming or entrepreneurship. Today, California’s densely populated cities, muddled between vast expanses of farming and pasture land, are restricted in their water use. The most recent drought in California which ended in 2009 not only affected water supply and quality, but it also had devastating impacts on wildlife as well (“Drought Background,” 2016). In summary, the California Gold Rush of 1849 drastically impacted the Sierra-Nevada region in many more ways than seen at a first glance.
By 1853, the “rush” of the Gold Rush was essentially over. Most of the easily extractable gold had been panned out of the rivers and only the determined, skillful miners stuck around to employ hydraulic mining and dredging. Despite the negative environmental impacts of these new techniques, miners still continued to dig through the late 1900s (Holliday et al, 2015). Soon, the amount of gold being mined began to drop. Running the machines required to dig deep enough were much too expensive for the falling price of gold. The idea of a seemingly endless abundance of the Earth’s natural resources is a recurrent theme throughout the history of mankind. Although gold is technically a renewable resource, like fossil fuels, it does not renew itself on a human time scale, but on a geologic time scale. To teach us how to live in the Anthropocene today, an important mechanism known as uniformitarianism analyzes past processes as a way to understand the present. Understanding our place in the Anthropocene as Anthropos who have the opportunity to use past events as guidance toward more sustainable practices so that future generations may also enjoy the freedoms that we do will be an important lesson for mankind.
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“The Diary of Johann August Sutter / with an introduction by Douglas S. Watson.” San Francisco: Grabhorn Press, 1932. http://www.sfmuseum.net/hist2/sutdiary2.html#1847.
“Drought Background.” The California Drought. Accessed April 19, 2016. http://www.californiadrought.org/drought/background/.
Garry Hayes. “Mining History and Geology of the California Gold Rush.” Modesto Junior College. Accessed April 19, 2016. http://hayesg.faculty.mjc.edu/Gold_Rush.html.
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Tom Gray. “Teaching With Documents: The Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo.” National Archives. Accessed April 19, 2016. http://www.archives.gov/education/lessons/guadalupe-hidalgo/.