How Gold Helped Win The West

How Gold Helped Win The West

Ever seen a movie called, “How the West Was Won” or PBS-type documentaries on cowboys, settlers, buffalo, Native Americans and all sorts of human endeavor?

The American West was settled because of the drive to the western coast because of gold. California was a place you went to in order to make a fortune and then get out! It was only after the crazy years of the Californian gold rushes that people who had tried but failed to make a fortune decided the place was as good as any to put down some roots.

The Californian gold rushes were not the first in America’s history – the first gold rush took place in 1803 in North Carolina in the eastern parts of the continent – but California was different.

James Marshall walked into camp at Sutter’s Mill in California on January 24th, 1848 and brandishing a jar of brightly covered dust and grains he proclaimed, “GOLD!!”

In 1849 the first gold rush had started with tens of thousands of men, women and children arriving in California by land and by sea. By no means was this a collection of Americans reaping the bounty of the land – California was not a member of the Union and was a distant backwater. The 49ers, named after the year and for those people who took part in the initial gold rush, were from all parts of the world – white settlers from the east, Mexicans from the south and Native Indians but you may be surprised to learn that adventurers came from Russia, from Chile, from South Africa, from Great Britain and many other countries as news of the discovery of gold raced around the world in what had become a media event. Media being something of a novelty at that time too!

For the 49ers, the initial pickings were more than many could believe – gold was there for the picking and it was not unusual for white Anglo’s to work side-by-side with Hispanics and many other races and cultures – there was too much work to be done getting rich to worry about petty differences. There is one story of a gold miner coming down from the hills and into a tavern – when he was asked how he would pay he shook out his beard on the bar and $ 20 of gold dust was collected! True or not, the 49ers did get rich and got rich quick if they were lucky and diligent enough.

Later years saw the increasing commercialization of gold mining which required sophisticated financing – pickings were no longer easy and this helped to build friction and emphasis upon differences between people. “Anglos” no longer saw this as a piece of land to be shared and many non-whites were “advised” to leave, many were run-off with no regard for law or property or person – many were killed. Nevertheless, the seeds of the great drive to the pacific had been sown and settlements which had sprouted simply as boomtowns started developing civic infrastructure – churches, schools, trading posts, law enforcement, and of course, government – even more important, self-government and self-determination.

In 1846, California separated from Mexico and in 1850 became the 31st State of the United States of America.

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