On January 24, 1848, James W. Marshall found gold at Sutter’s Mill in Coloma, California, near present-day Sacramento. Marshall, who was working in a lumber mill for John Sutter, happened upon a shiny metal. Marshall brought an example of the metal to Sutter. Tests on the metal revealed it was indeed gold! Sutter, however, wanted to keep the news quiet as he was worried word of gold would create a frenzy that would threaten his dream of an agricultural empire in California.
Sutter, however, could not contain news of the discovery. In December of 1849, President James K. Polk confirmed to the world that gold was discovered in California in an address to Congress. The news quickly spread, and soon, settlers, known as 49ers, arrived by the tens of thousands via wagon and ship, to search for gold in California. Sutter’s land would quickly be overwhelmed by gold seekers who ruined his land, stole his crops, killed his livestock, and destroyed his plans. California became a lawless place as racism, violence, disease, and mining accidents collectively added to the tension.
Of the 90,000 estimated settlers who arrived in California in 1849, 60,000 were thought to be American, and the remainder came from foreign countries. Many billions of dollars worth of gold were reportedly found, making many families instantly wealthy. Furthermore, at the genesis of the gold rush, there were no fees, rules, or taxes that governed the collection of gold. It was free for the taking on a first come first serve basis. As more and more settlers poured into the state, California developed a constitution and government. As part of the Compromise of 1850, California joined America as a free state and soon ranching and agriculture expanded throughout the state to meet the needs of the its burgeoning population. The city of San Francisco, with little more than a few hundred settlers in 1848, boomed to a population of over 25,000 by 1850. By 1855, at least 300,000 settlers had relocated to California. By this time, however, most of the gold that could be easily retrieved by individuals was gone and larger mining outfits took over with the technology required to further extract gold.