The California Gold Rush took place starting on January 24, 1848, when James W. Marshall discovered gold at Sutter’s Mill in Coloma, California. The “rush” lasted until approximately 1855 during which over 300,000 people arrived in California.
What started as a quiet discovery of gold, soon became a rumor and then by August, 1848 a full printed article in the New York Herald. By the time 1849 began, the race was on to cross the North American continent. The destination? San Francisco. The method of getting there? Covered wagon or by boat.
Left Behind: When a Gold Rush Ended
So what happened when a boom, like the California Gold Rush, went bust? Often, those who traveled across the country stayed put and built a life in California. Others either picked up and followed the rumors of the next gold rush or they returned home.
Here are some records to consult related to those who arrived in California due to the Gold Rush as well as those who remained once the rush ended:
- Newspaper articles. Remember to not just check California resources such as The California Digital Newspaper Collection, but also newspapers at the point of origin for those who migrated. Often, these folks sent letters “back home” which made their way in print somehow, even if only a snippet of news.
- Census records. Using census records can be difficult since many of the gold miners and others were transient and moved around. Also, portions of the 1850 US Federal census are missing for several counties in Northern California. And while there was a California state census in 1852, the Gold Rush was considered over by then and many had taken off for other parts.
- Historical Societies and Libraries. The best resources are the archival holdings of groups such as the California State Library. You may find personal papers, handwritten letters, diaries and journals as well as personal accounts of your ancestor’s migration and arrival in California.
- Business records. Believe it or not, most wealth was made by those who set up stores and businesses to provide goods to the miners and others who arrived as part of the Gold Rush. Check local and county historical societies for business-related documents during the 1848–1855 time period.
Other Gold Rushes
California’s Gold Rush of 1848/1849 was not the first gold rush, nor will it likely be the last. In fact, some would say the current influx of residents to North Dakota starting in 2012 as a result of oil drilling is a modern-day “gold rush.” The history of the United States is marked by mass migrations of people looking for a better future, especially at the prospect of “easy money.” The truth is that in most cases, those who were first on the scene reaped the rewards and those who followed struggled to survive.
Here is a list of modern gold rushes from around the world. When researching your family history, align migration patterns and research records with these dates; you may find the reasons why your ancestors moved to and from specific locations:
- 1799 – Cabarrus County, North Carolina, United States
- 1828 – Georgia, United States
- 1848 – California, United States
- 1850 – British Columbia, Canada
- 1851 – New South Wales, Australia
- 1851 – Victoria, Australia
- 1859 – Pikes Peak, Colorado, United States
- 1861 – Central Otago, New Zealand
- 1864 – West Coast, New Zealand
- 1874 – Black Hills, South Dakota (and Wyoming), United States
- 1883 – Tierra Del Fuego, South America
- 1886 – Witwatersrand Gold Rush, South Africa
- 1896 – Klondike, Yukon Territory, Canada
- 1897 – Mount Baker, Washington, United States
- 1899 – Nome, Alaska
- 1909 – Porcupine Gold Rush, Timmins, Ontario, Canada
Family Story Gold
If you are lucky enough to have an ancestor who heard the call of a gold rush or migrated a long distance to seize an economic opportunity, you should seek out the stories they left behind. Start with asking other family members if they remember stories related to the Gold Rush. A good way to conduct interviews is to use the audio recording features at Saving Memories Forever.
After recording stories, use newspaper records and even historical society papers to verify or substantiate the stories. Check for letters and diaries as well and not just from your wandering ancestor: very often other family members will mention where a specific person is living and why.
Even if you only produce a one or two paragraph profile of your Gold Rush ancestor, you’ll have something precious to share with your children, grandchildren and future generations.
Thomas MacEntee is a genealogy professional specializing in the use of technology and social media to improve genealogical research and as a means of interacting with others in the family history community. For more information visit http://hidefgen.com.