December 5, 1848 – President Polk Catalyzes the California Gold Rush

On this day in history, President James K. Polk, in his State of the Union address, proclaimed:

It was known that mines of the precious metals existed to a considerable extent in California at the time of its acquisition [1848]. Recent discoveries render it probable that these mines are more extensive and valuable than was anticipated. The accounts of the abundance of gold in that territory are of such an extraordinary character as would scarcely command belief were they not corroborated by the authentic reports of officers in the public service who have visited the mineral district and derived the facts which they detail from personal observation.”

President James K. Polk

President James K. Polk

Back in January of 1848, James Marshall and Peter Wimmer first discovered gold at Sutter’s sawmill on the American River. In February the United States and Mexico had signed the Treaty of Guadelupe Hidalgo, by which California was ceded to the U.S.

Fortuitously, not until March 15 did “The Californian” report that gold was being found “in considerable quantities” at Sutter’s sawmill. News of the gold spread, and on June 14 “The California Star” had to suspend publication because the entire staff went to the gold fields!

ca_americanriver

In July, California’s military governor Richard Mason wrote a report about the gold to Washington, including a sample. He judged that the 4,000 men in the gold district were collecting up to $50,000 a day ($1.3 million in 2013 dollars).

In August, announcements about the gold began to appear in newspapers on the East Coast. Polk gave an official imprimatur to the rumors with his December message to Congress and the nation.

With the government officially confirming the wealth of gold available, the rush started to California. From 1848 to 1855, some 300,000 gold speculators made their way to California. In the early years, huge nuggets of gold could be found on the ground. An astounding amount of gold was retrieved. In 1852 the take for the year was $80 million ($2.2 billion in 2013 dollars).

Some of the most important mines of the gold rush (PBS)

Some of the most important mines of the gold rush (PBS)

As more and more gold became collected however, people had to pan for gold in the water. Eventually, this source dried up as well.

But the gold rush had important consequences for the country. The massive population influx resulted in California becoming the 31st state in the Union in 1850. California’s nickname remains “The Golden State,” alluding not to its golden hills, but to the mineral that brought so many people to live there.

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