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January 2018

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U.S. Census Bureau History: The California Gold Rush

Gold Miner

On January 24, 1848, workers building a saw mill discovered gold in California's
American River. As a result of the discovery, California's population grew
from approximately 8,000 in 1840 to 100,000 in 1850!

On January 24, 1848, James W. Marshall—a carpenter working at John Sutter's sawmill near Placerville and Coloma, CA—discovered gold in California's American River. Marshall's nugget initiated the first of several large-scale western migrations in American history as miners, prospectors, and dreamers sought their share of the 750,000 pounds of gold found in California between 1848 and 1855.

Following the discovery of the first gold nugget in his sawmill's tailrace, John Sutter hoped to keep the find a secret to protect the agricultural empire he was building. For Sutter's workers, the news was too good to keep quiet. Rumors of gold in the area around New Helvetia (Sacramento, CA) reached San Francisco in March 1848. The New York Herald reported the news on August 19, 1848, noting that the metal could be found in abundance and was waiting for miners to arrive to claim it. In his December 1848 address to Congress, President James Polk confirmed that the territory (which Mexico ceded to the United States earlier in the year following acceptance of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo) was rich with gold.

Between 1849 and 1855, thousands of aspiring miners, entrepreneurs, and their families made the arduous land and sea journey to California. As a result of its rapidly growing population and the Compromise of 1850, California became a state without first being a territory. The vast majority of people arriving in California never "struck it rich." Many followed rumors to other gold and silver strikes, opened businesses supplying mines and miners, and helped open the western United States to settlement. Today, Americans and immigrants continue to dream of a new life in California making the "Golden State" the most populous in the United States. In the 165 years between 1850 and 2015, the state grew from 92,597 to more than 39 million.

You can learn more about California's growth, the California Gold Rush, and the nation's mining industry using census data and records. For example:

  • The California Gold Rush was not America's first gold rush. In 1799, a 12-year-old boy discovered a 17 pound gold nugget in Cabarrus County, NC. The boy's family used the nugget as a doorstop for several years before realizing its value. Commerical mining continued sporadically in the region into the early 20th Century.
  • In his fourth annual address to the U.S. Congress on December 5, 1848, President James Polk confirmed the discovery of gold in California. In response to reports from California, Polk stated that such an "abundance" of gold had been found that the news "would scarcely command belief." Aspiring miners "rushed" to California, causing the state's population to increase by more than 300 percent between 1850 and 1860.
  • Sutter's Mill is located along the American River near Coloma, CA. Two years after James W. Marshall discovered gold at the mill, Coloma's population was 588. It grew to 888 in 1860. In 2015, the American Community Survey estimated Coloma's population was 874. Today, visitors can learn more about the discovery of gold at the Marshall Gold Discovery State Historic Park.
  • The American River is fed by its North, Middle, and South forks located in El Dorado, Placer, and Sacramento Counties. In 1860, the total population of these counties was 57,974. Today, the three counties are home to 2,080,616.
  • It was often easier to "strike it rich" as a merchant than a gold miner in California. Selling supplies and services to the state's miners helped make Samuel Brannan (founder of the California Star newspaper), Jonas Clark (founder of Clark University, Worcester, MA), Leland Stanford (founder of Stanford University), Domingo Ghirardelli (chocolatier and coffee merchant), and Levi Strauss wealthy.
  • Today, Nevada is the leading gold-producing state in the nation. According to the U.S. Geological Survey, Nevada was responsible for 72 percent (151 metric tons) of domestic gold production in 2014. Alaska was the nation's second largest gold producer, accounting for 15 percent (31.4 metric tons) of total domestic gold production.
  • More than three-quarters of the world's gold is used to manufacture jewelry (NAICS 339910). The 2012 Economic Census found that there were 2,050 jewelry and silverware manufacturing establishments (NAICS 339910) in the United States. They often sold their wares through some of the nation's 7,931 jewelry, watch, precious stone, and precious metal merchant wholesalers (NAICS 423940).
  • The Bureau of Economic Analysis reported that mining accounted for $260.6 billion of the nation's gross domestic product (GDP) in 2016. (The GDP measures the nation's total output of goods and services.) Mining, except oil and gas, (including gold mining) was responsible for $61.6 billion of the gross domestic product that year.
  • As of May 31, 2017, the U.S. Department of the Treasury, Bureau of the Fiscal Service reported that the U.S. Government's total gold reserve totaled 261,498,926.230 fine troy ounces. The book value of the gold (calculated at the statutory rate of $42.2222 per fine troy ounce) was $11,041,059,957.46. The market value of that gold (based on the London Bullion Market price for that day of $1,266.20 per ounce) was more than $331.1 billion.

California Clipper advertisement

News of the discovery of gold in California reached the eastern United States by August 1848. President James Polk confirmed the discovery
in an address to Congress on December 5, 1848. Americans soon began "rushing" to California by land and sea before the "easy" gold disappeared.
Between 1850 and 1860, California's population grew from 92,597 to 379,994—a 310 percent increase!

Photo courtesy of the State of Oregon.

This Month in Census History

On January 1, 1960, the U.S. population reached 179 million—nearly doubling in size since 1910.

Between 1910 and 1960, Los Angeles, Houston, and Washington, DC, replaced Boston, Pittsburgh, and Buffalo on the list of the nation's 10 largest urban places.

Virginia City, Nevada
View larger image

Did You Know?

California gold miners "rushed" to Nevada's Virginia Range following the 1859 announcement of the Comstock Lode's rich silver and gold fields.

The influx of miners and their families led to the creation of the Nevada Territory (from the Utah Territory) in 1861, and statehood on October 31, 1864. Between 1860 and 1870, Nevada's population grew from 6,857 to 42,941.

Miners and entrepreneurs established Virginia City, NV—county seat of Storey County, NV—to support Comstock Lode mining activities in 1859. Peaking at 10,917 in 1880, Virginia City's population was 855 in 2010.

Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress.

View larger image

Gold Mining

In 2012, there were 6,091 mining establishments (except oil and gas, NAICS 212) in the United States that employed 211,830 people.

In 2014, the U.S. Geological Survey reported that domestic gold mines (NAICS 212221) produced approximately 210 metric tons of the yellow metal valued at $8.6 billion. In that same year, silver mines (NAICS 212222) produced more than 1,180 metric tons of silver.

Photo courtesy of the Mine Safety and Health Administration.

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Source: U.S. Census Bureau | Census History Staff | Last Revised: December 05, 2022