In the 1840s the land now known as California was a Mexican territory with ~8,000 non-natives living within its realm. Eventually, the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo ending the Mexican-American war would cede the territory of California over to the US in 1848.
However, before signatures had even been placed, the discovery of gold at Sutter’s Mill completely changed the territory’s trajectory. The population boom of California gold rush had begun.
Almost overnight, hundreds of thousands of settlers, called 49ers, poured into the territory. Men comprised nearly 90% of the settlers, a staggeringly high number compared to other migrations to and within the United States in the time period.1
Almost all were there in hopes of finding gold and striking it rich. Others were merchants that showed up to capitalize and supply the influx of people in the boom towns and cities that appeared.
The travelers paid a staggering price to make the journey, often between $100-300, or three to nine months of wages for an unskilled laborer. With travel times taking upwards of 4-6 months, it was a large commitment for the common man.2
The city of San Francisco’s population exploded as it became a major port city and commerce center. From ~8,000 settlers in 1840 in the entire state of California, over 300,000 prospectors traveled to California, some overland while others via the Panama railroad. Many prospectors stayed and by 1860 California’s population consisted of just under 400,000 people.
The rapid influx of people gave California considerable financial, economic and political might. It became a state just two years after its incorporation into the US in 1850. While the discovery of gold and subsequent population boom grabbed headlines, the most impactful outcome is that once the gold rush frenzy died down, most newcomers decided to stay and build the state.
How did the Gold Rush Affect California’s Population?
It was in this aftermath that California transformed from a mining based to a agricultural based economy. Historically, the natives in the California region were hunter gatherers and did not adopt agriculture. This was because the region was extremely bountiful, with plenty of food available to support the local populations. Simply put, the natives did not need farming.
The newcomers discovered that California was home to some of the best weather and soil for agriculture. The region has rainy winters and hot, dry summers which is ideal for many crops such as wheat.
In just a few short years the wheat yields were so productive that they outpaced local consumption and a thriving trade emerged. By 1860, California produced five times as much wheat as all other western states and territories combined. Later, the economy added the production of fruits and vegetables that came with the spread of irrigation.3
California’s newfound statehood granted it influence as the only state west of Missouri. It flexed its political muscles when it pushed for a transcontinental railroad to drastically reduce the time and cost of travel over land. The railroad finally completed in 1869 and with it came another boom in population.
While the initial population was concentrated in Northern California, the railroad lines introduced many more people to the southern part of the state as well.
The gold rush of California transformed the state into a major economic and cultural hub. While its legacy may be of the mad rush for gold, without that initial influx of settlers, the history of the western US could look quite different.
To learn more about US history, check out this timeline of the history of the United States.
1) Roske, Ralph J. “The World Impact of the California Gold Rush 1849-1857.” Arizona and the West, vol. 5, no. 3, 1963, pp. 187–232. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/40167071.
2) Clay, Karen, and Randall Jones. “Migrating to Riches? Evidence from the California Gold Rush.” The Journal of Economic History, vol. 68, no. 4, 2008, pp. 997–1027. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/40056467.
3) St. Clair, David J. “The Gold Rush and the Beginnings of California Industry.” California History, vol. 77, no. 4, 1998, pp. 185–208. JSTOR, https://doi.org/10.2307/25462514.