Visit Your Local PBS Station PBS Home PBS Home Programs A-Z TV Schedules Watch Video Donate Shop PBS Search PBS
Gold Rush
Film Description

Three young men smoking cigars and drinking At the end of 1853, San Francisco was a city on the fast track. It had twelve daily newspapers, nine insurance companies, consulates of twenty-seven foreign governments, and six-story buildings where sand dunes once stood. A few years earlier, the seaside town had been a sleepy village of just 800 people. But the sight of gold in the rushing waters of the American River sent a ripple around the world and set the stage for an event that would forever change a city, a fledgling state, and the nation. "The Gold Rush transformed California, but more importantly, it transformed America," says historian J.S. Holliday. "Next to the Civil War in the nineteenth century, no other event had a greater impact, more long-lasting reverberations than the Gold Rush."

American Experience presents The Gold Rush; from producer/director Randall MacLowry (Stephen Foster, A Brilliant Madness) and writer Michelle Ferrari (Las Vegas: An Unconventional History, Seabiscuit, Miss America, New Orleans), this new documentary features interviews with acclaimed writer Isabel Allende, and noted historians James Rawls, Kevin Starr, and Richard White, among others. Incorporating rare and exquisite daguerreotypes and original recreations, this film offers a vivid new portrait of a seminal event in America's history.

More than the familiar tale of the masses who flocked to California to become known collectively as the 49ers, this new two-hour documentary focuses on five determined adventurers: an impoverished Chilean aristocrat, anxious to recoup his family's fortunes; a strong-minded Missouri woman who refused to be left behind when her husband came down with gold fever; a California school teacher with dreams of becoming a land owner; a New England sea captain's son with everything to prove; and a New York blacksmith who wrenched himself away from his wife and children to risk all that he had in the hope of securing a more prosperous future. Drawing heavily on original letters, memoirs and journals, this documentary brings to life a cast of international characters, and portrays the explosive creation of the first multi-ethnic, multi-cultural, entrepreneurial society in America. At the same time, the film reveals the rise of legalized discrimination in California and the decimation of the state's Native population. "The Gold Rush was a terrible and tumultuous time, but it also opened new horizons in America," says MacLowry. "The Gold Rush inspired the idea of California as a land of opportunity -- a place of risk-taking, unimaginable wealth, and new beginnings. It was then, and still is."

For some, gold brought tremendous wealth, for others, devastating financial ruin. But its ramifications went well beyond the economic sphere -- it also changed the face and shape of America at breakneck speed. In 1850, California became the thirty-first state, fulfilling the promise of westward expansion. It also became the newest destination for thousands of immigrants from around the world. In 1852 alone, 20,000 Chinese newcomers passed through the San Francisco Customs House -- 2,000 of them in a single day. Chilean and Mexican miners also descended on the new state and jockeyed with Anglo Americans for the riches the Gold Rush promised. But with the shift in racial balance, came unthinkable acts of racism.

Anglo gold seekers persuaded a newly elected legislature to pass the Foreign Miners Tax, a steep levy that was meant to be imposed on all "non-Americans." And immigrants were not the only people to suffer at the hands of white miners. California's Native population was devastated. In the two decades after the discovery of gold, 120,000 Indians, four-fifths of California's Native population, would be wiped out -- most by starvation or disease, others at the murderous hands of whites. "It was mass murder that was legalized and publicly subsidized," says Rawls. "California entered the Union shining with gold, but also dripping with blood."

"The Gold Rush typifies an event that is remembered for the positive changes it wrought on the shape of this nation," says American Experience executive producer Mark Samels. "But like so many pivotal events in our history, it involved great sacrifice and inequity as well as great achievement. That's evident in this film."

Film Credits

back to top page created on 9.13.2006

Gold Rush American Experience

Exclusive Corporate Funding is provided by: