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Gold Rush
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History | Economics | Geography | Civics

Helpful websites: (Site supporting Gold Rush exhibit)
The Oakland Museum of California's Gold Rush exhibit
Virtual Museum of the City of San Francisco Gold Rush pages
Historian Michael Trinklein's Gold Rush site
University of Californai at Berkeley's site on the gold rush

5. President James Polk, an expansionist, on the night of his inauguration confided to his Secretary of the Navy that one of his main objectives was the acquisition of California. Ordering troops to the Rio Grande was clearly a provocation. Polk had incited war by sending American soldiers into what was disputed territory and he sent secret instructions to the commander of the Pacific naval squadron to seize the California ports if Mexico declared war.

Representatives of the president quietly informed Americans in California that the US would respond sympathetically to a revolt against Mexican authority there. Many believed that the U.S. would be giving the blessings of liberty and democracy to more people. This was intermingled with ideas of racial superiority, longings for the beautiful lands of New Mexico and California and thoughts of commercial enterprise across the Pacific. Mexico surrendered and we paid her $15 million (exactly what had been offered to buy off the Mexicans in the first place). Some worried that the Mexican campaign would expand the southern slave territory. The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 was a concession to the southern states in return for the admission of the Mexican war territories (especially California) into the Union as non-slave states. This led to the Compromise of 1850. Tensions remained high between the North and South and the crisis continued to the Civil War.

Film quotes about Manifest Destiny:

James Rawls, Historian: "The Anglo American people of the United States were convinced that God has placed His hand upon this nation in a special way and that the Promised Land lay to the West -- that all of the land from the Atlantic to the Pacific Ocean should become a part of the United States."

Madeline Hsu, Historian: "California represented the last piece of territory in its expansion from the east coast to the west coast. And to have the Gold Rush happen that very same year, was almost as if there was a sign from God, a divine sign of approval of this process of expansion of the United States across the continent."

Manifest Destiny is a phrase that expresses the belief that the United States has a mission to expand, spreading its form of democracy and freedom. At the time of the Gold Rush, the idea was that it was not only good but also inevitable and that the Anglo-Saxon race was naturally superior. The phrase was first used in the 1840s to promote the annexation of much of what is now the Western United States (the Oregon Territory, the Texas Annexation, and the Mexican Cession).

The Territory of Oregon was organized on August 14, 1848, by an Act of Congress, out of the U.S. portion of the Oregon Country below the 49th parallel. It originally included all of the present-day states of Idaho, Oregon and Washington as well as Montana, west of the Continental Divide, and Wyoming, west of the Continental Divide and north of the 42nd parallel -- the northern border of the Mexican Cession.

The Texas Annexation of 1845 was the voluntary annexation of Republic of Texas by the United States of America as Texas, the 28th state, and additional land that later became major parts of the states of New Mexico and Colorado, where the headwaters of the Rio Grande exist in the San Juan Mountains.

John C. Fremont led the Bear Flag Revolution. Colonel Stephen Kearny moved on to California after capturing Santa Fe handily. There he joined a conflict already in progress that was being staged jointly by American settlers, a well armed exploring party led by Fremont and the American navy. Kearny brought together the disparate forces and by autumn of 1846 completed the conquest of California.

The Mexican-American War was a military conflict fought between the United States and Mexico in the years 1846-1848. Contemporary critics occasionally labeled it Mr. Polk's War. The war arose from the competing claims to Texas by Mexico and the United States in the wake of the U.S. annexation of Texas.

The Mexican Cession is a historical name for the region of the present day southwestern United States that was ceded to the U.S. by Mexico in February 21, 1848 under the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo following the Mexican-American War. The cession of this territory from Mexico was a condition for the end of the war, as United States troops occupied Mexico City, and Mexico risked being completely annexed by the U.S. Mexico agreed to cede California and New Mexico and acknowledge Rio Grande as the boundary of Texas. In addition, Polk offered Mexico $15 million which is what was offered in the first place before the war.

History | Economics | Geography | Civics

1. Sam Brannan who had done so much to spread the word of gold was doing especially well as a newspaper publisher and merchant. The most famous quote of the California Gold Rush is attributed to Brannan; reportedly after buying up as much of the prospecting supplies in town that he could, Brannan strode through the streets of San Francisco, shouting "Gold! Gold! Gold from the American River!" while holding aloft a vial of gold. From a single store in Sacramento he'd built an empire of hotels and warehouses and retail shops, and was on his way to becoming California's first millionaire.

2. The California Gold Rush started at Sutter's Mill near Coloma on January 24, 1848 when James W. Marshall, an employee of Sacramento agriculturist and Swiss emigrant John Sutter, discovered what turned out to be gold. Sutter had a utopian ideal of agriculture and predicted his own failure once the gold was confirmed. Sutter was ruined as his workers left in search of gold and squatters invaded his land and stole his crops. Marshall never capitalized on his discovery.

3. By 1851, the surface gold in California was mostly gone. Rich deposits still remained, but they could only be reached by sinking shafts deep into granite hillsides, or blasting away at ancient streambeds with high-pressure jets of water. By 1861, California's mines had yielded gold worth over $600 million, an average of nearly 60 million dollars a year throughout the 1850s.

From the film narrator: "Worse still, everything in the gold district was wildly overpriced: one dollar for an egg, five for a pound of tea, and upwards of eight for a second-hand shovel. At his general store in Sacramento, Sam Brannan was now pulling in as much as 150,000 dollars a month."

J.S. Holliday, Historian: "From the very beginning, California is a consumer market, because you have tens of thousands of men with millions of dollars, and they need everything. They need boots and more boots. They need shovels. They need pick axes. They need billiard tables and chandeliers and mirrors and whiskey. My God, whiskey and champagne and wine and beer. All of this had to be brought to San Francisco. We're talking about a town one and half, two years old, which has become a port comparable to Baltimore, comparable to Philadelphia, overnight."

4. In the film, writer JoAnn Levy says, "The women who had domestic skills suddenly found that they could be paid for them, that you could sew and iron and cook and clean, and provide some bed for some poor guy who doesn't have anything but a tent, but you manage to make up a little shack or something and call yourself a boardinghouse keeper, and he can come in, and suddenly you're in business and you're making money."

9. Consider the Internet boom of the 1990's, or the expansion of the Gaming Industry in the lat 20th century. There were big winners and big losers especially toward the end of the century. This century, some people think the new gold rush is embryonic cell research and other life science research.

History | Economics | Geography | Civics

1. San Francisco Bay is sheltered from the ocean and large boats can dock there. It also has easy access to the Gold Country with rivers flowing from the Gold Country toward the bay.

2. Those with money enough to book passage went by sea. Some braved the voyage around the tip of South America, an odyssey of five, six, sometimes eight months. The rest, like Hiram Pierce, took the so-called "short cut" -- a ship to Panama, a sweltering walk or mule ride across the malaria-riddled isthmus, and then a steamer to San Francisco. Most forty-niners opted for the more affordable third route: the grueling, often dangerous journey overland.

3. The Westward Migration between 1840-1860 took hundreds of thousands (300,000) of white and black Americans into the far western regions of the continent. Southerners flocked mainly to Texas. The largest number of migrants came from the Old Northwest (today's Midwest) mostly white men and women and a few blacks. Before the gold rush most traveled in families and most were young. Many were relatively prosperous because poor people could not afford the trip. The poor who did join the trip came as farm or ranch hands, domestic servants, teachers or prostitutes. Most traveled along the great overland trails gathering in one of several major depots like Independence, St. Joseph, or Council Bluffs and then joining a wagon train. The major route was the 2000-mile Oregon Trail across the Great Plains and the South Pass of the Rockies. From there, migrants moved north into Oregon or south along the California trail to the northern California coast. Other migrations moved along the Santa Fe Trail into New Mexico. The journey lasted 5-6 months. The pressures of mountain snow, disease, walking great distances required strength. Cooperation was essential. Only a few expeditions experienced Indian attacks. Indians were usually more helpful than dangerous, serving as guides and trading horses and food and clothing.

History | Economics | Geography | Civics

3. Relatively few serious situations arose along the Overland (Oregon-California) Trail in the early years following the Gold Rush of 1849. In fact, many pioneers found Plains Indians helpful with sustenance, river crossings and knowledge of the area but this was not the case along the Southern Route (Gila River). Nomadic tribes of this area had a long history of mutual depredation with the Spanish settlements and with farming tribes. Overland travelers found it necessary to travel in large groups and maintain strict watch over their encampments and livestock. The tribes of the Great Basin and northern California area were considered by pioneers and argonauts to be less than human. The lifestyle of small scattered migratory tribelets, well adapted to the arid climate and limited resources of the region, was neither understood nor respected by pioneers and settlers, and violence by travelers toward them occurred in 1846. Thereafter, their initial supportive response to pioneers understandably became one of wariness and distrust. Native people were living in sparsely settled villages throughout the entire region of California.

The Act for the Government and Protection of Indians, passed by the state legislature in 1850, denied native Californians the right to testify in court and allowed white Americans and Californios to keep natives as indentured servants.

James Rawls, Historian: "The name of the law sounds benign, but the effect was malign in the extreme degree. Any white person under this law could declare Indians who were simply strolling about, who were not gainfully employed, to be vagrants, and take that charge before a justice of the peace, and a justice of the peace would then have those Indians seized and sold at public auction. And the person who bought them would have their labor for four months without compensation."

Frank LaPena, Professor of Native American Studies: "There's a white person found with a small Indian child. And he said, 'I am protecting him. He's an orphan.' And they say, 'Well, how do you know he's a orphan?' He said, 'I killed their parents.'"

Narrator: "Ad hoc white militias conducted routine raids on Indian encampments -- burning their huts and stores of food, slaughtering the adults, and seizing many of the children. Meanwhile, communities throughout California offered bounties for Indian ears, scalps, heads."

James Rawls, Historian: "The Indian hunters were acting on their own initiative. But the state of California passed legislation authorizing more than a million dollars for the reimbursement of additional expenses that the Indian hunters may have incurred."

Narrator: "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."

4. Small numbers of Chinese had been arriving in California ever since gold had been discovered. Three hundred or so had come in 1849; 450 the next year. Twenty thousand Chinese passed through the San Francisco Customs House in 1852 alone -- 2,000 of them in a single day. By 1870, there would be more than 48,000 Chinese in California. Most were farmers from the impoverished province of Guangdong, who had paid their passage by indenturing themselves to merchants in nearby Hong Kong. Once in California, Chinese mutual assistance societies found them work to repay the debt. Under pressure from whites, state lawmakers forced the Chinese to pay the Foreign Miners Tax (students should understand that this tax was imposed on miners some of whom were native-born) which by now had been greatly reduced. The Chinese resigned themselves to paying the tax. To avoid conflict with whites, they concentrated on working claims that had been abandoned by others -- and through sheer diligence managed to make them pay. Before long, tax payments made by the Chinese miners would account for nearly one quarter of California's revenue.

Other Chinese immigrants, meanwhile, settled in San Francisco or Sacramento, and made their money as fishermen, launderers and cooks. Wah Lee opened the first Chinese laundry in San Francisco. Yee Fung Cheung launched a busy herbal medicine practice. Yee Ah Tye owned his own mining company and employed 100 men.

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Gold Rush American Experience

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