Oh, Sally, dearest Sally!
Oh, Sally, fer your sake,
I'll go to Californy,
And try to raise a stake.
Those were the words of a popular song during the days when gold fever spread like wildfire. Farmers left their plows, blacksmiths left their forges, tailors left their needles, sailors left their ships, and doctors left their patientsall were heading for California. Once you were in California, your cares would be over, it was said. Why, you could bend down and pick up gold in the streams . So sell everything you have and head west. You'll be rich in no time at all. In one year, San Francisco grew from a village of a few people to a boom town of 25,000. In 1855 Hinton R. Helper wrote a book called Land of Gold. He wrote: "I have seen purer liquors, better segars, truer guns and … larger … knives here in San Francisco, than in any other place I have visited; and it is my unbiased opinion that California furnishes the best bad things that are obtainable in America."
Many of the forty-niners, as those who came that first year were called, did find gold, but usually it was gold dust and gold flakes . It often took all they found just to eat. Others were left penniless. A few miners did strike it rich. But not many. Louise Clappe, one of the few women in the mining camps, knew that. She wrote: "Goldmining is nature's great lottery scheme. A man may work a claim for many months, and be poorer at the end of the time than when he commenced; or he may take out thousands in a few hours. It is a mere matter of chance."
Gold made California. It brought great wealth to a quiet frontier. It brought people and ideas from around the world. It mixed rich and poor. It gave California enough people to become a statequickly. One popular song described the gold rush this way: "They swam the wide rivers and crossed the tall peaks. And camped on the prairie for weeks upon weeks. Starvation and cholera and hard work and slaughter, They reached California 'spite hell and high water."
California wasn't the only place where gold was found. It also turned up in Oregon, Nevada, Wyoming, Montana, Idaho, Colorado, and Alaska. Silver, too, in some of these places. Guess who got rich? Mostly the storekeepers. But stories of lucky miners filled newspapers, and that kept people coming. They came from Mexico, Spain, China, Peru, England, and almost every country you could name. America was becoming a country of immigrants.