Gold

Charles Nahl and Frederick A. Wenderoth, Miners in the Sierras, 1851–1852

Charles Nahl and Frederick A. Wenderoth, Miners in the Sierras, 1851–1852

As a one-time prospector, Charles Nahl knew gold mining. Miners protected their claim from interlopers, as evidenced by the cabin built next to the open-pit deposit.

Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of the Fred Heilbron Collection

The news in 1848 of James Marshall’s discovery of gold at Sutter’s mill in California changed the wealth and reach of the nation. Farmers dropped their plows, sailors abandoned ship, and Chinese and others sailed across the oceans to seek their fortunes in mines and streams. These lands were often left devastated. Plentiful gold was minted into coins, made into jewelry, and financed the growth and statehood of California.

George W. Northrup, 1858

George W. Northrup, 1858

Northrup, a young and successful miner, posed with his tools and his gold. Later he served as a First Sergeant in the 1862 U.S.–Dakota War.

Courtesy of Minnesota Historical Society

Snuff box, about 1860

Both slave and free African Americans participated in the gold rush as laborers and gold washers.

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Gold scale, made by Chen Shengtai in Guangdong Province, China, mid-1800s

Gold scale, made by Chen Shengtai in Guangdong Province, China, mid-1800s

The lure of gold brought people from across the ocean, including thousands of Chinese laborers who brought their own weights and scales with them.

Moffatt & Company $20 gold coin, 1855

Moffatt & Company $20 gold coin, 1855

Many private concerns competed to issue coinage. Moffatt & Company’s half eagle was similar in design to federal coinage, leading the public to assume it was federally issued.

Gregg & Norris $5 coin, 1849

Miners needed to turn their gold dust, nuggets, and flakes into usable money. Privately minted coins answered that need.

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California Miner’s Bank $10 coin, 1849

In business for just a year, the Miner’s Bank of San Francisco shut down when the public found their coins deficient in gold content.
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San Francisco Mint double eagle, 1855

In 1850 the federal government opened a mint in San Francisco. Near the gold fields, it controlled production and provided coinage that met a national need.

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Wass, Molitor and Company $50 slug, 1851

This private company made impressively weighty fifty-dollar slugs. They contained more than a quarter troy pound of pure gold.

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Fractional gold coin, 1850s

Private companies also produced coinage on a smaller scale, and in lesser values, such as the fractional coins with a value of 25 and 50 cents.

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Gold nugget case, 1864

Gold nugget case, 1864

During the Civil War, San Francisco citizens sent Abraham Lincoln a gold nugget accompanied by a letter wishing him success in ending the war.

Many participated in gold fever by purchasing inexpensive gold jewelry. Just before the gold rush, Englishman Thomas Lowe brought knowledge of gold plating to the American jewelry industry.

Gold jewelry, mid-to-late 1800s

Gold jewelry, mid-to-late 1800s

Gold jewelry, mid-to-late 1800s

Gold jewelry, mid-to-late 1800s

Gold jewelry, mid-to-late 1800s

Gold jewelry, mid-to-late 1800s

Gold jewelry, mid-to-late 1800s

William Shew, daguerreotype views of San Francisco Harbor during the gold rush, 1852

After docking their vessels, sailors jumped ship for the gold mines. The photographer recorded the harbor filled with deteriorating vessels, an unexpected outcome of the gold rush fever.
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