The Rush to California

Most of the fortune seekers in the California gold rush were young men. These “forty-niners” left behind families and jobs in the hope of instant wealth. A few succeeded, but the gold fields destroyed some and disappointed many more. Some enterprising migrants set up businesses to furnish, feed, and entertain the region’s growing population. Merchants were more likely to prosper than prospectors. Failed miners became settlers, and San Francisco boomed. In 1850, the population of California grew from 18,000 to 92,600.

From a daguerreotype by an unknown maker

Courtesy of the Braun Research Library, Autry National Center; 1346.G.1

Nisenan Indian Man with Arrows, around 1850-60

California was a Mexican province until 1848, and the residents were mostly Spanish-speaking people and Native Americans. Both found their lands overrun during the gold rush. The flood of immigrants destroyed Indian villages, redirected waterways, and depleted food supplies. From the 1840s to 1900, disease and death at the hands of newcomers reduced the Indian population from about 150,000 to 16,000. The Nisenan were among the Native cultures nearly destroyed by the rush for gold.


Lithograph by Charles Parsons after George Cooper

Courtesy of The Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley

Sacramento and its busy riverfront, about 1850

Rivers linked the gold-mining regions with San Francisco and were vital to mining operations. Steamboats were shipped around Cape Horn in 1849 and 1850 to work the inland waterways. The Senator, seen in this view of booming Sacramento, came from Boston and made an amazing $600,000 carrying supplies and people in its first year in California.


Courtesy of the National Park Service

Ships under the City

Many gold rush ships were abandoned in Yerba Buena Cove and used as storeships and hotels, and for other purposes. Others were sunk and, over time, San Francisco was built on top of them. Later construction projects revealed the remains of several ships under the city.

In 2001, the General Harrison, an 1840 vessel built in Newburyport, Massachusetts, was discovered underground near downtown San Francisco. Maritime historians studied the ship before it was covered again, this time by an 11-story building.


From a daguerreotype series by William Shew

Abandoned vessels in Yerba Buena Bay, San Francisco, 1853

In April 1850, a harbormaster’s estimate counted 62,000 people from across the globe arriving in San Francisco by ship in the preceding 12 months. Hundreds of ships lay abandoned, their passengers and crews out searching for gold.


From a daguerreotype attributed to Joseph B. Starkweather

Courtesy of the California History Room, California State Library

Miners at the head of Auburn Ravine, 1852

California’s opportunities drew people from all 31 U.S. states and at least 25 foreign countries. Southern China was closer by sea than any city on the American East Coast, and some 20,000 male immigrants arrived from China in 1852 alone. They met widespread discrimination from white settlers. But the same prejudice that limited where they could live and work fostered strong, self-reliant Chinese communities in San Francisco and elsewhere.