On the Water

To California by Sea

The gold rush drew wealth-seekers from around the world. More than a third came by sea.

Glittering rumors of gold for the taking spread from California around the globe beginning in 1848. Tens of thousands of people left homes and families to chase the dream of quick riches. For most of the world, the ocean was the only way to reach California. For Americans, it was the fastest way. In 1849 alone, 42,000 Americans headed west over land; 25,000 took to the waves.

The Rush to California

Educational Resources

What was it like to be a 49’er? Why did they go? Explore this interactive Gold Rush journal to find out.

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.

Gold Fever

The discovery of gold nuggets in the American River near Sacramento, California, brought waves of people to the region. With no official mint, private companies soon began striking their own coins. The U.S. Assayer of Gold, a government contractor, collected and tested the gold until the San Francisco branch mint opened in 1854.

  • Gold from Sutter’s Mill, 1848

    View Object Record

    James Marshall found this tiny piece of pure gold in the tailrace of John Sutter’s Coloma, California, sawmill on January 24, 1848. This is the actual nugget that sparked the rush for California gold.

    Government Transfer

  • Watch fob enclosing gold flakes

    Gift of Chase Manhattan Bank

  • $5 gold coin, Norris, Gregg & Norris, 1849

    Norris, Gregg & Norris were businessmen from New York who headed west and established a mint near San Francisco. They struck $5 pieces only and were the first coin makers in California to strike money in any real quantity.

    Government Transfer

  • $20 plated token, California Gold Mines, 1850

    This piece from a fictional company was probably used as a gaming chip.

    Gift of Stack’s

  • $50 gold coin (proof), U.S. Assay Office, 1851

  • $20 gold coin, U.S. Assay Office, 1853

    Gift of Chase Manhattan Bank

Panning for Gold

Rumors out of northern California claimed that gold lined the streambeds there. All a man needed was a pick, a shovel, and a pan to break up the soil and sediment and wash away everything but the gold. Some prospectors brought their tools with them. Others fell victim to inventors and hucksters selling “improvements” on standard mining equipment.

Miner’s scale

This compact scale and set of weights was manufactured especially for California-bound miners.

Miner’s pan

Gift of George W. Sims

California Gold-Finder

Gold finders, gold washers, and other spurious devices were advertised widely to lure gullible gold-seekers.

New York Daily Tribune, January 18, 1849

Courtesy of the Sacramento Archives and Museum Collection Center

From Le Charivari, June 25, 1850.

Courtesy of the California Historical Society

Half Hull Model of Clipper Ship Young America [1853]
Half Hull Model of Clipper Ship Young America

Builder’s half hull model of clipper ship Young America

Built by William Webb in 1853

Gift of William P. Pattee

A Clipper Ship

View Object Record

In the early 1850s, the immensely valuable trade with China for spices, tea, and other high-profit cargoes put a premium on speed, even at the cost of cargo capacity. British and American shipbuilders answered with clipper ships—long, narrow vessels with towering masts and clouds of canvas. They were the fastest commercial sailing vessels ever built. This ship, the Young America, was built to capitalize on the California gold rush. It sailed for 34 years, rounding Cape Horn about 50 times.

Rigged Model, Extreme Gold Rush Clipper Challenge [1965]
Rigged Model, Extreme Gold Rush Clipper Challenge

Extreme clipper ship Challenge

Built at New York City by William H. Webb, 1851

The Challenge

View Object Record

At the height of the gold rush, a prominent trading company challenged New York shipbuilder William Webb to build the world’s largest and fastest sailing ship. His answer was the Challenge, launched in 1851 and briefly the largest ship afloat. For the maiden voyage, the owners offered Capt. Robert Waterman a $10,000 bonus if he could sail to San Francisco in less than the record time of 90 days. Thwarted by violent weather, the Challenge took 108 days.

Clipper cards, 1850s and 1860s

Merchants used mythical, romantic, and patriotic imagery to attract customers to their ships.


A Gold Rush Journal

This journal was written and illustrated by Alexander Van Valen of New York, who set sail in January 1849 to join the California gold rush. He and four partners had formed a company to dig gold, financed by two other New Yorkers. Leaving behind his wife Susan and two daughters, Van Valen planned to be gone for two years.

The group booked passage on the bark Hersilia, which reached San Francisco on August 9, 1849, 200 days after leaving New York. Van Valen’s experience was typical of many East Coast adventurers. But his account of the voyage and his observations of San Francisco and mining operations are remarkable in their detail.


Alexander Van Valen

Around the Horn

For Easterners, sailing to the gold fields was a dangerous and stormy voyage that lasted five to seven months. Vessels sailed around Cape Horn at the southern tip of South America, some 14,000 miles in all. Wealthier travelers could save months by boarding steamships for Panama. There they crossed through tropical jungles to the Pacific Coast to catch ships bound north for San Francisco.

It was a verry fatigueing journey...confined for near 7 months on board of a small vessel, with little chance for exercise, and no manual labor to harden us...
—Alexander Van Valen, January 18, 1850