California Gold Rush for Kids

  • In 1848, people found gold in the Sacramento Valley.
  • The California Gold Rush was started by the discovery of gold in 1848.
  • Thousands of people came to this area looking for money.
  • In total, $2 billion in precious metal was extracted from the area by 1849.

Before gold was found, the US had been fighting for two years with Mexico. In 1848, the US won, and they got control of California. People didn’t know that gold had been found in a sawmill near Coloma.

The Discovery of Gold

John Sutter was a Swiss immigrant. He had come to California back in 1839. He had a dream about starting an agricultural empire. In 1848, he needed lumber, so he asked James Marshall to build a sawmill on the river’s South Fork.

Marshall found gold while at the sawmill and told his boss, John Sutter. They both tried to keep it quiet, but word leaked out quickly about gold being found nearby.

People wanted this golden metal for themselves and started looking for it everywhere they could think of, which led to many discoveries that made them very happy!

Sam Brannan

Nearly everyone went to the sawmill. But one enterprising merchant had a better idea.

Sam Brannan was a Mormon. He came to California, and he found mining supplies. He put them in his store at Sutter’s Fort. He also filled the store with buckets, pans, heavy clothing, foodstuffs, and other provisions for mining people.

John Brannan took a gold bottle full of flakes and went to the city, San Francisco. He walked up and down the streets with the gold floating above his head. He shouted, “Gold! Gold! Gold in the American River!”

The next day, San Francisco was deserted. The town’s newspaper wrote about San Francisco as a “ghost town.” Sam Brannan became California’s first millionaire by selling supplies to the miners as they passed by Sutter’s Fort. The Gold Rush was growing!

News Spread

Colonel Richard B. Mason, who was a military governor, wrote a report about the goldfields. It had very surprising facts: Two miners on Weber Creek found $17,000 worth of gold in 7 days. Six miners with 50 Indians found 273 pounds of gold at the same time. Sales at Sam Brannan’s store, which was near the mines, ended up being more than $36,000 USD. Mason sent his report together with a tin of gold to Washington.

Prospectors traveled about Cape Horn from the East, or they might have risked illness crossing the Isthmus of Panama. The most tenacious trekked 2,000 miles via land to get there, and cholera proved a far more deadly killer than the Native Americans.

The news of the gold reached the coast of California by boat. Thousands of people from Hawaii, Oregon, Mexico, Chile, Peru, and China visited California. This was before the East Coast population learning what would happen. People in Europe soon followed.

On the East Coast, newspapers first published accounts of the gold discovery in 1848. The editors were not sure about the idea of doing something that happened in California. But many people wrote letters about it. President James K. Polk talked about Colonel Mason’s report in his State of the Union address on December 5, 1848. Americans became believers after that.

Many people in the US borrowed money, mortgaged their homes, or spent their life savings on buying gold. It was very appealing because people are lucky if they have a job.

Women during the Gold Rush

American women, including Luzena Wilson, went to California. But most women stayed home. These women had to take on responsibilities they had never anticipated, such as caring for their families alone and running farms by themselves when their husbands went away.

In 1850, three percent of the people in California’s mining region were women. There were 800 immigrant women on a ship of 30,000 men.

Before 1849, California’s Constitution said that if a woman was married, she had to share her property with her husband. But in 1849, this changed so that they could own their property and not have to share it with their husband.

Women came to California from many countries: Chile, Peru, Mexico, and China. Dame Shirley, the author, whose real name was Louise Amelia Knapp Smith Clapp, wrote about the mining camps. She noted that a woman made USD 100 a month washing clothes there.

Mexican ladies in Sonora sold tortillas and tamales on the street. For sitting near a client, a French girl was rewarded with an ounce of gold. A Swiss woman who worked with an organ grinder made over $4,000 in a few months.

Population Increases

By the end of 1848, 4,000 people had arrived in the gold region, and by the end of that year, about 80,000 “forty-niners” (as the fortune seekers of 1849 were known) had come to California.

California became a state in 1849, with a constitution and government. The state formally joined the United States in 1850.

By 1853 250,000 people were living there. They had mined $2 billion worth of gold. But few people got rich because the work was hard, prices were high, and living conditions were not good.

The Routes to California

The easterners who had arrived in California or Oregon began going to the western Sierras. However, it was December 1848 before President James Polk officially informed Congress of the findings, which meant that travelers from the East were unable to start a trip. The largest migration in American history (25,000 people) was already underway by the spring of 1849.

The plains and desert in spring and summer were better than average, so the wave of emigrants was able to move along. But it still wasn’t easy. Many livestock died.

The trip became harder as we went. There was less grass and clean water. Diseases like cholera got more people sick.

Native Americans had lived in the West for a long time without outside competition. But the pioneers’ lust for wealth was hurting the indigenous people. They were consuming food, land, water, and space.

As a result of the Gold Rush, many new routes were established into California. With approximately 140,000 immigrants traveling via the California Trail between 1849 and 1854, routes were frequently modified or even abandoned.

The “Forty-Niners”

In 1849, 300,000 people came to California. They came in covered wagons and on horseback.

Some people who arrived that year were known as “forty-niners” because they began to arrive in 1849. The forty-niners used pans to extract gold from silt deposits around the river.

People came from other countries as well as the US. It was made easier because of better technology for trains and ships. They came to California and changed how it looked.

Though California had a lot of gold and people came to get rich, life as a forty-niner was difficult. A few prospectors found gold in the river. But most people did not find anything of value. Prospecting was hard work.

They did hard work from early morning to late at night. The hope of finding gold gave them a dream. If they didn’t find gold, it wasn’t a problem because they could do more hard work.

Anyone could find gold. No taxes were put on what they found. There were no towns or roads in the gold country.

Every miner was on his own, and nobody had to work for wages. But miners could get paid if they wanted. The spirit of entrepreneurship that we see in California today started in the gold mines in 1849.

Miners kept inventing faster, more destructive methods of finding gold. The land was ravaged.

Hillsides were washed away in the water. Towns downstream received a lot of mud. Water was poisoned with mercury, arsenic, cyanide, and other toxins. People cut down big forests of oak and pine trees to use for mining timbers.

Some of the miners from California liked it so much that they didn’t go back. They sent for their families and found out that they could make a lot of money off of their farms.

Violence and Discrimination

The lack of housing, sanitation, and law enforcement in the mining camps and surrounding areas made a dangerous mix. The crime rates in the goldfields were very high.

People often took the law into their own hands. If there were no police, they would do what needed to be done themselves.

As more and more people came to the region, new towns were built. Towns like San Francisco grew quickly.

People did not want the Chinese and Latin American people to live in their town. The white people did not want them to live there because they thought it would be bad for their town.

In California, as the population grew, people became more and more anti-immigrant. The state government started taxing and making laws that targeted immigrants.

As more and more white people settled in America, the violence against Native Americans became worse. Peter Hardeman Burnett, the first governor of California, wanted to remove Native Americans. He was not pleasant to them, and he wanted them gone.

Under Burnett’s leadership, the state of California paid money to white people in exchange for the scalps of Native Americans. The result of this was that people who lived in mines and farms formed vigilante groups to kill off California’s native population. By 1890, they were almost gone.


In California, the Gold Rush had a big effect. It lasted from 1848 to 1855.

It didn’t take long to find all of the gold that was left in the dirt. As mining techniques became more complex, gold became a big business. As the mining industry grew, individual gold-diggers could not compete with how big it had become. The mines were just too big.