California gold rush - Business in United States of America

California gold rush: The Rush

California gold rush: Creating Mining Law

California gold rush: Creating the California Market

The Event: The migration of tens of thousands of individuals from around the world to California after the discovery of gold

Date: 1848 to mid-1850’s

Place: California

Significance: The gold rush era led to the creation of the institutions that still govern American mining, sparked the development of the American West, brought rapid population growth to Sacramento and San Francisco, and created demand for transcontinental railroads and telegraphs and for international shipping between California and all parts of the world.

On January 24, 1848, a carpenter working on a millrace found a piece of gold about half the size of a pea, exclaimed “Boys, I believe I have found a gold mine,” and launched the California gold rush. Nine days later, before news of the discovery reached the outside world, Mexico ceded California and much of the American West to the United States to end the Mexican War.

Andrew P. Morriss

Further Reading

  • Clappe, Louise Amelia Knapp Smith. The Shirley Letters: From the California Mines, 1851-1852. Berkeley, Calif.: Heyday, 1998. Insightful and entertaining collection of first-person reports from the gold fields by Dame Shirley, one of the first women visitors to the goldfields during the early 1850’s. 
  • Holliday, J. S. The World Rushed In. New York: Touchstone, 1981. Thorough synthesis of thousands of letters, diaries, and other primary source documents; brings the gold rush alive and offers a perceptive account of the miners’ experiences. 
  • Leshy, John D. The Mining Law: A Study in Perpetual Motion. Washington, D.C.: Resources for the Future, 1987. Leshy, later general counsel for the U.S. Department of the Interior, takes a critical view of the history of the gold rush and the resulting statutes. 
  • Morriss, Andrew P. “Miners, Vigilantes, and Cattlemen: Overcoming Free Riders in the Private Provision of Law.” Land and Water Law Review 33, no. 2 (1998): 581-696. Focuses on the economics of the institutions the miners created and provides a guide to the secondary literature through footnotes. 
  • Umbeck, John. A Theory of Property Rights with Applications to the California Gold Rush. Ames: Iowa State University Press, 1981. Umbeck examines hundreds of mining camp records and explores the spontaneous order that arose in the chaos of the gold rush.

See also: Black Hills gold rush; “Coolie” labor; exploration; gold standard; Klondike gold rush; U.S. Mint; Panic of 1857; Pony Express; Cornelius Vanderbilt.

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