Did the Gold Rush miners ever become the rich?

California had only just been wrenched from Mexico when James Marshall, a carpenter from New Jersey, discovered a gold at John Sutter’s Mill in Coloma in 1849. As the news of his finding spread, tens of thousands of people migrated from across the United States and abroad, seeking riches in what would become known as the California Gold Rush. Did the wealth these migrants sought actually materialise? Using Californian censuses from 1850 and 1852 and other sources, the researchers analysed the incomes of workers during the height of the California Gold Rush.

The old miner

They found that the daily incomes for workers who had migrated to California did compare favourably to those of day labourers in most other states. However this was usually counterbalanced by a far greater cost of living in California, meaning that miners were “in all likelihood worse off, than the labourers in the rest of the United States”.

Miner’s camp in mountains

Yet for some people the California Gold Rush did provide financial boon. The research reveals that good money was earned by professionals, managers, clerks, craftsmen and salesmen who came to California not to mine but to provide services to the flood of miners. The likes of hotel managers, doctors and merchants profited greatly from the miners whose dreams of gold rarely materialised.

The independent gold hunter

California Gold Rush facts

  • The Gold Rush begins in 1848 and ends around 1856.
  • More than 90,000 people make their way to California in the two years following the discovery of gold, and more than 300,000 by 1854.
  • When gold is discovered in 1848, there were only seven Chinese in California. By 1852 there are at least 20,000 Chinese and still arriving.
  • John Sutter Jr. was convinced by Samuel Brannan to lay out a new town on the banks of the Sacramento River.
  • Between 1848 and 1856 about $465 million worth of gold is taken out. The first year $10 million worth of gold is found. The remaining years $40 million to $60 million is found.
  • In 1848 California has fewer than 300,000 head of cattle. By 1860 cattle increase to 3 million head.
  • Merchants and saloon keepers provide the first banking service.
  • African Americans were among the first miners.

A Miner in his Cabin. ca. 1853. Henry Walton, artist

California Gold Rush timeline (1848 – 50)
  • 24th January – James Marshall discovers gold in the tailrace of the sawmill in Coloma, which is being built for John Sutter.
  • 9th March – First gold rocker is used.
  • 15th March – The Californian, a San Francisco newspaper, is the first to print a story regarding the discovery of gold.
  • 12th May – Samuel Brannan a storekeeper at Sutter’s Fort, publisher of a newspaper, The California Star, and first millionaire in California, stirs up excitement about gold. He gathers a bottle full of gold dust and rides to San Francisco.
  • Brannan runs up and down the streets shouting, “Gold! Gold! Gold from the American River!” And the rush is on.
  • 21st May  – Samuel Kyburz opens a hotel at Sutter’s Fort.
  • Sutter’s Mill is shut down in the middle of May due to high water.
  • November – The first ship leaves the East Coast for California with gold seekers aboard.

Miner with his shovel


  • 8th January – An auction is held at Sutter’s Fort for the sale of lots near the fort. Lots near the river increase in demand.
  • January – The first recorded execution for murder is held in Old Dry Diggings (Placerville).
  • Vigilantes drive away masses of Chileans, Mexicans and Peruvians from Sutter’s Mill.
  • First wagon train departure from Missouri and Iowa traveling to California for the Gold Rush. Over 20,000 people make the trip.
  • The Embarcadero (Old Sacramento) population is estimated at 150 people. By October it is estimated at 6,000.
  • By the end of June, 11 wholesale houses and 14 smaller stores are located at the Embarcadero.
  • October – People start leaving Europe for California.
  • The first brick house, the Anchor, is completed by G. Zins in Sacramento.
  • Chileans and Mexicans dominate the southern mines in 1849 and 1850. They knew how to separate gold from gravel by using a process called “winnowing,” which involves shaking blankets filled with dirt until only gold remains. They are also experts at tunnel and shaft mining.


  • 5th January – The California Exchange opens
  • 13th April – A foreign miners’ tax is passed by the California Legislature. Foreign miners have to pay a monthly license fee of $20 to give them the right to mine for gold.
  • June – The first recognized discovery of gold quartz is made in Grass Valley.
  • By the summer the “Long Tom” was widely used as a mining tool. It supplemented the cradle.
  • From 15,000 to 20,000 Mexicans and perhaps as many Chileans, prepare to leave or have left California for their own countries.
  • The Settlers and Miners Tribune is established by James McClatchy and two others.
  • The census of 1850 finds that 73 percent of California’s population is between the ages of 20 and 40, and 92 percent is male.

Miner’s dancing party

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4 Responses to Did the Gold Rush miners ever become the rich?

  1. Tomwalter says:

    Did the Gold Rush miners ever become the rich?
    Very rarely – from German emigrants or gold prospectors little is delivered. Here a novel to history:
    “The gold of the Sierra Nevada”
    Gold fever 1848 – 1854, Adventure – anew …

    Honoured ladies and men – Flap text:

    City Togau – Germany in 1850. Judges and Münch emigrate to California. There they want to look for gold. Reason is economic poverty in Germany after the revolution in 1848 and the adventure. The Californian golden fever has reached (achieved) Germany. In spite of opposition of the parents the young(new) men remain with her(their) plan. On the 10th of April of the year they go with a steamboat over the Elbe to Hamburg. A freighter(freight haulier) to New Orleans takes them(her) aboard. For the crossing they give the biggest part of the savings. Then they are in New Orleans. They struggle by to Houston / Texas. There the trip – a dangerous enterprise on 2000 miles begins. Aim is the Sierra Nevada and Sacramento …

    The novel was arranged after true occurences. In a historical chronicle that Torgauer families is in particular held, which emigrated to California.
    Here becomes also the good relationship between German immigrants the Americans in 19. Century and the Awaniindianern meant. (Searches and/or emigrant letters, personal contacts into the USA)
    “The gold of the Sierra Nevada”
    AAVAA publishing house Berlin, April 2012, ISBN 978-3-86254-970-2
    Abenteuerroman zum kalifornischen Goldrausch, 1848 – 54:
    “Das Gold der Sierra Nevada“

    Der Roman wurde nach wahren Begebenheiten gestaltet. In einer Geschichtschronik sind jene Torgauer Familien namentlich festgehalten, die nach Kalifornien auswanderten …
    Hier wird auch der guten Beziehung zwischen deutschen Einwanderern den Amerikanern im 19. Jahrhundert und den Awaniindianern gedacht. (Recherchen bzw. Auswandererbriefe, persönliche Kontakte in die Staaten)

  2. Tomwalter says:

    The mentioned emigrants, 20 and 21 years old, had large problems:
    Little money. Journey over the Atlantic. Hardly drinking water, wind force 11, Pirateri. New Orleans: Job on dry dock. With the wages travel then with Treck of Houston toward San Franzisco/Auborn. Fight for each gram of gold…
    Friendship with Awaniindianern – assistance when gold digging. Friendships also with the Americans.
    According to documents there were 1848-54 many fates. My relatives lived in Phoenix/Arizona with the Americans in a friendly manner. They already emigrated 1928 from Germany. “The gold of the Sierra Nevada”, AAVAA publishing house Berlin, April 2012
    (Die erwähnten Emigranten hatten große Probleme:
    Wenig Geld. Reise über dem Atlantik. Kaum Trinkwasser, Windkraft 11, Pirateri. New Orleans: Job auf Trockendock. Mit den Löhnen reisen Sie dann mit Treck von Houston in Richtung zu San Franzisco/Auborn. Kämpfen um jedes Gramm Gold.
    Freundschaft mit Awaniindianern – Unterstützung wenn Goldgraben.
    Entsprechend Dokumenten gab es 1848-54 viele Schicksale)
    Meine Verwandten wohnten in Phoenix/in Arizona mit den Amerikanern in einer freundlichen Art. Sie wanderten bereits 1928 aus Deutschland aus.

    Thomas-Walter Schmidt

  3. Tomwalter says:

    Apology – a correction! Auburn no Auborn.

  4. Visier says:

    Golden Gate Bridge: symbol of San Francisco. Also remember the California gold rush in 1848 – 54 Prospectors traveled from the “Golden Gate” in the direction of Auburn, Grass Valley and Sacramento. Many German. Auburn, San Francisco or Sacramento grew. Photos: They show the hard work of the prospector. Mostly they worked 16 hours a day and there was not a luxury. Rarely they returned to their homes back. (financial reasons) literature. “Gold of the Sierra Nevada, publishing AAVAA Berlin,2012.

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