The Days of ’49

“The days of old, the days of gold, the days of ’49” live on in California. There’s a reason it is called the Golden State, and the San Francisco football team is called the Forty-Niners. Those Gold Rush years left their mark. That was the year that brought men pouring into the state, all of them intent on making a fortune, and making it fast.

Who were these men? (and most of them were men). The majority were immigrants from the United States, coming by ship from the Eastern seaboard, or overland from the interior. But men from nearly every part of the globe hustled to California.

In a letter to a young lady friend, John Bidwell described the people he met in the diggings. “There’s nothing here to please the eye or gladden the heart but Gold. The Yankee, the Mexican, the Spaniard, Portuguese, Chinese, Malays, New Zealanders, Sandwich Islands [Hawaiians], Chillanians [Chileans], Peruvians, besides various tribes of Indians, tame and wild.”

An image from the Bancroft Library depicting miners in all their human variety.

Before the Gold Rush there were maybe 26,000 residents of California, exclusive of the Indian population. Roughly half of these were Mexican-Californians, and the other half Americans and other foreigners (such as Johann Sutter the Swiss-German and Robert Livermore the Englishman.)  By the summer of ’49 the number had doubled, and that was before most Americans could get themselves to the gold fields.  Mexicans, other Central and South Americans, and Hawaiians were closer to hand. By the end of the year over 100,000 people had arrived, each one of them with the gleam of untold wealth in their eyes.

They came to a land devoid of any adequate system of government. A military governor was in charge, but there were no judges, no courts, no trial by jury. California was badly in need of a code of law and a civil government. It wasn’t long before the Argonauts were complaining and petitioning the governor to have the problem dealt with. Congress had done nothing to set up a Territorial government, so Gen. Riley figured he might as well get started on forming a state government. Given its unparalleled growth, California was going to be a state soon enough, so it might as well have a government ready.

About nancyleek

Nancy is a retired librarian who lives in Chico, California. She is the author of John Bidwell: The Adventurous Life of a California Pioneer.
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