On December 5, 1848, President James K. Polk ignited the California Gold Rush in his State of the Union address to Congress.
Gold was discovered by James Marshall at Sutter’s Mill in January 1848, but John Sutter did the best he could to keep the news to himself, at least until his harvest of winter wheat was in. It wasn’t until May that Sam Brannan spread the news to San Francisco, and then it would take up to six months for the word to get to the East Coast states.
The news began to circulate in the fall of 1848. Still, many people believed that the claim of gold was a hoax. It took President Polk’s speech to convince Easterners that the rumors were true. President Polk devoted a sizable section of his speech to the situation in California and its great potential to enrich the nation and project the power of the United States into the Pacific.
It was known that mines of the precious metals existed to a considerable extent in California at the time of its acquisition. Recent discoveries render it probable that these mines are more extensive and valuable than was anticipated. The accounts of the abundance of gold in that territory are of such an extraordinary character as would scarcely command belief were they not corroborated by the authentic reports of officers in the public service who have visited the mineral district and derived the facts which they detail from personal observation.
The military governor of California, Richard B. Mason, visited the mines in July 1848 and found 4,000 men already at work digging out gold. Every day more men went to the goldfields; sailors left their ships and soldiers deserted their post.
Polk called for a branch of the U.S. Mint to be built in California, as well as post offices and custom houses. The United States Treasury was losing revenue if these things were not in place.
That we may the more speedily and fully avail ourselves of the undeveloped wealth of these mines, it is deemed of vast importance that a branch of the Mint of the United States be authorized to be established at your present session in California.
So, 169 years ago today, the word was out and the rush was on. Men throughout the United States made their plans and set out for the California goldfields.