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  • Writer's pictureNotes From The Frontier

The California Gold Rush

Updated: May 4, 2023

"Thar's gold in them there hills!" drove thousands to head West. But all that glitters is not gold...

One of the great ironies of The California Gold Rush was that few actually made money finding gold. But plenty made their fortunes “mining the miners.” The mania for gold swept the country and Americans and immigrants from all over the world clamored to California. Entrepreneurs saw opportunity in providing the hoards of humanity with all they needed to survive and to hunt for gold: meat, bread, whiskey, miners pants, pails, pans, wheelbarrows, tents, miners’ pants, various sundries. And sex.

Rumors of gold in the New World--not just in California but other areas of the West-- had abounded for centuries. The lure of gold and other riches was a major impetus in European exploration of the North American continent. The way in which the California Gold Rush of 1849 started was inauspicious. Gold nuggets and gold dust had been discovered in multiple places in California territory but one incident particularly sparked the mania. On January 24, 1848, James Marshall (above right), a builder from New Jersey working for wealthy mill owner John Sutter (above left) found small gold nuggets in the American River running through the mill. Marshall told his boss, Sutter, and they reacted as anyone who had found lots of gold in a river would. They agreed to keep their discovery a secret. But secrets about gold have as much chance of staying a secret as...well...secrets about gold.

Soon many were talking about gold nuggets in the American River. But the secret had a little help. A businessman and journalist named Samuel Brannan saw an opportunity to build his wealth by publicizing that gold was glimmering in the waters of the American River just waiting to be plucked. Once the wild rush began, Brannan put into operation his master plan: First he scoured stores in San Francisco and bought up all tools he could find that miners needed, especially pickaxes, pans, and shovels. Then he established stores and filled them with the wares he had purchased. The pan he had purchased for twenty cents was $15 in his stores. He very quickly became the richest man in California territory.

Others saw opportunities in the Gold Rush too. And they had nothing to do with gold. Some of these entrepreneurs would create some of America’s earliest brands that we still recognize today.

Levi Strauss purchased canvas to sew tents for miners. Then he realized that miners were wearing out their pants and started making jeans his famous Levi Strauss jeans.

Phillip Armour was a New York butcher who’d come to California and realized miners needed meat. He opened a meat market in Placerville and from that built one of the nation’s largest meat packing businesses.

Phillip Armour had a neighbor in Placerville named John Studebaker who started building wheelbarrows for the miners and he, too, made a fortune. Then he diversified. After saving his fortune from his wheelbarrow empire, he moved back to his home state in Indiana and began building covered wagons for westering pioneers going West. From covered wagons and carriages, he would eventually build his famous Studebaker automobiles.

Two businessmen named Henry Wells and William Fargo joined forces to start a banking business to serve miners, as well as transportation and mail delivery. Today, their company is a giant in banking.

During the Gold Rush years, the ratio of men to women was greater than 50 to one. Women—and sex—were rare and highly sought after. Women with business acumen started brothels that became immensely successful. Two of the reigning Gold Rush madams were Iren McCready and Ah Toy. Irene was an astute businesswoman and eventually built a prestigious clientele that included a California governor, a senator, and at least one judge, plus several lesser politicians and gamblers. But she built her business first by serving miners.

Ah Toy was a Catonese-born prostitute who became one of the most successful and famous madams in California. She was tall, regal, beautiful, and had Chinese tradition bound "lotus feet." In 1849, there were less than ten Asian women in San Francisco, so she was very exotic to white men. She was a brilliant business woman and created peep shows first for herself that became wildly successful. She charged an ounce of gold (the equivalent of $16 dollar at the time and a great deal of money) just for a “lookee.” She would later sink her profits into building an empire of brothels.

Here’s a fun video about how the 1849 California Gold Rush began and how certain entrepreneurs saw “gold in them thar miners!”

You may enjoy these related posts:

-Footbinding & Prostitution in the 1800s

-Manifest Destiny

-American’s Oldest Brands


"The California Gold Rush" was first published on Facebook and NotesfromtheFrontier.com on April 20, 2020.

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Deborah Hufford

Author, Notes from the Frontier

Deborah Hufford is an award-winning author and magazine editor with a passion for history. Her popular NotesfromtheFrontier.com blog with 100,000+ readers has led to an upcoming novel! Growing up as an Iowa farmgirl, rodeo queen and voracious reader, her love of land, lore and literature fired her writing muse. With a Bachelor's in English and Master's in Journalism from the University of Iowa, she taught students of Iowa's Writer's Workshop, then at Northwestern University, Marquette and Mount Mary. Her extensive publishing career began at Better Homes & Gardens, includes credits in New York Times Magazine, New York Times, Connoisseur, many other titles, and serving as publisher of The Writer's Handbook

 

Deeply devoted to social justice, especially for veterans, women, and Native Americans, she has served on boards and donated her fundraising skills to Chief Joseph Foundation, Missing & Murdered Indigenous Women (MMIW), Homeless Veterans Initiative, Humane Society, and other nonprofits.  

 

Deborah's soon-to-be released historical novel, BLOOD TO RUBIES weaves indigenous and pioneer history, strong women and clashing worlds into a sweeping saga praised by NYT bestselling authors as "crushing," "rhapsodic," "gritty," and "sensuous." Purchase BLOOD TO RUBIES online beginning June 9. Connect with Deborah on DeborahHufford.com, Facebook, and Instagram.

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