They came in their thousands in tìm kiếm of one thing – gold. But the idea of striking it rich và the reality of life as a prospector were often two different things, writes Pat Kinsella, as he mines the dark side of the gold-rush era | Accompanies bbc series The Luminaries, premiering on Starz on 14 February


Californian authorities maintain the ghost town of Bodie in a state of ‘arrested decay’, with mining mills and detritus in open view. (Photo by Robert Alexander /Archive Photos/Getty Images)
Technically, Marshall was stood on Mexican land, but less than two weeks later, under the terms of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo that ended the Mexico-American War, California joined the US. Soon it was the most talked about location on the planet, & people were sailing oceans, traversing mountains and driving wagons across deserts to get there.

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Marshall made nothing from his discovery – in fact, he và the sawmill owner, John Sutter (who had borrowed big time lớn finance his dream of building an agricultural empire) lost money and went bust, after workers deserted fields and factories lớn dig for gold. Other business folk, however, would soon seize the gilt-edged opportunity presented by the influx of wide-eyed, greenhorn prospectors who descended on California.

The Trans-Alaskan Gopher Company came up with a brilliant business plan, offering shares for a dollar apiece in its venture, which promised lớn train gophers to lớn dig tunnels in the Klondike goldfields. Gophering for gold, if you will...
American culture continues khổng lồ celebrate the more spectacular rags-to-riches success stories that emerged from this era – the sassy smarts and big-picture thinking of entrepreneurs lượt thích Samuel Brannan, John Studebaker và Levi Strauss. But these men struck gold by supplying equipment to lớn the fortune hunters & dreamers, not by digging dirt or scouring riverbanks themselves. & behind the lucky strikes và occasional flashes of life-changing glitter, amid the rubble of a million shattered dreams, lie a multitude of much grittier & grimy stories of crime, violence, prostitution, gambling, family breakdown, bankruptcy, poverty, pestilence & prejudice.

Positive results were achieved too, of course – including the development of railways & other infrastructure – but it’s the darker themes that are the common denominators across the gold-rush age. In the colony of Victoria, reactions khổng lồ the arrival of Chinese prospectors laid the roots for the discriminatory ‘White Australia’ policy (which, between 1901 & 1958, effectively stopped all non-white immigration into the country), while in South Africa tensions & rivalry between the British colonial authorities & local Boer farmers over the goldfields led to lớn a full-scale war.


Most journeys to the goldfields were fraught with peril; for those hoping lớn reach the Klondike, that meant tackling the treacherous icescape of the Chilkoot Trail. (Image by Getty Images)
Others travelled up through Mexico, or took a ship – either on a full 17,000-mile route around the bottom of South America (which took between five and seven months) or lớn Panama’s east coast, before crossing the jungle-clad isthmus and boarding boats on the Pacific side.

The latter route was much quicker, but prohibitively expensive. Either way, dangers included fierce storms và serious illness due to overcrowding & poor diet. Once they’d landed, prospectors who had come by boat would have been severely disappointed lớn learn the goldfields were a further 150 miles inland, and that they had khổng lồ negotiate another journey before they could start fossicking for their fortunes.


At the height of the Klondike gold rush, Dawson thành phố in Canada became a sprawling urban centre with a fully fledged high street. (Photo by Henry Guttmann Collection/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
The drama of reaching remote regions is a common theme in the experience of gold chasers of the 1800s, and the ordeal faced by those heading lớn California pales in comparison khổng lồ the challenge that faced stampeders who joined the last great rush of the century to lớn the Klondike, in north-western Canada. After landing in Alaska, these fortune seekers had lớn hike the Chilkoot Trail over ice-clad mountains, then build boats khổng lồ negotiate the mighty Yukon River, through deadly rapids, before reaching Dawson – where they could finally begin digging.

None of this deterred those with gold goggles on, though. Within six quick years, San Francisco was transformed from a small settlement with around 200 residents in 1846, khổng lồ a ramshackle đô thị teeming with more than 36,000 people in 1852. By 1855, the population had exceeded 300,000.

New arrivals to lớn San Francisco lived in ad hoc accommodation, including on the decks of the 500 or so ships that had turned up laden with would-be prospectors và supplies, and then became stranded in the harbour when the crews deserted to try their luck in the goldfields. These abandoned boats housed shops, warehouses, pubs & even a jail.

Many migrants spent all their savings getting lớn the west coast, và arrived utterly destitute. The rush created enormous surges in demand for basic supplies, & prices soared. By the end of the century, having learned from events in California, Canadian authorities insisted prospectors bring a year’s worth of supplies before allowing them access from Alaska into the Klondike. But many of those arriving in San Francisco were woefully ill prepared.

San Francisco harbour in 1851, by which time many of these boats would have been transformed into static shops, stores và living quarters. (Photo by Graphica
Artis/Getty Images)
Freezing winter conditions could be lethal for those living in shanty conditions và sleeping on cold, damp floors. Food was poor, scurvy was common from lack of fruit and vegetables, & sanitation was extremely basic, with most men seldom washing their bodies or clothes. Camps were rag-tag constructions made from wood & canvass, and fires were common.

In this male-dominated society, almost entirely devoid of traditional calming influences such as family & community, gambling, alcohol abuse and loneliness were also prevalent issues. Later, in the Yukon, one entrepreneurial prospector travelled with a barge-load of kittens that he sold to lonesome miners in Dawson for an ounce of gold apiece. Most men, however, sought solace and warmth elsewhere.

San Francisco’s so-called Barbary Coast area witnessed the shadier side of the Californian gold rush. Here, in the brothels, saloon bars và gaming houses that quickly took root in the rough dirt, plenty of prospectors frittered away their newfound fortunes. Prostitution became a huge industry. Initially, the working women came from Latin America, mostly Mexico, Nicaragua và Chile, & a rudimentary red light zone was established at the foot of San Francisco’s Telegraph Hill, in a tent city called Chiletown. Later, more women would arrive from farther afield, including a large number from France.

Among the Chinese community – largely comprised of men who’d left families intending khổng lồ make a short, life-changing trip to California, but ended up staying much longer – the gender imbalance was especially stark. According lớn historian and author Judy Yung, in 1850 just seven of the 4,025 Chinese in San Francisco were women. There are reports of girls – often aged 14 or younger – being lured or kidnapped from the Chinese countryside và brought to lớn St Louis Alley in San Francisco’s Chinatown, where they were effectively sold lớn prospectors as sex slaves, or put khổng lồ work in brothels.

Though gold hunters were predominantly male, they weren’t exclusively so: these women joined the hopeful horde that descended on the Klondike in Canada. (Image by Getty Images)
In the early days, the goldfields were rule-free places, full of testosterone & desperation, where infrastructure and policing were non-existent. Claims – parcels of land where prospectors asserted the right to extract gold – were staked on a first-come basis and disputes were resolved with violence. & along with all the hope-filled miners và desperate dreamers came the schemers: thieves, bandits, claim-jumpers, professional gamblers and scammers.

California didn’t become a state until September 1850, until which time there were literally no laws, & summary và violent vigilante justice was meted out to lớn wrongdoers (and perceived wrongdoers) on the spot. Punishments ranged from flogging for minor crimes (petty theft và assault), right up to execution by hanging for more serious offences such as robbery and murder. Lynchings và mob justice were rife.

California didn’t become a state until September 1850, until which time there were literally no laws

As the situation evolved, so too did law & order. In crowded camps around productive claims, officers were often appointed to lớn patrol mines & settle disputes. Commonly, claims were 10ft by 10ft, & limited to lớn one per prospector. As the era wore on, however, và the number of miners continued khổng lồ rise and, as the strike rate fell, things inevitably turned nasty.

The deluge of hungry humanity that flowed into San Francisco in tìm kiếm of gold from 1849 made California one of the most cosmopolitan và colourful places in the world – albeit probably one of the planet’s most male-dominated societies.

The ethnic mix included thousands of Chinese, Mexicans and people from Caribbean, Central & South American countries, including Brazil, Peru and Chile. Fortune-foragers travelled from as far away as New Zealand and South Africa.

Australia lost so many young, able-bodied men during this stampede to America’s west coast that it forced the colonial government khổng lồ reverse its policy of suppressing news about gold strikes in its own backyard. Consequently, Australia’s fortunes và fate was quickly transformed by a series of gold rushes in New South Wales và Victoria, which happened shortly after that of California.

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At the height of the Klondike gold rush, Dawson đô thị in Canada became a sprawling urban centre with a fully fledged high street. (Photo by Henry Guttmann Collection/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
Ireland was still losing people as a result of the Great Famine, và those who could made their way lớn the west coast. From elsewhere in Europe, prospectors poured in from Italy, Prussia, Russia, France, Britain và Spain. Several hundred Turks and Filipinos arrived too, và among migrants from other states in American were an estimated 4,000 African-Americans.

Once the easy pickings had been harvested, however, white American prospectors began trying to force foreigners out of the picture so they could gather the remaining gold. Chinese và Latin American miners were sometimes attacked, & a foreign miners’ tax of $20 per month was introduced by the new California State Legislature.

The deluge of hungry humanity that flowed into San Francisco in tìm kiếm of gold from 1849 made California one of the most cosmopolitan places in the world

Anti-immigrant feeling ran rife but it was Native American communities who suffered the worst atrocities. Thousands died from diseases brought in on the international tide, as well as violent attacks from prospectors who regarded them as sub-human savages. California was a không tính tiền state (one in which slavery was prohibited) but settlers were allowed to lớn capture and use indigenous women và children as bonded workers.

As gold prospectors transitioned into settlers, and agriculture expanded to lớn meet their ever-growing needs, conflict intensified. Attacks by tribes on encroaching miners and ranchers resulted in vengeance being wrought on whole villages, và some gold-rush era Californian communities offered bounties to vigilante groups for Native American scalps. California’s first governor, Peter Hardeman Burnett, called for the exclusion of all black people from the state, championed high taxation on foreign workers và openly advocated the wholesale extermination of the Native American population. By 1890, this latter objective had all-but been achieved, with the indigenous population decimated.

Five Chilkat porters pose with a miner và two oxen on the Dyea Trail, c1897, on their way lớn the Klondike. (Photo by Library of Congress/Corbis/VCG via Getty Images)
This was mirrored in Australian gold rushes, where the problems settlers were already causing the Aboriginal population in the form of introduced disease, conflict, alcohol abuse & the destruction of their homeland were massively amplified by the arrival of thousands of fortune hunters.

There is some evidence, though, that not all indigenous people were limited to being bystanders or victims, & some were able to lớn exploit elements of the situation by selling possum-skin cloaks to lớn freezing miners ill-prepared for winter conditions, working as trackers for prospectors & police, and even putting on Corroborees (shows of dancing & singing) for payment. Overwhelmingly, though, the discovery of gold and subsequent influx of prospectors into any area already populated spelt disaster for Native American communities and their culture. This was certainly the case for the Yukon’s Hän First Nation people, who were displaced by stampeders during the Klondike gold rush, và never recovered.

Although San Francisco continued to lớn grow, the aspirations of small-time diggers in California had realistically evaporated by 1855, và larger mining companies were left khổng lồ extract the remaining gold with better technology. The discovery of silver in Nevada in 1859 kept fortune hunters rolling into the bayside area – including authors such as Mark Twain và Bret Harte, who documented the era – but the stampede ultimately became a trickle.

The gold-rush era was far from over, however, and for the next half a century adventurers from the world over would continue to lớn seek their fortunes in faraway places, amid the high hills, dusty deserts và remote rivers in Australia, Alaska, Siberia, Canada, New Zealand, the Transvaal... Anywhere that offered a glint or hint of hidden treasure.

The đài truyền hình bbc adaptation of Eleanor Catton’s 2013 Man Booker Prize-winning novel The Luminaries, phối during the New Zealand Gold Rush of the 1860s, premieres on Starz from 14 February 2021.

You can buy the novel on Amazon or Waterstones, & also read more of our recommendations for the best historical fiction.

Starz is also available for Amazon Prime đoạn clip subscribers. You can sign up for Prime with a free 30 day không tính phí trial.

Pat Kinsella specialises in adventure journalism as a writer, photographer và editor.

This article first appeared in the May 2020 issue of đài truyền hình bbc History Revealed Magazine

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In 1848 John Sutter was having a water-powered sawmill built along the American River in Coloma, California, approximately 50 miles (80 km) east of present-day Sacramento. On January 24 his carpenter, James W. Marshall, found flakes of gold in a streambed. Sutter & Marshall agreed to lớn become partners and tried to keep their find a secret. News of the discovery, however, soon spread, & they were besieged by thousands of fortune seekers. (With his property overrun & his goods và livestock stolen or destroyed, Sutter was bankrupt by 1852.) From the East, prospectors sailed around Cape Horn or risked disease hiking across the Isthmus of Panama. The hardiest took the 2,000-mile (3,220-km) overland route, on which cholera proved a far greater killer than the Native Americans. By August 1848, 4,000 gold miners were in the area, & within a year about 80,000 “forty-niners” (as the fortune seekers of 1849 were called) had arrived at the California goldfields. By 1853 their numbers had grown lớn 250,000. Although it was estimated that some $2 billion in gold was extracted, few of the prospectors struck it rich. The work was hard, prices were high, & living conditions were primitive.


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California Gold Rush

In what was a typical pattern, the Gold Rush slackened as the most-workable deposits were exhausted and organized capital & machinery replaced the efforts of individual miner-adventurers with more efficient and businesslike operations. Likewise, the lawless và violent mining camps gave way lớn permanent settlements with organized government & law enforcement. Those settlements that lacked other viable economic activities soon became ghost towns after the gold was exhausted. The California Gold Rush peaked in 1852, and by the over of the decade, it was over.

The Gold Rush had a profound impact on California, dramatically changing its demographics. Before the discovery of gold, the territory’s population was approximately 160,000, the vast majority of whom were Native Americans. By about 1855, more than 300,000 people had arrived. Most were Americans, though a number of settlers also came from China, Europe, & South America. The massive influx gave rise lớn numerous cities và towns, with San Francisco gaining particular prominence. The Gold Rush was credited with hastening statehood for California in 1850.

The Editors of Encyclopaedia This article was most recently revised và updated by Adam Zeidan.