A short history of the California 1849 Gold Rush

The cry went up from Sutter’s Mill  and brought tens of thousands stampeding into California from the four corners of the world.

The California Gold Rush was the largest migration of people to California, with Coloma, CA at the center, and started California on the road to what it is today.

The first argonauts were from California, the Native Americans, and people from Oregon. Then came the Chinese, South Americans from as far away as Peru and Chile, and Europeans. They came by sea and by overland trail.  Covered wagon pulled by mules and oxen, crossing deserts and mountains.

Those who came by sea had two choices. A 17,000-mile route around the South America and Cape Horn took 5 to 7 months.  The second route was by steamship via Panama. This route was much quicker, but very expensive. These ships also had very crowded living quarters and lots of sickness.

These ’49ers established hundreds of instant mining towns along the western foothills of the Sierra Nevada. Many of these historic and picturesque towns still exist, linked by California Highway 49, The Gold Rush Trail or the Mother Lode Highway. Exotic names such as Colfax, Gold Run, Dutch Flat, Cisco, Angels Camp, Mokelumne Hill, Placerville (formerly known as Hangtown & Dry Diggins), Grass Valley, Rough and Ready, Coloma and Lotus still apply to towns still in existence. The southern end begins at Oakhurst, just outside of Yosemite. The northern end is near Vinton, 326 miles away.

Placer mining or panning was the original method used by the early miners of finding the gold. Placer refers to mining the gold which is released by weathering and stream or river action. All you needed was a pick, shovel, pan, and possibly a knife.  The dirt could be swirled in a pan to find the gold.

Long Tom 20-foot rocker and Sluices were soon built. Miners would fill the rockers with dirt, pour water into it and rock it. After the gravel and dirt was washed away the heavier gold was left.  Every Thursday evening, Rodney Bland, Coloma’s famous gold miner, demonstrates using a sluice box and pan to search for gold.

Eventually, dams were built to redirect rivers so the miners could get to the bed of the river where gold had been deposited by erosion and gravity. The Tunnel Chute on the Middle Fork of the American River  is a famous example of this method. The Chute and Tunnel was created when gold miners dynamited that area in order to divert the original course of the river. Now, thousands of happy, adventurous whitewater rafters go down this Class V rapid.

Hydraulic mining  came later, and combined the building of dams to redirect the beds of rivers, with rushing water fed by gravity or power


About seventy percent of Coloma is included in Marshall Gold Discovery State Historic ParkThe old mining town of Coloma, once filled with thousands of gold seekers, is now a quaint, peaceful town of about 200 year-round residents.

Throughout the park, you will relive the Gold Rush era from the many artifacts and exhibits you will see, which include: an incredible full-sized replica of Sutter’s Mill that is still operated regularly for park visitors, the cabin where James Marshall lived after his discovery of gold, the remains of a substantial Chinese colony; the Wah Hop and the Man Lee stores, renovated and open for viewing, exhibits of mining methods, household articles, tools and a way of life gone by. It is an important piece of history that what you will find in Coloma along with whitewater rafting, gold panning and camping along the South Fork of the American River.

Author: Donna Hunter

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