“California Gold Rush,” Church History Topics
“California Gold Rush”
A group of Mormon Battalion veterans trying to reunite with the Latter-day Saints in Utah received word from Brigham Young to remain in California for a time and work due to lack of provisions in the Salt Lake Valley. These veterans found employment building a sawmill for John Sutter on the south fork of the American River at Coloma.1
One morning in January 1848, Sutter’s partner, James Marshall, was inspecting the construction of a waterwheel channel when he noticed particles in the mill’s tailrace. He collected the particles in his hat and showed them to the other workers. The group tried biting one of the specimens, smashing it with a hammer, and tossing it into a fire. Each test appeared to confirm that they had found gold.2
One of the battalion veterans, Henry Bigler, recorded the discovery of gold in his journal. He also searched downstream for more gold, and within days he had collected more than his month’s wages. Bigler shared the news with other Latter-day Saints, and word quickly spread near the mill and around San Francisco. Many soon flocked to sites along the American River to look for gold. The Saints’ mining camp near Sacramento, the first substantial camp of its kind in the Sierras, came to be called “Mormon Island.”
Many battalion veterans left for the Salt Lake Valley during the summer of 1848, but others decided to remain in California. Samuel Brannan, a Latter-day Saint entrepreneur, seized on the gold discovery to expand his retail business, taking gold specimens to San Francisco and shouting up and down one of the main streets, “Gold! Gold! Gold, from the American River!” Within weeks, most San Francisco residents had left for the goldfields, and Brannan was operating the only store between the American River and the city.3
The gold rush intensified the following year, after United States president James K. Polk spoke of California’s gold in his Annual Message of December 1848. Thousands of prospectors set out for the gold country of California. Many chose to take arduous routes around the horn of South America, across Panama, or up through Mexico while more than half of the prospectors took overland trails across the North American continent. Latter-day Saints in the Salt Lake Valley were significantly closer to the goldfields than other Americans and had received news of the gold months before Polk’s message.
Notwithstanding the lure of gold in California and food shortages in the Salt Lake Valley, most Saints heeded Brigham Young’s admonition to build Zion in and around Utah rather than pursue personal wealth in the goldfields. Church leaders promised members that their situation would improve.4 Although most 49ers—those Americans rushing to California in 1849—did not pass through the Salt Lake Valley on their way west, a sizeable number did. They often arrived in the valley eager to purchase fresh food and sell any excess supplies that were overloading their wagons. The new Latter-day Saint communities in the region thus experienced an economic windfall from trading with the 49ers. Before the rush subsided, Young sent several men on a one-year “Gold Mission,” the proceeds of which were intended to benefit the Church. After grueling work and meager gains, the gold missionaries left mining for home or other mission fields.5
The gold rush led to major social and economic changes in the United States and made California a global center of commerce. The large-scale westward migration spurred by the rush also put an end to the illusion that the Saints could remain fully isolated from the rest of the nation.