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Essay: Gold Rush of San Francisco: From Pioneers to Iconic Businesses

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  • Published: 26 February 2023*
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The Gold Rush in San Francisco

San Francisco, originally one of the most populous cities in California, is a city immersed in different cultures. Known for the iconic tourist attraction, the Golden Gate Bridge, San Francisco is rich in history and hippie culture. Originally occupied by the Yelmau tribe, Europeans migrated to the area of San Francisco during the 16th Century. On June 29, 1776,  Juan Bautista de Anza claimed the land for the Spanish to create trade opportunities with San Francisco’s bay. The bay area, the city of San Francisco was named after St. Francis de Assisi, the patron saint of animals. San Francisco is most commonly known for being a hub for migrants during the Gold Rush which impacted the city socially, economically, and environmentally. (u-s-history.com)

Through the gold rush’s influx of wealth, urban sprawl occurred through California and motivated the addition of California into the United States. The Gold Rush was a time period of the rapid urbanization of California due to an increase in California cities’ population. Several hundred thousand people migrated to California for gold, the population’s drastic change forced the government to create means of transportation like cable cars, living spaces, and job opportunities. The start of the California Gold Rush was marked by the finding of gold in the American River in 1848. After James W. Marshall discovered gold at Sutter’s Mill on January 24, 1848, Sam Brannan spread the word throughout the city and the New York Herald printed out the news of gold in California. The possibility of striking wealth caused an influx of citizens to migrate towards San Francisco to strike it rich. (eyewitnesstohistory.com)

At the beginning of the gold rush, the 49ers (people who were the first immigrants to try and get gold) used primitive tools like shovels, pickaxes, long tom, and patea. The flume was introduced and men were able to line up along and pan sift the gold from the gravel. As the gold rush progressed, technology improved and hydraulic mining, drift mining, dredge mining, and open air mining were used as more efficient ways and prevented men from having to do the work with their bare hands. As more miners came to San Francisco, the demand led to more improvements in the most efficient way to attain gold. (tchistory.org)

The environmental impact from the Gold Rush was devastating as the city became urbanized, deforestation occurred. As more people came to San Francisco, more trees are cut down to create housing, mine shafts, mills, and tools for the miners. Digging for gold destroyed the environment and the pure element itself was not taken care of properly. People were oblivious to the fact that mining gold created  toxic waste. “Rivers became clogged with sediment; forests were ravaged to produce timber; biodiversity was compromised and soil was polluted with chemicals from the mining process” (Norwich University). The mining sediments poured into aquatic environments destroying, “waterfowl and fish habitat”.  Animals were also affected with the deforestation of their home like the, “demise of the grizzly, jaguar, and wolf and the near extermination of elk, pronghorn condors, and other species” (Norwich University) The transportation and burning of fossil fuels from the trains and other vehicles also contributed to San Francisco’s air quality.  Hydraulic mining altered the earth’s surface and the constant farming did not allow the soil to recover and “in 1861 and noted as rich pastures were devastated and barren when revisited in 1864” (Raymond F. Dasmann)

The family hierarchy was altered as families were forced to switch roles to accommodate men going to search for gold.  Like many women, Pamela Fergus, “had to manage James’s [husband] work as well as her own. She had to manage the family farm…”.  (uiowa.edu) As the men of the household went to California, the wives had to manage everything the men left behind back at home — like their husband’s livelihood at home, household chores, and taking care of the children. The household eventually switched to a matriarchy and eventually lead the way for women getting jobs outside the home.

Immigrants coming to California for gold came not only from other parts of America, “25 percent of California’s population had been born outside the United States”. (history.com) Many immigrants from South America, Asia (specifically China), and Mexico all came in search of gold. “The population of San Francisco, for example, exploded from 500 in 1847 to more than 150,000 in 1852” (Norwich University Online) and “By 1852, more than 25,000 immigrants from China alone had arrived in America” (Barbara Maranzani) which helped diversify San Francisco.  Modern day San Francisco still has a dominant Chinese community,  which is centered around Chinatown. Unfortunately, Nativism was a problem within San Francisco competition for gold fueled hatred between incoming immigrants and American citizens. Conflict between more immigrants left very little land for Native Indians which lead to clashes, “within 20 years, 4,000 (Native Indians) were murdered by enraged miners”. The Native Indian population decreased drastically as some were murdered and chased out of their homes. The Chinese Exclusion Act was put into place to prevent more Chinese from coming to California and harvesting all the gold.  (Barbara Maranzani) Foreign Miner’s Tax heavily discriminated and aided in preventing immigrants from coming to California, making them pay a “monthly fee of $20 on non-citizens” (Barbara Maranzani).

Not only the miners were the only ones procuring wealth from the gold rush, many entrepreneurs earned profit from business opportunities with the miners as their customers. Companies like Ghirardelli Chocolate, Levi Strauss, Armour Meat Packing Company, Studebaker,  Boudin and Wells Fargo Bank. Miners no longer could wear the pants that they wore back home, the pants were not durable and not suitable for the life in the mines. Levi Strauss in collaboration with Jacob W. Davis created jeans which became popular among miners. The brand Levi Strauss Jeans Co. is still around today and jeans are now fashionable. (Raymond F. Dasmann) “Boudin Bakery established in 1849 as San Francisco’s population swells to 20,0000 by the end of 1849”, Boudin received one of their famous sourdough recipe from one of the 49ers. Boudin is still around today and located on Fisherman’s Wharf and is one of the city’s popular attraction. Along with many other gold rush businesses, in 1849,  Domenico Ghirardelli opens his first official chocolate store in San Francisco, on Broadway and Battery. As people gained wealth from the gold, citizens in San Francisco were able to afford more luxury items like chocolate. “In 1852, Henry Wells and William Fargo founded Wells, Fargo & Co. to serve the West. The new company offered banking (buying gold and selling paper bank drafts as good as gold) and express (rapid delivery of the gold and anything else valuable).” (wellsfargo.com)

With many immigrants coming to California, it was necessary to build railroads and roads to increase miner range to find more gold. However, with rapid urbanization, public structures were condensed to accommodate the rapid population growth. Investors decided to create a faster way to access California by building the Panama Canal and the Panama Railroad.

Agriculture and livestock was another alternative for miners who were unable to find gold and were not made to be entrepreneurs. California had suitable soil to provide a consistent income for fruit growers. “Climate and soil aided…in quickly developing a wide range of crops. In the 1850s Californians grew apples and oranges, peaches and plums, cherries and figs…” (280 , Gerald D. Nash) Due to San Francisco’s large size, near the Monterey area, there was lots of land for livestock. Livestock yielded products like hide and dairy.  “By 1860 the fabrication of boots, harnesses, saddles, and belts for machines was well established.” (278, Gerald D. Nash) “Agricultural producers in Chile suddenly had new consumers for their fruit; China started exporting significant amounts of sugar; and Norway eyed California for opportunities to expand its naval shipping industry.” (Norwich University)

After the rate of finding gold decreased drastically, there were many miners who spent all their savings to come over here and nothing to show for.  “Miners extracted more than 750,000 pounds of gold during the California Gold Rush.” (history.com)

Many immigrants that came to San Francisco experienced extreme poverty and high unemployment rates. Also, those who were able to find much gold were not as rich as they thought they would be. With no money, the renting With the “increasing amount of gold in circulation resulted in higher prices for commodities as well as inflationary shock, as the monetary standard of the time was backed by precious metals.” (Norwich University) After all the gold was mined, people were left in poverty and all the money wasted to come here and nothing to show. The amount of job opportunities were not proportional to the amount of migrants.

The Gold Rush was a historical period that created the diversity that California is known for with the many migrants in search of new job opportunities from all over the world. Although the conquest for gold seemed like a realistic way to find wealth, due to an overwhelming amount of people, not everyone was able to find success. As a populous city, there was a chance for entrepreneurs to make their mark and create products that are still around today. The Gold Rush still has its effects on San Francisco today — environmentally, socially, culturally, and economically.

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