Gold prospector in California, circa 1840.

The California Gold Rush (1838 - 1845) began on February 2, 1838, when Hernando Montez discovered small nuggets of gold in a creek running through his farm in Santo Tomás, California. Word of the discovery spread throughout California by April, and reached Mexico City in early May and the east coast cities of the C.N.A. by June. In September, President Andrew Jackson responded to the discovery by sending most of the Mexican Army to California to prevent outsiders from staking claims there. Jackson announced that "This is Mexican gold, and will be used to serve Mexicans. All others will be given clear notice: leave or be shot."

The discovery of gold occurred during the depression following the Panic of 1836, and in 1838 few outsiders could afford to travel to California. Following the economic recovery of 1840 - 1841, thousands of North Americans attempted to make the trip. Although many were unable to make it past the Army cordon, thousands were able to evade or bribe the soldiers, most notably a German miner named Bernard Kramer. Thousands of would-be prospectors also traveled to California from the rest of the U.S.M. The population of Jefferson City and other cities in the cotton region of Jefferson fell during the gold rush, and by 1844 even the plantation owners were talking about leaving their fields for California.

California had few transportation links to the rest of the U.S.M. at the start of the gold rush, which prompted a group of businessmen from Jefferson and France, headed by Jethro Baker and Maurice Duforge, to organize the Jefferson and California Railroad Company in 1838. The J & C Railroad began laying tracks from Henrytown on February 4, 1839, and from San Francisco on April 11, supervised by French engineers. Although the railroad would not be completed until 1848, it opened the western states to settlement by Jeffersonians and European and North American immigrants. Other railroad and steamship companies were organized in the 1840s, resulting in a sudden demand for coal and iron, which was initially met by French imports, but ultimately led to the creation of mining and smelting industries in Jefferson, Mexico del Norte, and California. The discovery of gold, along with Jackson's retirement in 1839, resulted in a railroad boom in the U.S.M. By 1875, the U.S.M. had more railroad miles per capita than any nation in the world.

The discovery of gold in California changed the political balance of power in the U.S.M. Within five years of the discovery at Santo Tomás, California had become the second most populous state, and California gold had surpassed Jeffersonian cotton as the country's most valuable export. The port of Henrytown became the center of banking and commerce in Jefferson, leaving the state's cotton aristocracy suffering a loss of wealth and prestige. This set the stage for Pedro Hermión's rise to leadership of the Continentalist Party.

Selected California Statistics, 1838 - 1848
Year Population Gold Production*
1838 45,000 5
1839 47,000 486
1840 106,000 1,260
1841 198,000 1,320
1842 258,000 1,334
1843 407,000 1,293
1844 598,000 1,592
1845 665,000 1,929
1846 712,000 2,004
1847 902,000 1,892
1848 1,110,000 1,692
  • In Thousands of Fine Troy Ounces.

Sobel's sources for the California Gold Rush are Evans Crawford's California Gold: Its Impact and Implications (Mexico City, 1894) and Walter Ramspeck's The California Gold Rush of '39 (New York, 1956).

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