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The California Gold Rush: A Journey to the Goldfields

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Language Arts And English +5 Age Levels Primary (5 to 8 years old), Elementary (9 to 12 years old), Middle School (13 to 15 years old), High School (16 to 18 years old), Post-Secondary, Adults

James Marshall's famous discovery of gold at Sutter's Mill in Colma forever changed the landscape, economy and culture of California due to the mass migrations of 300,000 people. Rumors of gold's discovery spread quickly, and was confirmed by President Polk in an address to Congress. The news spread to countries around the world.

The journey to California was long and dangerous. The three major routes were: around Cape Horn by ship (six to eight months), the Isthmus of Panama (two to three months), and the Overland trail (three to five months). By ship, dangers included: ship wrecks, lack of food and water, seasickness and disease. Ships that survived the long journeys arrived to the ports of San Francisco, where migrants had to continue their journey to the Sierra Nevada foothills.  

Traveling 2,000 miles on the Overland Trail by foot and wagon exposed travelers to other dangers such as misinformed trails, and a lack of food and water. Travelers were exposed to inclimate weather while crossing deadly rivers, deserts, and high mountain passes. Only the very basic necessities including food, water, wagons, stock, hunting tools, blacksmithing tools, clothing, blankets, sewing kits, medical supplies would be taken for the journey.   

On the Overland Trail, many miners joined companies. These companies were made up of people with various skills; such as, carpentry, medicine, navigation, hunting, blacksmithing and wheelwrights. The likelihood of surviving these long and dangerous journeys increased significantly for those individuals who joined companies. If a company survived the journey to California on the Overland Trail, the company also had a higher likelihood of success in gold mining. Individuals within the company could stake multiple gold mining claims and the gold would then be divided among the people of the company. During the gold rush, individuals were only allowed to own one claim.  


Covered Wagon [painting] / (photographed by Peter A. Juley & Son)

Archives and Special Collections, Smithsonian American Art Museum

Study, Covered Wagons

Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum

Heading--Chapter III "Sutter's Gold"

Smithsonian American Art Museum

Pioneers of the West

Smithsonian American Art Museum

Pack Stock in Columbia, California

Columbia State Historic Park

Arrival of the Miners (non book*)

Columbia State Historic Park

Painting, Clipper Ship Mandarin

National Museum of American History

Scrimshaw Sperm Whale Tooth, 20th Century

National Museum of American History

A Prospecting Party

National Museum of American History

Painting, Clipper Ship Mandarin

National Museum of American History