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Gold Dust Scoop

National Museum of American History
Wire-rimmed, three-sided, shallow, tapered rectangular or triangular tray or pan; narrows to open end. Made of one piece, cut and folded at corners. No marks.

Gold Nugget

National Museum of American History
This small piece of yellow metal is believed to be the first piece of gold discovered in 1848 at Sutter's Mill in California, launching the gold rush.

James Marshall was superintending the construction of a sawmill for Col. John Sutter on the morning of January 24, 1848, on the South Fork of the American River at Coloma, California, when he saw something glittering in the water of the mill's tailrace. According to Sutter's diary, Marshall stooped down to pick it up and "found that it was a thin scale of what appeared to be pure gold." Marshall bit the metal as a test for gold.

In June of 1848, Colonel Sutter presented Marshall's first-find scale of gold to Capt. Joseph L. Folsom, U.S. Army Assistant Quartermaster at Monterey. Folsom had journeyed to Northern California to verify the gold claim for the U.S. Government.

The gold samples then traveled with U.S. Army Lt. Lucien Loeser by ship to Panama, across the isthmus by horseback, by ship to New Orleans, and overland to Washington. A letter of transmittal from Folsom that accompanied the packet lists Specimen #1 as "the first piece of gold ever discovered in this Northern part of Upper California found by J. W. Marshall at the Saw Mill of John A. Sutter."

By August of 1848, as evidence of the find, this piece and other samples of California gold had arrived in Washington, D.C., for delivery to President James K. Polk and for preservation at the National Institute. Within weeks, President Polk formally declared to Congress that gold had been discovered in California.

In 1861, the National Institute and its geological specimens, including this gold and the letter, entered the collections of the Smithsonian Institution. The Marshall Nugget remains in the collections as evidence of the discovery of gold in California.

Charlie Chaplin's Gold Rush

Smithsonian Magazine

The Gold Rush was the most lavish comedy produced in the silent film era. And it was arguably the most ambitious. Restaging iconic stereoscope pictures of prospectors ascending Yukon’s steep Chilkoot Pass, its director, writer, and star Charlie Chaplin had 600 men sent by train to the Sierra Nevada to climb a snowy mountain peak. A miniature mountain range was constructed in Hollywood. 

But the film’s verisimilitude only went so far: The real gold seekers who embarked on the Klondike odyssey between 1897 and 1898 suffered hardships, from brutal cold and famine to grueling footslogs. Nonetheless, when rumors of riches in Nome surfaced, many undertook the 774-mile journey.

Chaplin plays The Lone Prospector. Wandering through the wilderness of Alaska, he shacks up with a greedy criminal and a lucky prospector to escape an Arctic blizzard. Bears, avalanches, and starvation are never far away. But true to Hollywood happy endings, Chaplin’s tramp gets the gold and the golden girl. The film premiered in 1925 at the Egyptian Theatre, owned by Sidney Grauman, who had himself trekked north in search of gold, only to come up empty.


National Museum of American History
This is a hand balance with brass pans, chains, and 5.5 inch beam. There are three large weights (1/2 OUNCE, 1 OUNCE; AND 2 OUNCE); six disc weights (1/2 DWT, 1 DWT; two 2 DWT, 5 DTW, and 10 DTW); two fractional weights; and a gold nugget. The metal case, green with gold lettering, is marked “MINERS’ IMPROVED GOLD SCALE / Manufactured expressly for California” and decorated with an eagle.

Torah Mantle

National Museum of American History
Made in Wenkheim, Germany, this silk Torah mantle was brought to San Francisco by Jewish immigrants during the California gold rush and presented to Congregation Emanu-El. Founded in 1850, Emanu-El (Hebrew for "God is with us") was one of the first synagogues in San Francisco. It provided a spiritual and social community for German and central European Jews who came to California in search of economic opportunities and political freedom.

"Gold Washers" Snuff Box

National Museum of American History
This snuff box was made in London and used around 1860. The box’s lid is painted with an image four men—two white, and two African-Americans—working a stream for gold with the text “Gold-washers in California” below. Both slave and free African Americans participated in the gold rush as laborers and gold washers. A snuff box carried a powdered tobacco called snuff that was pinched and inhaled nasally.

The Gold Rush Was California's Shortcut to Statehood

Smithsonian Channel
In 1848, pioneer John Sutter and a carpenter named James Marshall discovered gold in a local stream, prompting a major gold rush. Just a year later, California would become America's 31st state. From: AERIAL AMERICA: Northern California

How to Make Money in a Gold Rush

Smithsonian Channel
Thousands rushed to California to find gold and get rich quick, but the people who actually made their fortunes were the merchants who built their businesses to serve the forty-niners. From the Series: Pioneers Turned Millionaires: Levi Strauss

33c California Gold Rush single

National Postal Museum

Issued June 18, 1999


Heading--Chapter XIII "Sutter's Gold"

Smithsonian American Art Museum

The story of the Klondike [sound recording] : stampede for gold, the golden trail / written and narrated by Pierre Berton

Ralph Rinzler Folklife Archives and Collections
Program notes ([4] p. : ill.) inserted in container.

Recorded by Sam Gesser.

Pierre Berton, narrator.

Recorded in Canada.

Heading--Chapter III "Sutter's Gold"

Smithsonian American Art Museum

Heading--Chapter IX "Sutter's Gold"

Smithsonian American Art Museum

Heading--Chapter VII "Sutter's Gold"

Smithsonian American Art Museum

32c Centennial of Klondike Gold Rush single

National Postal Museum

32-cent mint single

Issued August 21, 1998

How the Alaska Gold Rush Turned Out to Be Hoax

Smithsonian Channel
Near the turn of the 20th century, Alaska lured thousands of eager prospectors in search of precious minerals to its bountiful mountains. What many found was far more treacherous. From the Series: Aerial America: Alaska's Fire and Ice

Menu, 1976 Gold Rush Zinfandel at Chez Panisse

National Museum of American History
The simplicity of this paper menu—a single, printed page with the word “ZINFANDEL” decorating its edges—belies the layers of history behind the particular pairings of food and wine listed. The menu is for the week of November 16-20, 1976, at Chez Panisse restaurant in Berkeley, California. Founded in 1971 by Alice Waters, Chez Panisse was the cornerstone of the Berkeley “gourmet ghetto” and the center of a movement that expanded across the country, inspiring a renewed commitment to sourcing and presenting food that was fresh, local, organic, seasonal, and delicious. Reflecting Waters’ interest in French culinary traditions, the menu lists meals for each day in both French and English. It features dishes such as Moussaka with watercress, Snail cassolette, Sorrel consommé, and Salmis of squab—offerings that would have seemed unusual and perhaps exotic to many Americans, who were just beginning to explore new culinary experiences at the time.

The week’s menu is also a celebration of a new, local wine produced by winemaker Walter Schug for Joseph Phelps Vineyards, which had been established in Napa in 1973. The featured wine was the 1976 Gold Rush Zinfandel, produced from grapes grown in Amador County, an area east of Sacramento in the Sierra foothills. Although Zinfandel had been grown in that area since the Gold Rush, the wine was made primarily for local consumption. Winemakers rediscovered the old Zinfandel vineyards in the Shenandoah Valley of Amador County in the 1960s, and, in 1968, Sutter Home vintners produced wine from the old vines for Sacramento wine and food expert Darrell Corti. Corti’s embrace of the varietal helped propel Zinfandel wine into wider acceptance. The Zinfandel Dinner became an annual event at Chez Panisse, an acknowledgement of the new excellence of American wine that emerged in the 1970s. Darrell Corti donated this menu to the National Museum of American History in 2011.

Gold rush : a multi-page serigraph / by Jill Timm

Smithsonian Libraries
Limited edition of 35.

"Gold Rush is pushing the flag book structure-- times 2, making it a double or reversible book, both sides attached to a single spine. It has two covers and two parts of a screen printed image. The stylized image of a bush with golden leaves that lives deep in the forest is a 16 color serigraphy by printmaker Jill Timm."--Publisher's website.

"This book started out as a 15" x 18" serigraph print. The image is printed with oil base inks, and was printed in 16 separate colors on Pyramid Cover. The serigraph was created in 1980. But then turned into a book in 2013. The structure is a double or reversible flag structure flag structure. ... The spine is a Fiber Mark paper, the font is Myriad Pro, the text and cover images are digitally printed with archival ink."--Colophon.

Rigged Model, Extreme Gold Rush Clipper Challenge

National Museum of American History
The extreme clipper ship Challenge was built at New York by the famous shipbuilder William H. Webb. At its launch in May 1851, the $150,000 Challenge was the largest merchant ship ever built, measuring 227 feet in length by 42 feet in beam and 2006 tons. The high length:beam ratio of 5.4:1 was what made the three-decker an extreme clipper, and it set a few speed records over the course of its working life. The Challenge was expected to set a record on its maiden voyage, and Capt. Robert H. Waterman was offered a $10,000 bonus if he could drive the ship to San Francisco in under 90 days. He pushed his 60-man crew hard, but poor weather and a mutiny by 50 crewmen off Rio slowed the Challenge to a 108-day trip. The mutiny and the unrelated death of seven crew on that maiden voyage gave the ship a bad reputation. Capt. Waterman was relieved of his command after reaching San Francisco, but the next master had to pay a signing bonus of $200 to lure new crewmen aboard for a China trip. Another mutiny on this second leg of the maiden voyage occurred as well—testament to how driven these men were to sail hard and fast. Over the next decade as a China clipper, an additional mutiny, widespread crew illnesses, frequent dismastings and leaks, and other events cemented the bad reputation of the vessel. It was sold to its captain for $9,350 in 1861. The Challenge changed hands a few more times before sinking off the Brittany coast in February 1877.

The Gold Rush Left Behind Mercury That’s Still Contaminating California

Smithsonian Magazine

Damming and dredging a California river for gold. Photo: Harper’s Weekly magazine

More than a century ago, around 300,000 hopeful people rushed to California with the aim of striking it rich. From 1848 to 1855, at the height of the Gold Rush, miners tore up the countryside in pursuit of that precious mineral. But even forty-niners who didn’t strike it rich left a legacy of rare metal behind—namely, mercury, which still contaminates California’s soil and waterways.

Miners didn’t employ only the quaint panning methods normally associated with the Gold Rush; they used powerful hoses to spray away entire hillsides.

Blasting away the hillside with water jets. Photo: Denver Public Library

Discovery News reports:

The sediment was then run through “sluice boxes,” where mercury was added to bind to gold. But large quantities of the heavy metal made their way into sediment downstream. This destructive mining filled valleys with sediments that caused flooding in California’s Central Valley, and in 1884, the federal government shut down much of this gold-mining activity.

Sluice running down from the hillsides. Photo: Denver Public Library

According to new research, that leftover mercury will continue to flush through the environment, eventually making its way into the San Francisco Bay, for the next 10,000 years or so. And because it’s in the water and soil, it also inevitably makes its way into living organisms.

When the mercury reaches the lowlands of the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta, where the Yuba River and other streams that flow out of the Sierra Nevada end up, it can be converted to methylmercury by microbes. Methylmercury is the organic form of the heavy metal, which can accumulate in animals and make its way up the food chain.

As the mercury concentrates in larger and larger organisms, Discovery points out, it eventually makes its way onto human dinner plates in the form fish like salmon and bass.

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Gold Rush California Was Much More Expensive Than Today’s Tech-Boom California

Smithsonian Magazine

If you have ever wondered how California’s modern-day rush for riches in Silicon Valley compares with the Gold Rush of 1849, look no further than the cost of buying a home.

Glenn Kelman, CEO of real estate startup Redfin, recently warned of an exodus of tech-specialists from Silicon Valley as the average price of property there topped $1 million – more than double the averages in Seattle, Boston or Portland.

It would be fair to say that property prices rose during the Gold Rush too, but that is where the comparison would have to end. Because back in 1849, they climbed to levels that would make modern Californians weep.


Gold Fever: One Man's Adventures on the Trail of the Gold Rush

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The writer Bayard Taylor arrived in San Francisco by ship in the summer of 1849 and feared that nobody would believe him when he wrote about the Gold Rush economy in his dispatches for the New York Tribune.

When the average wage for a laborer in New York might be one or two dollars a day, he was astounded to discover that individual hotel rooms were rented to professional gamblers for upwards of $10,000 a month – the equivalent today of about $300,000. (All inflation estimates are courtesy of

Taylor wrote:

“[One] citizen of San Francisco died insolvent to the amount of forty-one thousand dollars the previous autumn. His administrators were delayed in settling his affairs and his real estate advanced so rapidly in value meantime that after his debts were paid, his heirs had a yearly income of $40,000 [$1.2 million today].

“These facts were indubitably attested; everyone believed them, yet hearing them talked of daily, as matters of course, one at first could not help feeling as if he had been eating ‘of the insane root’.”

According to the consumer data website Numbeo, San Franciscans today face grocery bills and rents about 21 percent higher than the national average. That is an unfortunate figure, but again, it seems negligible when compared with the prices facing shocked gold-seekers as they arrived in the early days of the rush, when almost everything – tools, equipment food, clothing – was in short supply.

Edward Gould Buffum, author of Six Months in the Gold Mines (1850), described having a breakfast of bread, cheese, butter, sardines and two bottles of beer with a friend and receiving a bill for $43 – the equivalent today of about $1,200.

There were reports of canteens charging a dollar for a slice of bread or two if it was buttered, the equivalent of $56. A dozen eggs might cost you $90 at today’s prices; a pick axe would be the equivalent of $1,500; a pound of coffee $1,200 and a pair of boots as much as $3,000 when today you could get a decent pair for around $120.

“Every newcomer in San Francisco is overtaken with a sense of complete bewilderment,” wrote Taylor. “The mind, however it may be prepared for an astonishing condition of affairs, cannot immediately push aside its old instincts of value and ideas of business, letting all past experiences go for naught and casting all its faculties… Never have I had so much difficulty in establishing, satisfactorily to my own senses, the reality of what I saw and heard.”

While some miners did strike it rich in the early days, those that made most money were the ones who “mined the miners.” Imagine the joy of the woman who made $18,000 by baking and selling pies in the gold fields. Or of the foresighted man who arrived in San Francisco in July 1849 with 1,500 old newspapers which he sold to miners, hungry for news from back east, for a dollar each.

Some of America’s best known businesspeople also began this way: Philip Armour was just 19 when he began selling meat to forty-niners in Placerville California (then called Hangtown); Levi Strauss, a Jewish emigrant from Germany, identified the need for tough clothing in the gold fields; Henry Wells and William Fargo made millions by setting up banking services in San Francisco; and John Studebaker’s automobile empire began with him making wheelbarrows for California miners.

Their equivalents today – Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg, Microsoft’s Bill Gates, Larry Page and Sergey Brin of Google, and so on – have made billions rather than millions. And, unlike most of the hapless gold miners, their employees have reaped considerable rewards. By comparison, their costs of living are much more bearable.

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