It even began as a legend.
The first known mention of California in a 16th-century Spanish book was a report of a fantastic island “very near the terrestrial paradise” ruled by the goddess Califia and inhabited by Amazons. “Their arms are all of gold as is the harness of the wild beasts they ride. In all the island there is no other metal.”
Of course, California is no island and there are no Amazons. But the legend of a golden land turned out to be a reality.
American California was born in gold, developed instantly in an amazing mass migration called the Gold Rush. The history began in 1839 when John Sutter settled at the confluence of the American and Sacramento Rivers. When the Mexican government and Governor Alvarado granted 48,000 acres of land to Sutter, they did not realize that they had given away a literal goldmine. Sutter built a single building, and then a fort, and then an empire, which he called “New Helvetia” after his native Switzerland. In 1841 he welcomed the first wagon train from the United States. By 1845, Sutter had a huge farming and livestock operation, using Indians as workers. He even amassed a 200-man army of uniformed Indians who marched to a fife and drum corps.
One year later, after the United States went to war with Mexico, and the U.S. Navy seized California, Sutter saw a great future for California under American rule.
He wanted to build a city and name it for himself – Sutterville. To produce lumber for the town, he hired a man named James Wilson Marshall and a crew of Mormons to build a sawmill at a place the Indians called Culomah, approximately 30 miles east of Sacramento.
One chilly January morning in 1848, Marshall, worried that some work had not been done properly at the sawmill, set out walking to make an inspection. His job was to make sure the water diverted from the south fork of the American River would turn a waterwheel and drive the mill’s machinery. Glancing into the water, Marshall spotted a brilliant, golden rock glittering on the bottom. He picked it up, examined it, and rolled it between his fingers. “It made my heart thump,” he wrote later, “for I was sure it was gold.”
Marshall rushed to the others in the crew. “Gold, boys, gold!” he yelled. “By God, I believe I have found a gold mine.”
The news of Marshall’s discovery in what’s called Coloma today, spread like wildfire around the globe drawing fortune hunters by the thousands from all corners of the world to Sacramento, California.
They came by land over the Sierras and by boat up the waterways of the Sacramento River. California’s Gold Rush created the largest recorded human migration in history. California’s population jumped to 300,000 in six years. The tiny port of San Francisco became the 10th largest city in the United States. Sacramento went from a population of 150 in April of 1849 to 3,500 seven months later, and to 10,000 by the end of the year!
The gold miners did not make California, but rather the growth of service industries.
The miners had to be fed, supplied, housed, and transported to the gold fields. Gold lured Levi Strauss who sold miners pants – Levi’s they were called. Collis P. Huntington and Mark Hopkins opened a hardware store a block off the river selling picks and shovels to miners, which made them a fortune in it self.
California became a state in 1850 and Sacramento its capital four years later. The city has been on the move ever since and is now one of the fastest growing regions in the United States.