The California Gold Rush

The Great American Gold Rush: Timeline, pictures, and history

Diary of a 49er.


The history of gold mining:
The California gold rush in perspective

The history of gold mining must be divided into two periods -- before and after the California gold rush of 1848. Before that date, over a period of some six thousand years, an estimated ten thousand tonnes of gold were excavated. Ninety percent of the world's gold -- a total of some 125,000 tonnes -- has been extracted after 1848.

In Europe, North Africa, and the Middle East, early gold mining was initiated by the Egyptians around 2000 BC in the areas which are now Egypt, the Sudan and Saudi Arabia. They are thought to have produced no more than one tonne annually. Perhaps 5-10 were produced during the time of the Roman Empire, mainly from Spain, Portugal and North Africa. In the Dark and Middle Ages, between 500 and 1400 AD, there was some mining in the mountains of central Europe; the yearly amount probably fell back to less than a tonne. Cultures in South and Central America, in India, and in China also mined gold in comparable amounts throughout this period.

From the middle of the 15th century, the Gold Coast of West Africa, in that area that is now Ghana, became an important source of gold, providing perhaps 5-8 tonnes per year. In the early 16th century the Spanish conquests of Mexico and Peru were largely motivated by the search for gold. By the close of the 17th century, 10-12 tonnes a year were provided by the Gold Coast and South America together. Gold was first discovered in Brazil in the mid-16th century but significant output did not emerge until the early 18th century. Towards the end of that century, considerable supplies began to come from Russia as well, and annual world production was up to 25 tonnes. By 1847, the year before the Californian gold rush, Russian output accounted for 30-35 tonnes of the world total of about 75 tonnes.

The crucial turning point in the history of the gold mining industry came with the discovery at Sutter’s Mill on the American River in January 1848. Gold mining now took on a quite different dimension. Output from California soared, reaching 77 tonnes in 1851 and peaking in 1853 at 93 tonnes.

All the gold ever mined would easily fit under the Eiffel Tower, forming a cube of nearly 19 m each side.






Maintained by Francis F. Steen, Communication Studies, University of California Los Angeles