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On This Day: President Polk Sparks the California Gold Rush

Last updated: February 15, 2023

On Dec. 5, 1848, President James K. Polk confirmed in his State of the Union address that large quantities of gold had been discovered in California.

Gold in California

Part of an independent Mexico since 1821, Alta (or Upper) California was long seen as a territory ripe for development, initially by those in agriculture. In January 1848, millwright James W. Marshall found gold in the area, and set in motion the California Gold Rush that would change California and the American West forever.

While building a sawmill in present-day Coloma, Calif., Marshall noticed several flakes of metal in the American River. “I stepped into it, near the lower end, and there, upon the rock, about six inches beneath the surface of the water, I discovered the gold,” Marshall described.

He took it to his partner, Capt. John Sutter, who swore the mill laborers to secrecy. The word got out, and others soon arrived. Mormon businessman Sam Brannan is credited with spreading the news of the gold; after visiting the mill, he ran down the streets of San Francisco shouting, “Gold! Gold! Gold from the American River!”

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Many people believed that the claim of gold was a hoax; it took President Polk’s 1848 State of the Union address to convince many in the East that there was truly gold in California. “The explorations already made warrant the belief that the supply is very large and that gold is found at various places in an extensive district of country,” he declared.

In 1849, a rush of people from America and abroad migrated to California to mine gold. Hundreds of thousands of “49ers” helped transform California in the 1850s; as many boomtowns sprung up, San Francisco grew into a thriving city and California gained statehood in 1850.

The lure of gold, writes PBS, “unleashed the largest migration in United States history and drew people from a dozen countries to form a multi-ethnic society on America’s fringe.”

Key Players: Polk, Marshall, Sutter, and Brannan

Sources in this Story

  • Coloma Valley: The Gold Discovery that Changed the World
  • Historic Hwy 49: History of the Gold Rush
  • Presidential Rhetoric: James Polk: 1848 State of the Union Address
  • PBS: American Experience: The California Gold Rush
  • Miller Center for Public Affairs: James Knox Polk
  • The California Gold Country: James Wilson Marshall
  • The Virtual Museum of the City of San Francisco: The Discovery of Gold in California
  • Sierra Foothill Magazine: Sam Brannan

President James Knox Polk
Polk, a Democrat who served between 1845 and 1849, is the president most closely associated with “Manifest Destiny,” the belief that America was destined to extend from the Atlantic to the Pacific coast. He presided over a period of great territorial expansion; he annexed Texas early in his tenure and obtained more than 500,000 square miles of territory—including California—from Mexico following the Mexican-American War.

He did not run for re-election after achieving all his major foreign policy and domestic goals in his first term. “Despite Polk’s accomplishments, many historians today regard him not as a great president but as one who missed opportunities,” writes the Miller Center for Public Affairs. “He failed to understand the depth of popular emotion over the westward expansion of the South’s ‘peculiar institution.’ This failure on his part left the issue of slavery unaddressed and thus unresolved at the end of his term in 1849.”

James W. Marshall
James W. Marshall is credited with finding the first of pieces of gold in California as he was checking progress at a site of a timber mill. The California Gold Country Web site states that the discovery happened as he dipped his hand into the six inches of water, known as the mill race, which would be expanded to provide the power to turn the mill’s wheel.

His discovery happened to be a curse for Marshall. The rush of gold miners forced him off his land and he moved on to other parts of California, finding little success. He died penniless in 1885.

John A. Sutter
When James Marshall came across gold, he was working with John A. Sutter, a Swiss-born businessman who arrived in California by a roundabout route in 1839. He wrote about the events leading to the discovery of gold and its effects on his plans for building an empire by supporting the needs of a growing state.

Samuel Brannan
Sam Brannan, a highly successful San Francisco businessman, visited the gold mines and publicized what he had seen. Like Marshall, he too would end his days in penury, according to Sierra Foothill Magazine.

Reference: California and the Gold Rush

PBS’ American Experience documentary “The Gold Rush” focuses on the experiences of five people from different backgrounds who migrated to California during the Gold Rush. Its Web site features descriptions of the Gold Rush, biographies of important figures, primary source materials, maps, and a transcript of the film.

Source: PBS

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A complete chronology of the Gold Rush, starting with the departure on Feb. 4, 1846, of a shipload of Mormons bound for San Francisco, is detailed by the Virtual Museum of the City of San Francisco.

Source: The Virtual Museum of the City of San Francisco

go to site »

A history of California both before and after the Gold Rush is provided by the Library of Congress’ California History Collection.

Source: Library of Congress

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