How "big" was the California Gold Rush?

I’m a lifetime California resident and I find it fascinating that the discovery of gold in Northern California could have led to such a mass migration and statehood as early as 1850 given the fact that California had only been acquired a few years before that.

Question: If an amount of gold equal to what was able to be easily mined and didn’t require complex machinery to mine at a profit was found today, would there be a gold rush today similar to the California gold rush in that thousands of people would stop what they’re doing and head for the streams, hills, etc. where they could hope to mine gold and make a substantial gain, if they got to the gold fields early enough?

Or was the mass migration element of the California Gold Rush primarily a result of the unique political, social climate of the time; i.e. Americans in the 19th century were more adventurous and risk-taking, our economy despite the recent recession offers more opportunities relative to the price of gold today that people today would react with indifference to such a gold find, government regulations would make such a gold rush today unlikely even if a discovery of gold in equal amounts and with equal ease of acquisition by individual miners was made, etc?

Or was the sheer amount of gold in California to be found, and able to be mined profitably without high capital investments early on a unique and special find that would trigger the same gold fever today, and in any age given man’s love for gold?

How does the amount of gold found in California from 1848-1860 compare to that of the mines of the Spanish colonies during an equal period of time? I know that the gold found by the Spanish was enough to fill galleons and lead to treasure ships being victims of piracy, although much of this could have been silver instead. Was the California Gold Rush even bigger than the gold found in Mexico/Peru/the former Aztec and Inca Empires?

One difference, I believe, is that nowadays, everyone mining or panning would be doing it on someone’s property. This was at least partially true then as well, but I suspect the property rights would be more protected today.

This is true. Nowadays, if there were dozens of people panning along the sides of regular old suburban roads, in public parks, and in people’s backyards, something would have to “be done” about it.

“It has been estimated that more than 300,000 people came to California between the years 1848 and 1854. Many came and left in a relatively short time; others stayed a while longer, and still others remained permanently. The State’s population at the time of the 1850 census was nearing 100,000 and, ten years later, the population reached 380,000. By 1880, California boasted a population of 560,247. By the end of the 19th century, more than 1.2 million people called the Golden State “home.””

“From 1848 to 1859, miners removed an estimated 28.4 million troy ounces* of gold”

As the official US Government price of Gold was $20.27 per ounce from 1834 to 1934, this was $587 million in Gold in 11 years.

The Federal Budget for 1850 was only $44.8 million and in 1860 it was $78 million.

The GDP of the US was about 2.6 billion in 1850 and about $4.4 billion in 1860.
GDP was roughly $10 trillion in 2000 and $16 trillion this year (2012).
So by comparison, figure what it would be like if, over an 11 year period, 5 million people moved to a new territory and pulled $2 trillion in wealth out of the ground or found it lying in streams.

Wow, that’s amazing. =)

It was pretty big…one of the landscapes created by the gold rush.

Some people made a lot of money by selling stuff to the miners. Ever hear of (among many others) Levi Strauss?

The idea of “people just picking up gold in the streams” is a little misleading. Virtually all the gold production during the rush was the result of fairly intensive mining using wage labor. The stereotypical prospector with a gold pan in hand was merely engaged in prospecting (what else?) for places where he could stake a claim and then either set up a sluice and hire some guys to run it or sell it to someone else who would. At no point could you literally pan a fortune out of a creek. Many of the settlers who headed west thought that was the case, but the vast majority of them ended up working as wage labor on someone else’s claim.

Of course, a lot of them ended up setting up supply businesses like blonde bear mentions, or a lot of them ended up noticing that California also had superb farm and timber land and was a gateway to trade with Asia. In the end, that’s what was significant about the California Gold Rush-- the gold pulled out of the ground was nothing to sneeze at, but the much larger economic boon for the country was that it kick-started settlement of what turned out to be one of the richest and most important regions of the country. That also makes the California Gold Rush unique among gold rushes in general-- in most examples the population settled back down once the easy money had been made, but California’s population boom still isn’t showing any signs of letting up.

To take a modern example, the value of the oil coming out of North Dakota during its current “oil rush” is very likely to exceed the value of the gold that came out of the California Gold Rush (well, at least if you only adjust for inflation, not for the current price of gold), but that’s unlikely to become a seminal event in US history because (presumably) all the other opportunities in North Dakota have long since been exhausted.

As Dan Fogelberg hints, about 50,000 acres of the 1849 gold lands were owned by Johannes Sutter whose rights were indeed not protected.

(BTW, my same-named ancestor, Septimus G. Stevens I, had a half-brother who panned for gold as a young man and returned to the Midwest to start a hardware store.)

The first Australian one was bigger.

And the West Australian ones were bigger still.

ETA: “Bigger” in terms of the actual amount of gold produced.

I’ve always figured that was the case. Any guesses as to how many millionaires were actually created? Or maybe not ‘millionaires’, but at least set for life? There is so much boasting about 400,000 people came, and over 500 million in gold was mined… but I’m guessing only the slightest fraction (1%?) of those people actually got filthy rich (by mining, not peripheral business). I assume the businessmen who got rich vastly outnumber the miners who got rich.

I would be surprised if a larger fraction of businessmen got rich, mostly because wealth is often distributed top-heavy regardless of whether you look at people in business or in digging gold. IMO, just as there were wealthy business owners in CA at that time, there were failed ones, and there were wage earners, just like there were miners who struck it rich and managed to secure their land claims, those who lost everything, and those who worked for other miners who owned their land. It was almost a pure free market in California then, and the business climate was pretty much winner-take-all…Stanford, Hearst, and even Heinrich Schliemann (discoverer of Troy, Mycenae, etc.) made big money in the Gold Rush doing business other than mining.

North Dakota remains a gateway to trade with Manitoba.

I can’t find any stats off the top of my head, but I remember from elementary school that very few people got rich… and of those who did, none* of them had mud on their boots. (*Yes, there probably were a few. But not many.) The prices for basic commodities like food were driven sky-high by demand and most miners started off in debt for their tools, claim, etc. Most miners were making barely enough to get by on. The ones who did well were merchants, bankers and the like.

In other words… what happened then was virtually the same thing that would happen now.

I can’t believe that the miners didn’t bring their own equipment with them, or that after the original miners left for California, that their experience with really high prices somehow went east and the future miners started to bring their own stuff…I guess information traveled slower or people couldn’t carry as much stuff with them. But now I think about it, I would probably have just left without thinking about what I really needed.

There was a massive new gold field (Hemlo) discovered not far off the Trans-Canada highway in northern Ontario, at the top of Lake Superior, about 1980 or so.

Basically, large mining companies (and some upstarts) staked claims. IIRC this still involved marching through the bush putting in stakes, but also required registering with the land office. You still got claim-jumping. There was a nasty court case between Lac Minerals and Corona. The loser basically folded shop and lost hundreds of millions.

However, there’s not a lot of room for thousands of people to wander in and start panning rivers. The land ownership is settled in big offices long before anyone starts arriving, and there would not even be roads, parking, camping, or town sites for the incoming horde.

A better example of a rush would likely be the Alberta Tar Sands, now rebranded “oil sands” for better PR by the industry. Fort MacMurray has a demand for far too many workers and the infrastructure can’t keep up. Housing prices are through the roof, half the people are sleeping on a friend’s sofa; drivethru workers at Tim Hortons coffeshop were supposedly making $20/hr. Even in Calgary, shops would close early during the Christmas season because there was nobody to staff them beyond the normal 10-6 hours.

Mainly importing cold fronts.

Doesn’t this imply (it’s from Wikipedia article of the Victorian Gold Rush) that the California Gold Rush was the exception, and hence bigger than the Victorian?

It was arguably also bigger in terms of the increase in population. According to Wikipedia,

(Most of my ancestors on my father’s side would have moved to Victoria in the 1850s.)