Petaluma’s Past: California before, during and after the Gold Rush

The social and environmental impacts of the 1840s endure to the present|

In the 1840s, the term “Manifest Destiny” had become popular across our country. It was a cultural belief that American settlers were destined to expand all across North America. It was a term used by many to justify the Mexican-American War. And some applied it to the California Gold Rush of 1848-58, as New York Tribune Publisher Horace Greeley urged “Go West, young man. Go West.”

When gold was discovered in California in 1848, it caught the imagination of the entire world and men hastened to our territory by wagon, horse, ship and even by foot. By 1850, thousands of them were rushing into the “Golden State” each day.

That year, Sonoma County’s population was just 560, and 323 of those lived in the Petaluma, Two Rock and Penngrove areas. Just two years later, that population had exploded to 2,208. U.S. President James Polk had run on a ticket of expansionism and California Gold was a major catalyst for that effort, encouraging what came to be seen as the greatest mass migration in U.S. history.

Just before the Gold Rush, there were 158,000 people in California, 150,000 of them Native Americans, and 6,500 of Mexican descent. Only about 800 were non-native Americans. Just 20 months later, the non-native population had exploded to over 100,000 and, by the mid-1850s, 300,000 more arrivals had flocked here. Some 25% of that population were born outside the U.S.

The effects of that, upon our Native American inhabitants was disastrous. Loss of land, disease and violence wreaked havoc upon those tribes, as they were treated as “disposable labor”. It was an era of shame, that has been largely white-washed by history. By 1869, 80% of California’s Native Americans had been wiped-out.

All of this expansion, violent change and rapid population growth led to the fast-tracking of California statehood, which was made official in 1850, while such territories as Arizona and New Mexico would wait another 62 years for their own statehood.

It was called, at the time, “The rapid Americanization of California,” and it was to affect our state politically, socially and environmentally for decades to come.

These events occurred within the years of the first U.S. Industrial Revolution, resulting in the rapid expansion of manufacturing and service industries, especially those producing mining equipment, lumber, clothing and transportation vehicles. Agriculture and retail also grew along with it. Mills, tanneries and banks shot up all over, the need for clothing, leather and a safe place to park your money brought such folks as Sam Brannon, Henry Wells, William Fargo and Levi Strauss to our new state.

To provide for all the gold-seeking arrivals, fresh roads, bridges and towns with streets and sidewalks were springing up. It was called “infrastructure.” Most of the newly mined gold, of course, was quickly shipped east. In 1851, $34,000,000 dollars worth of gold was sent eastward from San Francisco to help finance our government.

Two years later, $54,000,000 more was sent.

And, of course, right around the corner were some new marvels called “rail roads,” which were to immensely shorten those shipping times. A few years later, in 1865, President Abraham Lincoln was to boast that “California gold had won the American Civil War for the North.”

But, all was not well with our Gold Rush.

A severe environmental impact had occurred from rivers clogged with sediment and poisoned with mercury and other toxic wastes. Forests were ravaged for timber, hillsides were washed away by hydraulic mining. Soil, polluted with chemicals, soon poisoned our water supplies.

Eventually crime and prostitution flourished, as well, though interestingly, prostitution was not a crime then. In the absence of a reputable police force, vigilantes became common, especially in San Francisco, as the cost of goods and inflation hit and the average miner had to produce an ounce of gold each day just to survive.

Fortunately, wild game was plentiful, but most men had come here with little more than the clothes on their backs and they found “California sticker shock” in everything. Gold was fetching $16 an ounce in 1849 ($576 in today’s market). With the effort and cost of getting the gold out of the earth (a shovel cost $36 then), and to a gold merchant, aligned with all the dangers that were afoot to and fro, it just wasn’t enough to live on in the camps.

The process of using mercury in mining worked effectively, by adding that liquid metal to clusters of earth in order to separate the gold from the rest. It was an efficient process, but mercury was later found to be a toxic substance, as harmful to the miners as it was to the entire environment. Amazingly, such toxic sediments are still found on the floors of San Francisco Bay after 150 years, as rivers polluted with cadmium, lead, arsenic and mercury were actively spread across lands and waters.

Of the gold mining regions in 1888, our Petaluma Weekly Argus newspaper described them as, “Forsaken and desolate, the scorched earth overworked and abandoned. It is most oppressive.” One could add to that that the animal and human wastes remaining in the miners’ encampments wasn’t all that good either.

It had been, for years, a totally unregulated madhouse.

Adding more friction to the competition-driven mayhem was the rising population of Chinese immigrants arriving in California’s gold fields, fleeing famine and hardship to seek what many called the “Gold Mountain” in California. These miners were immediately resented, and were the targets of unspeakable violence and racism, climaxing in 1882 with the introduction of a federal bill titled “The Chinese Exclusion Act,” severely limiting immigration to American from Asian countries. The act was upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court and remained in force until President Franklin Roosevelt finally repealed it in 1943 — because China had just come on board as our WWII ally. FDR called the Exclusion Act “an historic mistake,” and indeed it was, another unfortunate reminder of what the Gold Rush had wrought.

When discoveries of gold began to wane in the Sierras, agricultural endeavors took their place among the new residents of California, some who’d found success in the gold fields and stayed, and many more who hadn’t and stayed anyway to take advantage of what was often called California’s “green gold.” California had the right climate and soil for agriculture, plus rivers and coasts teeming with fish and skies clouded over with winged game. The increased need for foodstuffs across the growing country had created a new kind of “rush,” and California was once again a major part of it.

Skip Sommer’s “Petaluma’s Past” runs on the first Thursday of every month. You can contact him at

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