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The Horrors Of The 'Gold Rush'

Matthew Knight By Matthew Knight on
Badge: Author | Level: 3 | Politics & History Expertise:

The American Gold Rush started in 1848 when James Marshall discovered gold whilst building a sawmill in the Sierra foothills. Word got out about the discovery and people from all over America and even some from China and Japan came flooding in to make their fortune. This sounds all very well and good but it was, in many ways and for many people, it was far from an enjoyable experiences.

Firstly, the ways that people travelled to get there were very dangerous and wouldn’t have been much fun. Some people went over land in wagons to reach the west coast. This journey was long and perilous and many people died from disease, thirst and starvation. The people who didn’t like the idea of the journey overland, there was the option of going by sea. This option would be more expensive and significantly longer, as it involved going round the Cape Horn. It less dangerous, in some respects, than the overland route, but there was more disease such as scurvy.

Secondly, once the prospectors arrived, it was not what most of them expected. They would have to either pan or mine, which would have been really tough. They would have to do it all day, every day. Along with this backbreaking work it would have been hot most of the year, which would have made it worse. All the good sites were snapped up early on leaving lesser sites for the newcomers. Other problems faced by the prospectors were the competition (lots of other people panning at the same place), claim jumpers (people who took your prospecting site) and theft.

Thirdly, the living conditions weren’t great either. There was often no waste disposal, which could lead to diseases such as typhoid. These diseases could spread easily because people were living so close together.

As more and more people came west, small towns such as San Francisco grew very rapidly. This led to shabby buildings being built, no proper waste disposal systems and closely packed housing.

Finally there were the many social problems that were caused by the newcomers in the cities and mining camps. There was often violence because there were not many policemen to keep law and order. Gambling houses and saloons (place to buy and drink alcohol) were common. Many men spent months worth of earning on one nights pleasure. Other shops such as grocery stores also charged ridiculous prices for food and other ware.