“The first symptoms of the fever is a restless sensation – an excited state of the system – a wild expression of the eye – and a light and elastic tread. These symptoms are followed with a desire to obtain implements for digging and washing …” (Polynesian, July 15, 1848)
There are “fearful ravages of a terrible fever which has nearly depopulated all the seaport towns and caused general rush to the interior. It is not exactly the yellow fever, but a fever for a yellow substance, called gold.”
“An exceedingly rich gold mine has been discovered in the Sacramento Valley, and all class all sexes have deserted their occupation and rushed en masse to the mines to make their fortune.”
“The gold taken from this newly discovered mine is not gold ore, but pure virgin gold. It is procured by the simple process of digging and washing, and is obtained at the rate of from two to four ounces per day by each laborer.” (Polynesian, June 24, 1848)
The great California gold rush began on January 24, 1848, when James W Marshall discovered a gold nugget in the American River while constructing a sawmill for John Sutter, a Sacramento agriculturalist. News of Marshall’s discovery brought thousands of immigrants to California from elsewhere in the United States and from other countries.
At first, there were only two routes. The first entailed a six-month sea voyage from New York around the tip of South America to San Diego or San Francisco. Rampant seasickness, bug-infested food, boredom, and high expense made this route unattractive for many would-be prospectors.
The second route brought travelers over the Oregon-California Trail in covered wagons—over rugged terrain and hostile territory. This journey also averaged six months’ duration.
By 1850, the length and difficulty of both routes had inspired the construction of the Panama Railway, the world’s first transcontinental railroad. Built across the isthmus of Panama by private American companies to speed travel to California, the railroad helped to shave months off of the long voyage around South America.
In addition to massive emigration from the eastern US, the California gold rush triggered a global emigration of ambitious fortune-seekers from China, Germany, Chile, Mexico, Ireland, Turkey, and France. The number of Chinese gold-seekers was particularly large, though many Chinese did not intend to settle in the United States, which they called “the Gold Mountain.” (harvard-edu)
It is estimated that not less than two hundred foreigners have left the Sandwich Islands for the gold mines in California.— Others it is rumored will soon follow. At the latest intelligence from the gold region there was no falling off in the amount of gold that rewarded the labors of the miner …” (the Friend, September 1, 1848)
“The rush, to that part of the world, flows in unabated. One hundred and eight vessels, are reported to have left the Atlantic States, for San Francisco, during the month of December. … The mines continue to yield the usual amount of gold, and no sign of being exhausted. The freshet and overflowings of the numerous streams and rivers, are reported to increase the amount of gold in the ‘diggings.’” (The Friend, April 1, 1850)
And, they came from Hawaiʻi … hundreds of Hawaiians came to California to work in the mines. Remaining place names, Kanaka Creek and Kanaka Bar remind us of their early presence in the gold country.
Others from Hawaiʻi, even some of the missionaries, joined in the quest for gold.
“Several other vessels left port some for California, which has become a very interesting quarter, since the reports have reached us of the gold mines.” (August 1, 1848) “Comore. Jones has gone to St. Francisco and it is said he will put a stop to the private operations in the gold district, and will claim the district & the gold for the U. S. government.” (Levi Chamberlain, August 8, 1848)
“There is at present a great excitement here about digging gold in California. … Mr. Douglass and Mr. Lyman of whom you have heard as former assistants in our school are both there, also — Mr. Ricord, the former attorney general. … Men, women, and children are all absorbed in it, the one great thing Gold.” (Julia Cooke, September 21, 1848)
Reverend Damon of the Seamen’s Bethel Church and publisher of The Friend travelled the area – not as a miner, but an observer of the activities there.
“In travelling through the country I have met scores of seamen with whom I had become acquainted while at Honolulu. I was cordially welcomed, although in more than a single instance they exclaimed ‘you are the last man that we expected to see at the mines.’ A few words of explanation were however sufficient to set the matter right.” (Damon, The Friend, December 1, 1848)
Thomas Hopu and William Kanui, who returned to the islands with the Pioneer Company of missionaries in 1820, joined the gold rush. Damon saw them in Sacramento on his journey through the area.
John Thomas Gulick, son of the Gulick missionary family, joined the rush after seeking his parents’ permission. By June 1849, his prospecting was reasonably successful, but after having his money stolen, he returned to Hawaii a few months later after having recovered his finances through various trading ventures. (Bennett)
Likewise, the Reverend Lowell Smith, the first minister of Kaumakapili Church, sailed to San Francisco for a rest because of poor health. He visited the California gold fields.
“Kamae went immediately to speak to the Hawaiians in other places to come so we might be together for the week. I witnessed their work in the gold fields …. They were not able to obtain much on account of the scarcity of water. Some made a dollar a day, others two dollars, and still others, nothing.” (Smith; Kenn, HHS)
The California Gold Rush drawing Hawaiians to the continent was not its only effect on the Islands; the Hawaiian economy was affected in several ways – good and not-so-good.
Prior to the Gold Rush, supporting the Pacific whaling and trading fleets and trade between the West Coast and Hawaiʻi was the scale of the Hawaiʻi participation. The scale of that significantly changed with the Gold Rush.
Hawaiʻi was only three to five weeks away, and with the growing population drawn to the gold fields, in addition to provisioning ships, Hawaiʻi farmers were feeding the gold seekers on the continent.
There were some down sides; this also brought a marked increase in the prices of consumer goods, especially food, caused by the great increase in agricultural exports to California, which offered very profitable new markets. (Rawls)
Likewise, the exodus to the continent created a critical labor shortage in Hawaiʻi, where a sizeable number of sugar plantation workers migrated to the California gold fields.
The parting of workers from the plantations between 1848 and 1853 was so large, Hawaiʻi sugar producers began to seek Chinese immigrants to fill the gap. (Rawls)