California Gold Rush Begins
The 24th of January 1848 AD
The great California gold rush began thanks to a sharp-eyed worker overseeing construction work on a sawmill. The stuff he spotted glistening in a stream proved to be gold. The mill owner wanted to keep the find quiet, but that proved impossible: within months tens then hundreds of thousands were flocking to the region from not just the Americas but also Europe and the Antipodes.
In Europe 1848 was the year of revolutions, so emigration to California was pulled by greed and pushed by fear. And it was not only the prospectors who gained (though most found nothing, and the majority of those who struck it rich squandered their bonanzas): Britain’s manufacturing industry saw a boost in demand, the (in current terms) billions of pounds worth of ore sparking an upswing in trade worldwide.
It is thought that at least 20,000 Britons joined the rush for gold. Their stories echo the generality of experience in that crazy period: take for example Oxford -educated Frederick Catherwood, an artist and architect, smart enough to realise the real winners were not the ones using the shovels but selling them, setting up shop in San Francisco to do that; the delightfully-named Charles Sexey from London first settled in New Zealand then was drawn to make his fortune in California, and was clever enough to keep it too; and William Barker from March in Cambridgeshire fared badly in California, but later hit the jackpot in British Columbia – and still died a pauper.
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