How Did The Gold Rush Affect The California Native Americans?

The history of the Native American people is one that is complex and diverse. Many people forget the role that they played in crucial historical events like the California Gold Rush of the 19th century. 

However, if you don’t know about Native American involvement in events like the Gold Rush then you have an incomplete understanding of your own history. 

Gold Rush

So if you have ever wondered how the Gold Rush effected California Native Americans then read this article to find out how it did. 

How Did The Gold Rush Affect The California Native Americans?

The discovery of gold in California led to a massive migration of prospectors from around the world. Many of these men came from Europe and Asia, bringing their languages, cultures, and religions with them.

As they settled into new communities, they often clashed with the native inhabitants.

Many Native Americans believed that the gold was cursed. They believed that the gold would bring death and destruction to anyone who touched it. In addition, the gold miners had no respect for the land or its resources.

In 1848, gold was discovered on San Francisco Bay. The news spread quickly, and by 1850 there were over 100,000 people living in California.

This influx of settlers brought many problems to the state. Some of these included:

  • Disease
  • Violence against women
  • Alcoholism
  • Land disputes
  • Environmental degradation
  • Over-population
  • Racial tensions

When the first Europeans arrived in what is now called California, they found an indigenous population of about 250,000 people. Most lived in small villages along rivers and streams. These tribes consisted mostly of hunter-gatherers.

They ate fish, berries, roots, nuts, seeds, acorns, and other plants. Their diet also included wild game such as deer, rabbits, birds, beavers, otters, and squirrels.

There are many theories about how the natives survived during this time period. One theory suggests that the natives learned to adapt to the harsh environment. Another theory says that the natives survived because of their knowledge of plant medicines.

The Spanish explorers introduced diseases such as measles, influenza, diphtheria, and scarlet fever. These diseases killed thousands of natives. Other diseases like typhoid and cholera spread through contaminated water supplies.

Gold Rush 2

Another problem faced by the natives was the introduction of alcohol. When the Spanish colonized California, they brought wine, brandy, rum, and beer with them. This caused many issues among the natives. 

First, the alcohol made the natives sick. It also made them aggressive towards one another. Finally, the alcohol destroyed the social structure of the tribe.

The Spanish colonists also forced the natives off their lands. Many of the natives moved to reservations set up by the government. Others became slaves. Slaves worked on farms and ranches owned by white farmers.

By the late 1800s, the United States acquired control of California. During this time, the federal government began to enforce laws meant to protect the rights of all citizens. For example, the government passed laws that protected the property rights of farmers and ranchers.

However, some people felt that the federal government was not doing enough to protect the rights of the native inhabitants. To make matters worse, the federal government encouraged the whites to settle in areas where there were few natives.

As a result, many of the natives lost their homes and land. Many others were pushed onto smaller plots of land. By 1900, only about 20% of the original population remained.

California has always been a place of great beauty. However, when the Gold Rush hit, the landscape changed dramatically. The mining towns grew into cities.

The forests disappeared. The hillsides were stripped bare. Rivers and lakes dried up, and the air filled with dust from the mines.

In 1848, James Marshall discovered gold at Sutter’s Mill in Coloma. Soon after, miners flooded into the area. Thousands of men rushed to California hoping to strike it rich.

Many of these men came from the East Coast. They had never seen snow before. They wore heavy wool clothing. They carried guns and knives. They drank whiskey all day long. And they fought each other for jobs.

In addition, the miners quickly ran out of food. There wasn’t much available in the Sierra Nevada Mountains. So, they started hunting animals. They shot elk, bears, mountain lions, and even wolves.

When the miners couldn’t find any more game, they turned to farming. But most of the best farmland was already occupied by settlers. So, the miners often settled along rivers or streams. In fact, the first city built in California was named Sacramento.

After the Gold Rush ended, the population dropped sharply. Most of the miners left California. Those who stayed tried to rebuild their lives. But they still struggled to survive.

The Native Americans continued to suffer greatly during the Gold Rush. Diseases swept through the tribes. Their crops failed because of over-grazing. And their way of life was disrupted by the influx of new settlers.

Gold Rush Scene

Some natives died as a result of disease. Others were killed by angry settlers. Still others were captured and sold into slavery.

Today, California is one of the richest states in the country. It produces billions of dollars worth of goods every year. Its economy continues to grow.

But the state’s history still includes violent and deadly episodes. As recently as 2006, an earthquake caused a series of deadly landslides.

And in 2010, wildfires destroyed thousands of acres of forest near Los Angeles.

Much of California’s wealth and reputation is built off the Gold Rush. However it was a period that also caused a great deal of pain; many miners never found their pot of gold and instead ended up dying impoverished and alone. 

Similarly, many Native Americans ended up having to live awful lives as well. Treated appallingly and with little regard for the fact the land had once been theirs, the Gold Rush only made their situation worse than it had been before, stamping out large swathes of the population and subjugating those who were left. 

Final Thoughts

As mentioned above, the Gold Rush had a sizable impact on the Native American people of California. 

Already suffering due to the Spanish colonists, their plight only became worse when the landscape that they valued so much and had such a great spiritual connection was ravaged in search of an item that they thought was worthless and a harbinger of doom. 

Therefore, it is vital to understanding the history of California to understand this dark side to the old prospecting stories. 

For only by having a full and comprehensive understanding of the history that we value so much can we truly understand the past, warts and all, and use what happened in it to build a better future for all Americans.