If you are pressed for time, or just want to revisit the content, this page allows you to view the text and images available on the interpretive panels in the Gold Country room.
“It was known that mines of the precious metals existed to a considerable extent in California at the time of its acquisition. Recent discoveries render it probable that these mines are more extensive and valuable than was anticipated. The accounts of the abundance of gold in that territory are of such an extraordinary character as would scarcely command belief were they not corroborated by the authentic reports of officers in the public service who have visited the mineral district… The effects produced by the discovery of these rich mineral deposits and the success which has attended the labors of those who have resorted to them have produced a surprising change in the state of affairs in California. Labor commands a most exorbitant price, and all other pursuits but that of searching for the precious metals are abandoned. Nearly the whole of the male population of the country have gone to the gold districts. Ships arriving on the coast are deserted by their crews and their voyages suspended for want of sailors. This abundance of gold and the all-engrossing pursuit of it have already caused in California an unprecedented rise in the price of all the necessaries of life.” – James Polk, 1848 State of the Union address, December 5, 1848
“Now the question arises, how much can a man earn by this dirty and exhausting work? When I arrived at the river, everything had been dug up and the best part of the gold was already gone. We scraped until our knuckles were sore, and each person could only make from three to five dollars a day.” – Hermann B. Scharmann
"I got a General passport for my small Colony and permission to select a Territory where ever I would find it convenient, and to come in one Years time again in Monterey to get my Citizenship and the title of the Land, which I have done so, and not only this, I received a high civil Office (Representante del Goveirno en las fronteras del Norte, y Encargado de la Justicia)." - Diary of John Augustus Sutter, April 1838
“I ate carefully the first evening, but stuffed myself the following days…. For fourteen days we lived in luxury at the Fort…. Drinks, fish, bread, butter, milk, beef, pork, potatoes, wonderful salmon… It is true; this valley is a paradise. Grass, flowers, trees, beautiful clear rivers, thousands of deer, elk, wild horses, wonderful salmon… All soil products thrive…. Plenty of grapes and figs. I shall probably settle on Captain Sutter’s property.” – Charles Preuss 1844
AFTER JOURNEY'S END
Some members of the Bidwell-Bartleson Party gained renown after arriving in California. Bidwell became a prominent and very successful California citizen. Joseph B. Chiles became a noted overland trails captain. Nancy Kelsey, the first white woman to travel across the Great Basin and Sierra Nevada, had two more daughters and died in California at age 73.
“So we had reached California – the first truly distinctive American emigrant train to do so.” – Nicholas “Cheyenne” Dawson, Reminiscence of 1841
“At Dr. Marsh’s ranch… we learned that we were really in California and our journey [was] at an end. After six months we had now arrived at the first settlement in California.” – John Bidwell, Reminiscence of 1841
Listen to the Bidwell/Bartleson story as they arrived in California.
"AFTER GREAT TRIBULATION"
Most of the surviving members of the Donner Party lived prosperous lives in California. James Reed became a leading citizen in San Jose. Virginia Reed married and had nine children, and her sister Patty Reed married and had eight. Lansford Hastings, whose poor advice contributed to the Donners' tragedy, continued to promote Westward expansionism until his death in 1868.
“We have landed in California, at last, after great tribulation…. I can make a living for my little family easier here than in the States; and while I am doing this, I am certain that they are enjoying good health.” – James F. Reed, 1847
“Words cannot tell how beautiful the spring appeared to us coming out of the mountains from that long winter at Donner Lake in our little dark cabins under the snow. Before us now lay, in all its beauty, the broad valley of Sacramento.” – Virginia Reed, Reminiscence of 1846
Listen to the Donner/Reed story as they arrived in California.
“On the first day of August, 1849, we were elected Councilmen of this City, and our Powers or Duties were not defined. On the 13th day of September, following, we presented to you a Charter for your consideration, which you have seen fit to reject by a majority of 146 votes. Since then we have been unable to determine what the good people of this city desire us to do: and being Republicans in principle, and having every confidence in the ability of this people to govern themselves, we again request the residents of Sacramento City to meet at the ST. LOUIS EXCHANGE on NEXT WEDNESDAY EVENING, at half past 7 o’clock, then and there to declare what they wish the City Council to do. If you wish us to act under the Mexican Laws now in force, however inapplicable they may be to our condition, then we must do the best we can; if you have objections to particular features of the Charter, then strike out the objectionable features and insert such as you desire. The Health and Safety of our City demand immediate action on your part, for in our primitive condition and in the absence of Legislative authority we can, in fact, be of no service to you without your confidence and consent.”
"GOLD! GOLD!! GOLD!!!"
President James K. Polk's announcement of the discovery of gold in California in 1848 triggered an unprecedented migration to the region. By 1850 gold seekers were coming from every part of the world. The majority of the emigrants were men who wanted only to get rich quickly and return home.
The massive and rapid influx of gold seekers, craftsmen, and businessmen changed California from a sparsely populated, pastoral, cattle and horse ranch based economy into one of the wealthiest states in America. In 1846 there were 7,600 Euro-American settlers. By the end of 1849 the population was nearly 100,000, and in 1852 it was 225,000.
"WORK! WORK OR PERISH!"
By 1852, over 200,000 miners worked in California. Harsh working and living conditions required miners to expend great physical labor just to survive day to day. Miners worked from dawn to dusk crouched in ice cold streams using a pan and stream water to separate gold from soil. Some used shovels and picks to move tons of soil and gallons of water through rocker and sluice boxes to extract just a few ounces of gold dust.
Most miners lived in canvas shelters, while others built log cabins. Some even lived in caves and holes in the earth. Lice-infested clothing went weeks between washings. Diets were bland, consisting primarily of coffee, pickled pork, beans, bread, and flapjacks. A consistent diet of animal fat, starch, and no fresh fruits or vegetables left many miners with diarrhea, scurvy, dysentery, and other types of ailments.
“In sunshine and rain, in warm and cold, in sickness and health, successful or not successful, early and late, it is work, work, WORK! Work or perish!” – Daniel B. Woods, 1850
THE HONEST MINER'S SONGS.
The One he Sung at Home.
TUNE - Susannah
Like Argos of the ancient times,
I'll leave this modern Greece;
I'm bound to California Mines,
To find the golden fleece.
For who would work from morn till night
And live on hog and corn,
When one can pick up there at sight
Enough to buy a farm?
CHORUS - Oh California! that's the land for me,
I'm going to California the gold dust for to see.
There from the snowy mountains side
Comes down the golden sand,
And spreads a carpet far and wide
O'er all the shining land;
The rivers run on golden beds,
O'er rocks of golden ore.
The valleys six feet deep are said
To hold a plenty more.
Oh California! &c.
I'll take my wash bowl in my hand,
And thither wind my way,
To wash the gold from out the sand
And when I get my pocket full
In that bright land of gold,
I'll have a rich and happy time:
Live merry till I'm old.
Oh California! &c.
The One he Sings Here.
TUNE - Irish Emigrants' Lament
I'm sitting on a big quartz rock,
Where gold is said to grow;
I'm thinking of the merry flock,
That I left long ago:
My fare is hard, so is my bed,
My CLAIM is giving out,
I've worked until I'm almost dead,
And soon I shall "peg" out.
I'm thinking of the better days,
Before I left my home;
Before my brain with gold was crazed,
And I began to roam.
Those were the days, no more are seen,
When all the girls loved me;
When I did dress in linen clean,
They washed and cooked for me.
But awful change is this to tell,
I wash and cook myself;
I never more shall cut a swell,
But here must dig for pelf.
I ne'er shall lie in clean white sheets,
But in my blankets roll;
An oh! the girls I thought so sweet,
They think me but a fool.
"MINING THE MINERS"
Miners moved around, which led to a proliferation of mining camps and small towns with stores, saloons, boarding houses, and restaurants throughout the mountains. It soon became apparent to a growing number that the way to make money was not to work in the mines but to sell something or provide a service to the miners, a practice known as "mining the miners."
“From present accounts from California there is much suffering, little success, and great chagrin…. I am convinced that digging is not the way to make money there. It is to trade.” – George Swain, 1850
“The interior of [Sutter’s Fort] … was converted into stores, where every description of goods was to be purchased at gold-mine prices. Flour was selling at $60 per barrel, pork at $150 per barrel, sugar at 25 cents per pound, and clothing at the most enormous and unreasonable rates.” – E. Gould Buffum, 1848
GETTING TO THE GOLD
The first men to arrive in the gold fields in 1848 walked the streams and easily found gold lying on the surface that had been washing down from the surrounding hills and mountains for centuries. As more people arrived in the gold fields, surface gold became harder to find, forcing miners to expend intensive labor and use special equipment to extract gold. These devices varied in size and complexity, but could easily be moved to the next spot to be worked.
"A BOND OF PERPETUITY"
The completion of the transcontinental railroad in 1869 helped to strengthen the political and physical bond between the eastern and western United States. Prior to the railroad it took months for people and goods to travel from coast to coast, but afterwards, it took about a week at a fraction of the cost of going by wagon. This ended the need for the California Trail as a major mode of transportation.
In 1860 and 1861 the transcontinental telegraph was constructed along much of the California Trail, and a portion of it followed the route of the Overland Trail through Nevada. Through coded electrical impulses, the telegraph allowed private businesses and the federal government to conduct business from coast to coast within hours. Before the telegraph, business transactions took weeks or months to complete.
“I announce to you that the telegraph to California has this day been completed. May it be a bond of perpetuity between the states of the Atlantic and those of the Pacific.” – Horace W. Carpentier to President Abraham Lincoln, October 24, 1861
“Together, the transcontinental railroad and the telegraph made modern America possible.” – Stephen E. Ambrose, Nothing Like it in the World (2000)
THE DARK SIDE OF THE BRIGHT METAL
The glory of gold mining came at great cost. Gold created opportunities for some people to amass great wealth while others became poor. The wholesale depletion of habitat and resources wreaked havoc on the natural resource. The cultural environment suffered as well. Epidemic disease, disrupted local conditions, and acts of violence devastated American Indian cultures, reducing the once-plentiful tribes to a few scattered bands. Mexican inhabitants of the region were rapidly displaced by American urban development. Chinese laborers were exploited and taxed for working in the mines.
"AMERICA ... THROWS HER LIFE TOWARD SACRAMENTO"
All aspects of American life felt the impact of the gold rush. Connecting East to West became a prime political issue that helped promote rapid advances in communications and transportation.
Gold mining necessitated the creation of roads, seaports, cities, and businesses to support the growing populations and industry in California. California's admittance into the Union in 1850 extended American sovereignty from Coast to Coast.
“On, on, stay not for those who linger; on, on, look not for those behind…. America with one heave throws her life toward Sacramento.” – Charles B. Darwin, 1849
1841 - Bidwell-Bartleson Party opened California Trail
1848 - Mexico ceded California to U.S. in Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo
1849-52 - Peak gold rush years
1860 - Pony Express begins service April 3
1861 - Transcontinental telegraph begins operation October 24
1869 - Transcontinental railroad completed May 10
This log building play station is available to anyone to try their hand at designing and constructing log structures. There are log building kits available in the gift shop.
The following three pictures are displayed on the log building play table.
IT'S YOUR TRAIL TOO
Congress passed the National Trail System Act in 1968. Today the National Trail System includes National Scenic Trails and National Historic Trails. The California National Historic Trail was added to the system in 1992 to commemorate the efforts of those who struggled to open the trails to California between 1841 and 1869.
Parts of the California Trail as well as many other trails are found on both public and private lands. As a result the federal government works in partnership with many land owners, private trail advocate groups, state governments and municipalities, in a joint effort to preserve and protect the California Trail.
Preservation efforts include building interpretive trail centers, mapping and marking trails, placing monuments on the trails, holding conventions along different parts of the trail, conducting interpretive and education programs, and publishing trail related histories, trail maps and guide books. To learn more about these efforts contact the front desk.
EXPLORE THE TRAIL
Retrace the footsteps of the emigrants. View the landscapes they viewed. Stand in the places where they made life and death decisions. Experience the California Trail for yourself.
Visit numerous places across Northern Nevada where original California trail ruts can be seen. A system of historic pullouts and waysides is being developed - Contact Trail Center staff for details.
Learn more about the locations and quotes on more than 600 Trails West T-markers in our Trails West Markers section of the app.
This is a photomosaic of pictures taken during the development and construction of the Trail Center, assembled to depict a wagon crossing the Great Basin.