On this day in 1848, Polk confirmed the discovery of gold in California through his State of the Union address. In doing so, Polk officially kicked off the Californian gold rush.
Through the Mexican-American War, the United States acquired California earlier on in 1848. In January of that year, James W. Marshall found flecks of gold lying in a river bed at Sutter’s Mill (about 60 kilometres northeast of Sacramento). While Marshall intended to keep this discovery a secret, rumours soon spread across America and overseas. Many initially believed that the rumours emanating from California were hoaxes and falsehoods. In his State of the Union address on December 5th, 1848 however, (then referred to as the ‘Annual Message to Congress’ and delivered in written form, not as a verbal speech before Congress as it is today), President Polk proclaimed:
“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 and derived the facts which they detail from personal observation.”
Now that the American government had now officially confirmed the presence of tremendous amounts of gold in California, the rush started. From 1848 to 1855, 300000 gold speculators (known today as the ’49ers, after the year they begin arriving) would find themselves in California, originating from elsewhere in America and all over the world. Early on, huge nuggets of gold could be found on the ground. As more and more gold became collected however, people began panning for gold in the water, hoping for that one big lode that would make them rich. While some speculators became extremely rich from gold found in California, for the majority of the ’49ers, they left California with little more than what they came with.
The gold rush would have tremendous consequences for both California and America. From the massive population influx into California, San Francisco transformed a sleepy town on the Bay with a population of 200 in 1846 to a bustling boomtown of 36000 by 1852. The tremendous population growth and natural wealth in the area also resulted in California becoming the 31st state in the Union in 1850. It is not surprising then that California’s nickname remains ‘the Golden State’, alluding to the influence of the gold rush in shaping the history of the state. The gold rush caught the eye of Americans towards the western frontier, and consequently, contributed greatly to the westward movement of Americans, not only to California, but throughout the American West. It was Polk’s confirmation of gold in California that kickstarted the gold rush, and in doing so forever shaped Californian and American history.