By Matt Cutugno
Indio, CA, USA

When gold was discovered at John Sutter’s sawmill, he tried to keep it a secret. This occurred late in January of 1848. A week later the Mexican-American War ended and the entire Southwest was ceded to the United States. It didn’t take long for word of the precious metal to get out. A visitor to the mill brought the news from the foothills of Sierra Nevada to San Francisco, then eventually to New York. After that, Sutter would have had more luck pushing back the ocean with a broom than stopping what happened. 

Gold ruined Sutter. He had obtained land in California from Mexico upon which he built the settlement that would become Coloma. Protection for settlers was provided by a great adobe structure named Sutter’s Fort. He used Indians to work agricultural fields and the aforementioned sawmill was in full operation. News of the discovery resulted in his land being overrun by fortune seekers and the fort being abandoned. 

Matt Cutugno

They called it “The Gold Rush.” That was an understatement. It was a wild stampede, a raging torrent, a tsunami of greed. Whatever its name, its effect on California and our country was a game-changer. 

The statistics: the population of non-natives in the entire territory went from some 14,000 before the discovery to 85,000 – in one year. San Francisco had a thousand inhabits before the War; by 1849, there were 25,000. The trend continued as 80,000 intrepid souls came to the West coast the following year and 90,000 more the year after that. Immigrants arrived from all over the world, many coming from China – 20,000 in one year alone. The Chinese called California Gum San (Gold Mountain), and their presence would forever alter the demographics of the land. 

The statistics are somber for native peoples. In 1750, under Spanish rule, there were some 300,000 Indians, one hundred years later, there were half that. Surely disease took its toll as indigenous people had no protection from smallpox or measles. But the majority of Indians died at the hands of settlers, miners, and soldiers. Thousands were taken into forced labor, most would die of disease and abuse. The State of California used its institutions to favor settlers' rights.  

The Gold Rush of 1848 casts a dark shadow on our nation’s history. Some go so far as to refer to it as part of the California Genocide. That highly charged phrase brings the topic into modern parlance and feeds our collective guilt. It is in vogue to judge the past by current sensibilities. 

Gold did not originate in California, nor did atrocities. Two hundred years earlier, Spanish Conquistadors slew unarmed Aztecs for their gold. Rome destroyed Carthage in part to control the mineral wealth of Hispania. The Tierra del Fuego Gold Rush in Chile saw miners from all over the Latin-European world flock there to gather riches. The subsequent boom wiped out the local indigenous population. Gold rushes have happened throughout time, all over the world, and none have been sinless. 

Now two hundred years after the facts, California is ethnically and culturally our most diverse state. History swirls, sometimes stirred by ill-intent, but when it settles, resultant changes seem natural in the course of time.

We can learn from history without berating ourselves that it happened. 



Matt Cutugno is an Amazon bestselling author and a frequent contributor to Stay Thirsty Magazine. His latest Western, The Godless Times, the third book in his Tarnished Star series, was published in December 2019.

All opinions expressed are solely those of its author and do not reflect the opinions of Stay Thirsty Media, Inc.