Negative Effects of the Gold Rush in California

The Gold Rush occurred between 1849 and 1874 in California, where over a billion dollars of gold was unearthed from the ground. There was an influx of people who hoped to benefit from this fortune which affected the economic, social and political development in California. James Marshall first discovered gold in Coloma, and initially it was treated like a secret, however it was later leaked by laborers who worked at the sawmill. The rumors of the gold availability spread further raising the number of adventurers in the area. The industrialization of California was achieved out of the discovery of gold, but there are various parties who paid the greater price for this achievement.

Out of all the negative affects the Gold Rush had, the most prevalent must be the environmental affects, which can still be seen today. The extraction of gold was done using high-pressured water cannons that were used to wash hillsides, causing the mercury to trap the available gold, but allowing the soil to be washed away.

Mountains were stripped of their sediment and vegetation, while other pieces of earth were being washed. There was an adjustment on the environmental conditions of the region due to this unnatural method of erosion. The use of hydraulic-mining was one of the aspects which made the industrialization to be costly as far as environmental conservation was concerned. For example, the mercury that was released during this process was recirculated back into the atmosphere, water, and soil. Furthermore, rivers and streams were redirected from their natural routes to the mining sites up to the northern part of the state.

This method affected the marine life to the point where California’s fish have been noted to have significant amount of mercury that has negative effects on the health of local people.

Related to the environmental degradation, was the establishment of forty-niners within California, which included villages and towns and other hastily-developed settlements. Even though the permanent cities still exist today, many of the villages were abandoned at the end of Gold Rush. The negative impact of California’s need to diversify its industrialization from the revenue generated from gold could also be seen within the farming settlements. Though farming communities benefited from improved economic prosperity during the Gold Rush since the demand for food products among miners increased, the newly established settlements had impacts on farmland while mining activities compromised the quality of agricultural land.

The construction of dams, for example the English Dam located at Nevada County had positive effects on water reservation and supply within California. However, the dams, which were focused on helping water supply the gold mines, made significant changes in the river courses. Apart from threatened agricultural activities within the Central Valley due to clogged lakes and riverbeds, conflicts also emerged between farming and mining interests. The Sawyer Decision of 1884 was established to solve the conflict and ended the hydraulic mining. Another major issue that was brought about by gold mining was high demand for wood, that was required to fuel boilers used in the mines, in addition to building extensive canal systems.

The increased demand for lumber resulted in the creation of the logging industry, which in turn led to massive destruction of the forests, lowering the level of agricultural practices.

The 1848 to 1855 Gold Rush period caused an environmental damage that is yet to be entirely examined even today.

The explosives that were used during the underground mining resulted in tons of shattered stones and toxic materials which remain harmful to the water sources within California. According to Elizabeth Martin, the executive director of a Nevada based environmental group known as Sierra Fund, California is much concerned about the level of mercury that emanated from gold mining, since it was used to extract gold from stones and quartz. Likewise, it was noted that once the mercury got mentholated, it is biologically available and once it accumulates in the food products, it becomes a health hazard. A survey in Nevada County performed by the United States Geological Department noted significant levels of mercury in fish that is higher than what is regarded safe for human consumption by the Environmental Protection Agency.

Not only did the Gold Rush take a physical toll on the land, but it affected those who had lived their originally. The discovery of gold in California was not initially opposed by the Native Americans, since they did not recognize any negative implications on the area and the social development. Originally, Native Americans were hired by the white miners to prepare and pan the gold on their behalf. Nevertheless, as the rumors of gold discovery spread across the region, miners came from other areas especially from Oregon. As a result, the relation between the natives and miners started to deteriorate, an aspect that was portrayed by the rising hostilities as the two groups crashed with each other. In addition, the discovery of gold brought about excitement.

The large volume of immigrants who wanted to benefit from the gold led to an increase of population, resulting in the disregard of land reservations and prior treaties.

One of the effects of new immigrants was pushing their way into existing land, and forcing the natives to vacate. Those who resisting faced further hostilities. As the result of the Gold Rush, majority of natives were forced out of the state while others were killed, leaving few people in the area that at one time it had the largest population of Native Americans within the United States.

As the number of foreigners increased in California, most of the hiding places which were valued by the natives were destroyed. On their part, the natives raided the mining camps as they sought for food items. Instead of the state government supporting the natives, it gave support to American miners, resulting in war parties targeting native groups. Besides, the ecological negativities brought about by mining, the natives groups were subjected to legal disadvantages which further deteriorated their situation. For example, in 1850, California legislature passed the Act for the Government and Protection of Indians that limited the right of native people to testify in court and allowed white Californians and Americans to treat native groups as indentured servants.

The imposition of American rule in California changed the fortunes of most Californians since it gradually made them lose land, authority and power. The Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo ended the war between the US and Mexico and gave Californians full United States citizenship in addition to guaranteeing the natives that their property will be respected. Nevertheless, through the informality of Mexican land grants, it was not possible for natives after squatters, miners and homesteaders raided Californians lands and property.

The ecological domino impact triggered by the California Gold Rush also affected the social development of the region. As indicated earlier, the indigenous population of California had to pay the prices of allowing immigrants and adventurers to visit the region, since they were anticipating more benefits than negativities from the mining process. Prior to the influx of the Spanish, Lora (2016) notes that native population stood at 275,000 to 300,000 people. Just sometime before the Gold Rush, the number dropped to 150,000 and by 1870, the population was estimated to be 30,000 people. One of the notable impacts of the Gold Rush was the admission of California to the Union. This made the federal government to engage in road construction within the west after the civil war.

Nevertheless, the construction interfered with the native population and territories making them to feel more devastated.

The Gold Rush had a drastic result in the industrialization of California, particularly due to increased number of related industries. As more foreign investors aimed at utilizing the resources found in the state entered California, mass immigration of people, especially from China, led to increased population within the region. This led to the emergence of xenophobia and racism against the people of Chinese origin. The establishment of Chinese-Expulsion Act of 1882 limited the entry of Chinese to the United States. Other notable social impacts of the Gold Rush included a sudden increase in population especially for areas where the municipal governance had no significant control. The population explosion brought about various vices such as prostitution and theft within the households and mining areas.

The industrialization of California was important for the region, but the ecology paid the greatest price. Even though during the Gold Rush, dams were used to preserve water in the state, river currents were changed and redirected. The Gold Rush led to environmental damage that still remains a challenge even today. California is much concerned about the level of mercury that emanated from gold mining, since it was used to extract gold from stones and quartz. A survey in Nevada County noted significant levels of mercury in fish that is higher than what is regarded safe for human consumption by the Environmental Protection Agency.

The Gold Rush also had negative impacts on natives since they lost their productive lands to foreigners and miners, without getting any support from the state government. Socially, gold mining led to stiff competition for social needs as the population increased, an aspect that did not only create pressure on the available land, but also it resulted in moral issues within California. Overall, there were many negative impacts that arose from the industrialization of California, however it is clear that the environment paid the greatest price.

References

  1. Andrew Isenberg. Mining California: An ecological History. New York: Hill and Wang, 2006.
  2. Brands, W. The Age of Gold: The California Gold Rush and the New American Dream. New York: Anchor Books, 2003.
  3. Goudie, Andrew. The Human Impact on the Natural Environment. Cambridge, Massachusetts: This MIT Press, 2000.
  4. Limerick, Nelson. The Gold Rush and the Shaping of the American West. California History vol. 77 (1998): 10-21.
  5. Neri Salvadori, Pasquale Commendatore, Massimo Tamberi. Geography, structural Change and Economic Development: Theory and Empirics. New York: Edward Elgar Publishing, 2014.
  6. Reeves, Keir; Frost, Lionel; Fahey, Charles. Integrating the Historiography of the Nineteenth-Century Gold Rushes. Australian Economic History Review (2000) 50 (2):13-34.