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12.5: Manifest Destiny and the Gold Rush

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  • California, belonging to Mexico prior to the war, was at least three arduous months’ travel from the nearest American settlements. There was some sparse settlement in the Sacramento Valley, and missionaries made the trip occasionally. The fertile farmland of Oregon, like the black dirt lands of the Mississippi Valley, attracted more settlers than California. Dramatized stories of Indian attacks filled migrants with a sense of foreboding, although most settlers encountered no violence and often no Indians at all. The slow progress, disease, human and oxen starvation, poor trails, terrible geographic preparations, lack of guidebooks, threatening wildlife, vagaries of weather, and general confusion were all more formidable and frequent than Indian attacks. Despite the harshness of the journey, by 1848 approximately twenty thousand Americans were living west of the Rockies, with about three fourths of that number in Oregon.

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    Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\): The great environmental and economic potential of the Oregon Territory led many to pack up their families and head west along the Oregon Trail. The Trail represented the hopes of many for a better life, represented and reinforced by images like Bierstadt’s idealistic Oregon Trail. Albert Bierstadt, Oregon Trail (Campfire), 1863. Wikimedia.

    Many who moved nurtured a romantic vision of life, attracting more Americans who sought more than agricultural life and familial responsibilities. The rugged individualism and military prowess of the West, encapsulated for some by service in the Mexican war, drew a growing new breed west of the Sierra Nevada to meet with the Californians already there: a breed of migrants different from the modest agricultural communities of the near West.

    If the great draw of the West served as manifest destiny’s kindling, then the discovery of gold in California was the spark that set the fire ablaze. Most western settlers sought land ownership, but the lure of getting rich quick drew younger single men (with some women) to gold towns throughout the West. These adventurers and fortune-seekers then served as magnets for the arrival of others providing services associated with the gold rush. Towns and cities grew rapidly throughout the West, notably San Francisco, whose population grew from about five hundred in 1848 to almost fifty thousand by 1853. Lawlessness, predictable failure of most fortune seekers, racial conflicts, and the slavery question all threatened manifest destiny’s promises.

    On January 24, 1848, James W. Marshall, a contractor hired by John Sutter, discovered gold on Sutter’s sawmill land in the Sacramento Valley area of the California Territory. Throughout the 1850s, Californians beseeched Congress for a transcontinental railroad to provide service for both passengers and goods from the Midwest and the East Coast. The potential economic benefits for communities along proposed railroads made the debate over the route rancorous. Growing dissent over the slavery issue also heightened tensions.

    The great influx of diverse people clashed in a combative and aggrandizing atmosphere of individualistic pursuit of fortune.36 Linguistic, cultural, economic, and racial conflict roiled both urban and rural areas. By the end of the 1850s, Chinese and Mexican immigrants made up one fifth of the mining population in California. The ethnic patchwork of these frontier towns belied a clearly defined socioeconomic arrangement that saw whites on top as landowners and managers, with poor whites and ethnic minorities working the mines and assorted jobs. The competition for land, resources, and riches furthered individual and collective abuses, particularly against Indians and older Mexican communities. California’s towns, as well as those dotting the landscape throughout the West, such as Coeur D’Alene in Idaho and Tombstone in Arizona, struggled to balance security with economic development and the protection of civil rights and liberties.

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    Figure \(\PageIndex{2}\): This cartoon depicts a highly racialized image of a Chinese immigrant and Irish immigrant “swallowing” the United States–in the form of Uncle Sam. Networks of railroads and the promise of American expansion can be seen in the background. “The great fear of the period That Uncle Sam may be swallowed by foreigners : The problem solved,” 1860-1869. Library of Congress.

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