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December 5, 1848 – President Polk Sparks the California Gold Rush

Posted December 05, 2016 3:00 PM by MaggieMc
Pathfinder Tags: December 5

On December 5, 1848, American President James K. Polk confirmed that large amounts of gold had been discovered in California. He is quoted as saying, “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.” This statement is widely regarded as the “spark” for the ’49 gold rush.

While it was nearly a year earlier on January 24, 1848 that James Wilson Marshall found flakes of gold in the American River, the hype that characterized the era did extend to the east until after President Polk’s address.

For American engineering, this day marks not only the “start” of the gold rush from the east, but also the beginning of American engineering being recognized on the global stage. According to Ronald H. Limbaugh, “Engineering as a profession was still in infancy at the mid-nineteenth century; those [Americans] who called themselves engineers were usually pragmatic, seat-of-the-pants technicians and mechanics with little former education.” This was in contrast to the engineers of Europe who looked down on the American “practical engineers” because their brand of engineering was not as “grounded in theoretical science and mathematics.”

All of this changed thanks to the “ingenuity and innovation” of American mining technology. In 1869, Rossiter Raymond, the nation’s second commissioner of mining statistics, noted “with pride that European metallurgists were now coming to the United States to learn from Americans, rather than the other way around.”

Many of the innovations attributed to the gold rush were not original; instead they were adaptation of “existing machines and methods to local conditions.” The process of hydraulic mining is one notable example of a process reinvented and altered into a “distinctly American process.”

Hydraulic mining, which uses “a powerful jet of water to dislodge minerals present in unconsolidated material,” was developed in bits and pieces across the mines of the west. The first successful nozzle is credited to Edward E. Matteson; however, his design was later improved on. This same fast-moving innovation characterized the period.

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Re: December 5, 1848 – President Polk Sparks the California Gold Rush

12/05/2016 7:41 PM

The nation's first 'gold rush' occurred when gold was discovered near Dahlonega, Georgia in 1828. (Pronounced: dah LON eh gah.) The gold was in an region occupied by many Indian tribes including the Cherokee. The Cherokee, by the way, had a highly advanced form of government based on the US Constitution. Nevertheless, the US Federal government wanted the land, and they forced the Indians to leave on the notorious 'Trail of Tears'.

When gold was subsequently discovered in California many of the prospectors began leaving Georgia for California, prompting a local official to persuade them to stay by pointing at the surrounding Georgia mountains and making the famous statement, "There's gold in them thar hills." *

*(The line was a misquote, but the misquote is what became famous.)

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Re: December 5, 1848 – President Polk Sparks the California Gold Rush

12/06/2016 8:22 AM

Interesting. I didn't know this! Mining is rarely mentioned as a cause for the Indian Removal Act but there are few more motivating causes than precious natural resources.

However, the U.S.'s first gold rush is arguably the Carolina Gold Rush, 1799.

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Re: December 5, 1848 – President Polk Sparks the California Gold Rush

12/06/2016 6:05 PM

I grew up in East TN and thought I knew a lot about the Cherokee's Trail of Tears ... but I didn't know about the Georgia Gold Rush's role in displacing them. Makes sense. Thanks for filling this lacuna.

Chief Sequoyah, who invented the Cherokee alphabet, is a symbol of my old high school. His profile was (maybe still is) on one side of our class rings.

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