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[Group of miners]

Group portrait of nine miners, all men. Four men stand at back, five men sit at front. Man at front right holds a book; two men sitting at front hold mining equipment, including a shovel.
circa 1850s
"[Group of miners], circa 1850s." Photograph. California Historical Society, Group of miners, 1849-1860, DAG 9G.

When gold was discovered in California, people from all around the United States, Europe, Asia, South America, and the Pacific Islands rushed to the mines hoping to find wealth. Look at this image of a party of Gold Rush miners. Although we do not know where this photo was taken, the men likely passed through San Francisco. The gold miners, or forty-niners, as they were called, were usually male, and most came from the eastern United States. Of course, with so many people looking for gold, there wasn’t enough to go around! Most of the forty-niners failed to find much gold and stayed poor. As competition for gold became fierce, white men from the eastern United States drove Chinese, Native American, and Hawaiian forty-niners from the gold fields. In later years, some white men killed so many Native Americans that there were only 15,000 left by 1900.

The Gold Rush dramatically changed California’s demographics. Before the discovery of gold, the territory’s population was approximately 160,000, the vast majority of whom were Native Americans. Because California belonged to Mexico until 1848, Californios made up the majority of the 14,000 non-Natives who lived there. By about 1855, more than 300,000 people had arrived; thousands of them were from South America or Asia, especially China, but the vast majority were from the eastern United States. By 1870, Hispanic people made up only 4 percent of the total population, and the Native American population declined dramatically to 15,000 by 1900. The gold miners were almost always male. In 1850, among non-Native Americans, only 1 in 12 was a woman. This demographic dynamic combined with socioeconomic factors led to many violent conflicts, crime, low morale, and, in most cases, impoverishment.