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California Gold Rush

Researching California Gold Rush Ancestors

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It was 24 January 1848, almost two years before California became a state, when gold was first discovered at John Sutter’s saw mill. Word of the strike spread slowly at first, but by October 1848 had reached as far as England, reported on the fourth page of the London Times. Within months, prospectors from around the world were descending upon California in droves. Tens of thousands of gold-seekers and merchants arrived during 1849, hence the term 'Forty-Niners.'

While most of the newly arrived were Americans, the California gold fields also attracted prospectors from from Europe, Asia, Latin America and Australia. The 1849 California gold boom stimulated worldwide interest in prospecting for gold, directly leading to discoveries in Canada, Australia, South Africa, Wales, Scotland and New Zealand.

No official records list the names of these gold rush fortune-seekers but records can be found both online and off in diaries, letters, and Californian newspapers that list new arrivals.

1. California State Library: Gold Rush

This digital online exhibit tells the story of the California Gold Rush through examples drawn from the California State Library's extensive manuscript collections. Online documents include maps, photographs, letters, diaries, bills of sale, mining claims, broadsides, stock certificates, and even guide books written for would-be gold seekers in England, France, Australia and Germany.

2. California Bound

Search or browse transcriptions taken from select East Coast newspapers of passenger lists for ships and wagon trains departing for California between 1848-1873. Originally the work of John Ireland, and now maintained by SFgenealogy.

3. "California as I Saw It" First-Person Narratives of CA's Early Years, 1849–1900

More than 190 digitized works, representing approximately 40,000 pages and including more than 3,000 illustrations, contain first-person accounts from the time of the Gold Rush and California statehood through the turn of the century. From the Library of Congress.

4. Robinson (Elrie) Collection, California Gold Rush Research Materials

This manuscript collection at the Louisiana State University Library in Baton Rouge consists of research materials gathered by Elrie Robinson in his study of the California Gold Rush and Louisiana residents who participated.

5. Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library

Digital collections at the Beinecke Library at Yale University include several hundred gold rush photographs, letters, and diaries. Additional gold rush items are available in collections that have not been digitized.

6. Paper Trail

The Oregon-California Trails Association (OCTA) created the Paper Trail website to provide online access to a searchable index of letters, diaries, and other documents detailing the travel experiences of overland pioneers headed to Oregon, California, Utah, and Montana for land or gold. Results include names, places and a brief description. The database also includes a list of libraries where the original historic documents may be found.

7. The Argonauts of California by a Pioneer C. W. Haskins

The second half of this transcription of an 1890 publication by C. W. Haskins includes lists of over 27,000 names extracted from pioneer associations and 1849 passenger lists.

8. The Pioneer Steamer California 1849–1849

Passenger lists can be found in this online transcription by Jeanne Sturgis Taylor from the book Pioneer Steamer California 1849–1849 by By Victor M. Berthold, Ph.D.

9. California Notes: Gold Mining

Charles Beebe Turrill (1854–1927), a California historian, published the book California Notes to encourage California tourism. This section about gold mining, provides a handy guide to the terms and procedures used by miners.

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