1849 California Gold Rush: A Tempting Opportunity

Feature Image Source Library of Congress

Image 1: 1849 Map of the United States, British Provinces, and Mexico

Source Library of Congress

Context: The map shows “U.S. mail steam packets to California”. These are the routes that steam powered packet boats traveled via rivers and canals to transport mail across the country. The term “packet ship” originated from boats that were employed to transport post office mail (paquette) packets to and from European colonies. The term stuck and thus, packet boats were used in the United States throughout the 18th and 19th centuries to transport mail. This was the first time that packet boats were being advertised to travel to the West Coast.

Image 2: Illustration of San Francisco 1846

Source Library of Congress

Context: It has been estimated that Northern California was one of the most populated regions in North America prior to European conquest and the massacre of Native populations regarding disease, slavery and war. This illustration depicts the San Francisco peninsula (Montgomery Street) in 1846. This was after the Spanish mission had already commenced, and prior to the gold rush era. 

Image 3: Illustration of San Francisco 1878

Source Library of Congress

Context: This illustration originally published in 1878 depicts “The city of San Francisco. Birds eye view from the bay looking south-west.” After the surge of migrants to California in 1849, San Francisco’s landscape saw drastic change through its development of infrastructure such as streets, wharfs, buildings, etc. San Francisco’s catastrophic fire of 1906 forced the city to recreate an entirely new grid system, which is how the city is organized today. 

Questions for Students:

  1. How might the 1849 map of United States have persuaded Americans living on the East Coast to migrate to California?
  2. How is the 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo represented in this map, and how was it pivotal in shaping the future of the United States?
  3. Do you think the 1878 Illustration of San Francisco was accurate? What might have been some of the environmental impacts that the gold rush brought with it? What impacts on native populations did the gold rush bring with it?

Instructional Goals and Model Answers

The learner will evaluate why the map and illustrations were created, and provide an opinion on the reliability of such resources. 

Question 1: Prior to the 1840s, there were no formal methods of organizing mail to reach the West Coast. It would be astonishing to see a formal publication supporting the reality that now, there will be regular mail steam packets traveling to and from California. This would further encourage young men to commit their lives to the California Gold rush; providing them with an opportunity to communicate and send money to their families elsewhere in the country. 

Question 2: The 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo was pivotal in the shaping of the US with regard to its confirmation of the United States’ ability for expansion. After the treaty was signed, Americans on the East coast felt less likely to encounter violence on their journey westward. The Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo supported the United States idea of manifest destiny, and occurred during a time that was supportive of the masses migrating to California; the treaty was coincidentally signed one year before prospectors noticed ample amounts of gold in the Sacramento area.

Question 3: Considering that the population of San Francisco grew from about 1,000 people in 1848, to over 25,000 in December of 1849, I would agree that by 1878 the illustration depicts an accurate representation of the San Francisco peninsula. The advances in development presented in the illustrations prove to be accurate with regard to the attention that San Francisco received during the 1849 Gold Rush; a multitude of boats in the harbor, crowded streets, etc. The large influx of American migrants aided California’s admission into the Union as the 31st state. This large influx of European descended migrants also brought disease, which in turn, negatively affected whatever native population was left after their losses from the Spanish’ missions.

5 Replies to “1849 California Gold Rush: A Tempting Opportunity”

  1. Great usage of sources and questions, Jacob! It’s really interesting to see how different the depictions of San Francisco were, just 20 years apart. I agree with how you answered the questions—the influx of people to San Francisco is staggering when you look at the numbers. The visual representations cement this! Once again, great job!

  2. Nice work, Jacob! This is an awesome subject, especially for someone from Northern California. Similar to San Francisco, we had a pretty massive gold rush in Yreka. I always loved seeing the influence on their history that the gold rush had. Lots of neat museums and old dig sites to see. It seems like California history in general has always been about floods of people coming in, and then the state finding some way to make the huge influx of people possible. I feel like your piece really captures that! It was a very interesting read.

    1. I enjoy your comment on California’s ability to find ways to make large influx’ of people possible! I spent last winter in Lake Tahoe and witnessed a TON of folks trying to move to the East side of the state from California’s large west coast cities. The housing market is so expensive there it’s hard to comprehend! I love California but there really are too many people there!

  3. Wow, this is a strong message! The map of the “packet” ships is real interesting, I never knew about them. I also like that you incorporated the Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo. The Mexican-American War was a pivotal moment in the westward expansion era, and the idea of manifest destiny certainly helped to push people to settle in California and unfortunately push those who had been there for a very long time out. No one will have courage to undermine the sovereignty of you post!

  4. A well curated selection of artifacts. All three have many details that students could more closely explore. Your questions and model responses are engaging and would lead students to higher level thinking about the impact of Gold Rush on the era. I especially like the contrast in two SF maps. Startling to see the growth.

    BTW: There are some wonderful packet boat / clipper ship adverts from the era. All stress their speed.
    California Clipper Advert

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