- 1849 -
The Importance of the California Gold Rush to Canners
 

     In 1949, a very influential executive in the canning industry said “the canning industry in California owes more to the Gold Rush of ’49 than to any other single event in American history.”

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     After the word got out that there was gold in the Sierra Nevada Mountains in 1848, thousands of people traveled by boat or sea to try their luck as miners.  During the Gold Rush, there was no railroad built over the Sierra Nevada Mountains, so it was very difficult to get people and their goods to California.    

     Argonauts reached the gold mining areas in several ways.  Many took ships from all over the world.  As the closest port, San Francisco became a boomtown with thousands of people disembarking and searching for supplies.  From there, they took smaller boats on the rivers of the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta to reach the Sierra Nevada foothills.  Then, they had to walk or find a wagon to get themselves and all of their gear to gold mining camps in the mountains. 

     Other people from the East Coast or Midwest often walked while guiding wagons that held all of their worldly possessions.  Travelers had to be very careful about what they packed to make sure had enough to get them to California but not so much that it would slow them down.  There were very few places to get new supplies in the Great Plains or the semi-desert environment of West Texas, but too much weight in the wagons would tire out oxen too quickly.  The routes to California were strewn with the bones of livestock that did not make it to the golden state.

      During the early days of California’s Gold Rush, there was a shortage of food, lodging, and supplies because so many people flooded the area in a short amount of time.  The number of Spanish settlers was far fewer than the number of people who rushed to California during the Gold Rush.  Before the Gold Rush, there were about 6,000 non-native people in California.  In 1848, after gold was discovered, 14,000 people poured into the San Francisco and Sierra foothills region tripling the population.  In the next year, the population grew five times larger as 80,000 more people rushed to California to find gold.  By 1852, the population of non-native Californians had reached 200,000 people.  Existing local farmers could not produce enough food to feed everyone. 

     Savvy merchants took advantage of the needs of Argonauts.  Before the Gold Rush, Californian ranchers sold the hide and fat, called tallow, rather than meat from their cattle.  After the Gold Rush, they sold the meat to hungry Argonauts.  Merchants and traders ordered hardware supplies, canned vegetables, flour, pickles, beer, and almost everything people needed from the East.  Ships had to deliver all the supplies and food because there were no trains that went across America until the late 1860s. Argonauts.png

     When miners arrived in San Francisco, they often bought supplies in the city before sailing or walking to the gold camps in the Sierra Mountain foothills.  When food ran out, miners could hunt or fish but more often depended on merchants in the gold camps paying inflated prices because they did not want to waste time doing anything but panning for gold.  Clever entrepreneurs emerged in the gold camps just as in San Francisco.  Diaries from the era tell about women in gold mining areas who were more economically successful than their miner husbands were because they set up small kitchens and served hot meals to miners.  

     The Gold Rush faded in Northern California during the 1850s; more people began farms, built roads, and opened food-processing companies, such as small restaurants, bread factories, canneries, wineries, and dried fruit companies.  The new businesses had plenty to feed.  The rush turned into mass settlement of California, mining bonanzas in Nevada and Montana created markets for California food processors.

     If you want to learn more about the California Gold Rush, visit the Library of Congress collection California as I Saw It: First-Person Narratives of California's Early Years, 1849 to 1900.

Sources

A Golden State: Mining and Economic Development in Gold Rush California. Edited by James J. Rawls and Richard J. Orsi. California History Sesquicentennial Series. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999.

Rooted in Barbarous Soil: People, Culture, and Community in Gold Rush California. Edited by Kevin Starr and Richard J. Orsi. California History Sesquicentennial Series. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000.