The 49ers, the Yukon, Fraser River—where I come from, these names evoke images of dirty men, digging and panning feverishly, in hopes of striking it rich. I was poking around a little this week, pondering sending one of my younger Frontier Bachelors to a gold rush, when I discovered research gold. You see, the nineteenth century truly panned out as a mother lode of gold rushes, and not just in the American and Canadian West with which I was familiar.
Turns out, people have been rushing after gold across the world for centuries. As early as the late 1600s/early 1700s, adventurers discovered gold in the Portuguese colony of Brazil. According to some sources, nearly half a million Portuguese were drawn to the area in hopes of leaving wealthy.
The first major gold rush in the United States was a result of a 12-year-old boy’s fascination with treasure. Conrad Reed found a 17-pound gold nugget in 1799 and brought it home. It must not have looked much like gold, for his parents used it as a doorstop for three years. Only when the boy’s father took the rock to a jeweler did he realize his son’s so-called treasure really was gold. And that set off more than 30 years of panning, placer mining, and even deep vein mining in the area.
Next up was Georgia in 1828. The Blue Ridge Mountains had been rumored to be the site of Spanish mining from the 1600s, but no one had been sure of the location of the mines. Nuggets found in various creeks resulted in boom towns springing up. At one time, inhabitants numbered more than 10,000 (the population of Washington, D.C. was only a little more than 13,000 at the time and was the ninth largest city in America).
The 1840s and 1850s saw gold rushes in California, British Columbia, Colorado, Nevada, and Australia. Idaho, northeast Washington, New Zealand, Arizona, Montana, and Oregon followed in the 1860s.
Gold mining flourished in Wales from 1862, with up to 10,000 prospectors journeying into the area. In 1868, gold fever hit the Scottish Highlands. Finland and South Africa followed, with South Dakota and Wyoming right behind. 1883 saw a gold rush in distant Tierra del Fuego, with people coming from all over the world to participate. They built the first towns in the area. Finally, near the turn of the century, the Yukon and Alaska beckoned, with more than 100,000 prospectors all told.
All in all, those following the gold rushes settled new lands and pushed back the frontier. They left parents, wives, sweethearts behind. Some made their fortunes in the rich mineral deposits. Others made their fortunes selling supplies to the needy miners. Unfortunately, they also drove out indigenous peoples and, in some cases, started wars.
All for the sparkle of gold.