Tennesseans in the California Gold Rush

The discovery of gold in California in 1848 inspired at least four or five thousand young Tennesseans to cross the country. Many of them, rejected for service in the Mexican War because of the overabundance of volunteers, saw this as a chance to enjoy the adventure denied them in 1846. Others, who had gone to war, viewed the gold rush as an opportunity to see and exploit the lands acquired as a result of their conquest.

Most of the early forty-niners made the crossing in companies organized to pool their resources and share the risks of travel. Coming from communities all across the state, most were young men who expected to collect their riches in one or two years and return home. The few women who undertook the journey usually went with their families and planned to settle and remain in the West.

Tennesseans usually followed one of two routes to California. Overland travelers began the crossing at one of the Arkansas or Missouri outfitting towns. The faster route involved traveling by ship across the Gulf to the Isthmus of Panama, traversing the Isthmus, and sailing to San Francisco. The overland crossings remained remarkably free of notice from the Native Americans whose lands they crossed, but the western deserts and the Sierra Nevada regularly brought suffering and death. The Isthmus passage was easier, but seasickness, shipboard inactivity, and inadequate diets also took a toll.

Tennessee miners discovered that extracting gold was backbreaking work, typically yielding meager results. Most of their success came from working “placers,” or deposits of loose gravel in stream beds. Several Tennessee companies tried “quartz mining,” the recovery of bits of gold from quartz rock, but the process was so inefficient that most had abandoned quartz operations by the mid-1850s. Later, the development of efficient stamping mills and improved methods of separating the gold from pulverized rock reignited interest in quartz mining. The new developments were capital intensive, however, and few forty-niners were able to take advantage of them.

Like others, Tennesseans fared poorly in the mines, and most returned home with little or no money. The gold rush was a vastly different experience for many who remained in California and amassed fortunes from ventures in agriculture, real estate, banking, and commerce.

Tennesseans made important contributions to the development of California statehood and government. Peter Hardeman Burnett, who had come to the nearby Oregon territory in 1846, hastened to the gold country and chaired several public meetings that led to the convention that organized the state of California and called for election of its officials. He received vital support from William McKendree Gwin, who had left Washington, D.C., with the personal goal of seeing California become a state and himself one of its two U.S. senators. Gwin was the undisputed leader of the convention, and when the state was organized, he was elected to his first of four terms in the U.S. Senate, becoming California’s most powerful political leader. Burnett won election as the first governor. He appointed William Van Voorhies secretary of state, and the general assembly elected Richard Roman state treasurer. In addition to these former Tennesseans, two of the original sixteen-member state Senate, David F. Douglass and W. R. Bassham, came from the Volunteer State. Voters chose Jack Hays and Ben McCullough, former Texas Rangers, but both native Tennesseans, to be the first sheriffs of San Francisco and Sacramento Counties, respectively. Other Tennesseans filled offices at all levels of California government.

Suggested Reading

Walter T. Durham, Volunteer Forty-Niners: Tennesseans and the California Gold Rush (1997)

Citation Information

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  • Article Title Tennesseans in the California Gold Rush
  • Author
  • Website Name Tennessee Encyclopedia
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  • Access Date July 20, 2024
  • Publisher Tennessee Historical Society
  • Original Published Date
  • Date of Last Update March 1, 2018