What could be more American than the gold rush? Well, here are four of them. California's was not the first nor the last.
Earlier Gold Rushes
While the 1849 Gold Rush is the one we capitalize, it was not the first gold rush. That one happened in North Carolina starting in 1803. Not even coin collectors may know about that one, because unlike later gold rushes no federal mint was established there at the time. Nevertheless, all of America's gold coinage from 1804 to 1828 was Carolina gold, shipped to Philadelphia for minting.
The next gold rush happened in the hills of Georgia in 1828, in Cherokee country near the town of Dahlonega. A mint was duly established there, and the original "D" mint mark is found on coins from 1838 to 1861. A gold museum is there today, and historical markers around Lumpkin County point out mine after extinct mine. Another mint opened in Charlotte at this time to serve the mature gold mines of the Carolinas.
The California Gold Rush
We're all taught that early in 1848, on the 24th of January, James Marshall found gold nuggets in the flume of the water-driven mill he was building in Coloma, California Territory. The news took a while to build steam, but once it did California was swiftly transformed, and the "Forty-Niner" entered the world's folklore. The Marshall Gold Discovery State Historic Park site has a good summary of the events of that day.
There were parallels between Georgia and California. Hordes of outsiders poured in, stripped the land of the easy gold, and pushed out the original inhabitants. Soon the romantic—and destructive—prospectors and panners gave way to organized mining firms, which won the bulk of the wealth. A federal mint was established in both states to turn the gold dust into legal tender—Dahlonega's turned out gold coinage with the "D" mint mark until the Civil War began, and San Francisco's still makes specimen coins today with the "S" mark. (The original San Francisco mint is a cherished landmark building that survived the 1906 earthquake and fire, safeguarding its supply of money and helping fund the recovery.)
Later Gold Rushes
Lesser gold rushes over the next half-century left their traces elsewhere in the American West, in Nevada, Oregon, Colorado and Utah. The Colorado gold rush began in 1859, and many former Forty-Niners, themselves former "twenty-eighters," set up diggings there. More natives were displaced, and another mint arose in Denver (again with the "D" mark) that still operates today. Some old coins bear a "CC" from the short-lived mint in Carson City, Nevada, which was not just a gold rush but a silver rush.
But the classic gold rush ended with the turn of the century, starting in 1898 in the Klondike district of the Canadian Yukon and neighboring Alaska. This is the one that Charlie Chaplin reenacted in the movie "The Gold Rush." Modern mining companies moved in quicker than ever, and the days of amateur gold hunters striking it rich ended. (North Ontario's major gold rush in 1910, for instance, was a fast-moving corporate affair.) By Chaplin's time, just a generation later, history had become farce. Instead, gold-rush history has become a kind of pay dirt, and sites all over the Web serve up choice nuggets about the Klondike's glory days.
Today the real money in gold belongs to serious miners, guided by serious geologists. Thus geology, the most practical science, creates the world's wealth, and that is why the seal of the U.S. Geological Survey features mining tools. Some companies still work the old gold-rush grounds, but most of the diggings are anonymous waste lands today.
PS: Many gold rush localities are fondly maintained today as attractive destinations for visitors and tourists. Try these: