Dec. 5, 2022

President Polk Triggers the California Gold Rush

President Polk Triggers the California Gold Rush

December 5th, 1848: US President James K. Polk triggers the California Gold Rush by confirming discovery of gold at Sutter’s Mill.


Cold Open

It’s April 1846, near the disputed southern border between Mexico and America.

On a local ranch just north of the Rio Grande, American Captain Seth Thornton dismounts from his horse.

As he pets his exhausted steed’s neck, Thornton glances back at his band of about 60 dragoons, or mounted infantrymen. He’s led them here to this ranch to talk to some locals and find out if the rumors are true that a large Mexican Cavalry has crossed the Rio Grande into what he believes is American territory.

As he hands off his horse’s reins to a lieutenant, Thornton can see the looks he’s getting from some of the ranch hands. He knows he has to be careful in these parts. Most Mexicans do not agree that the vast region between the Nueces River and the Rio Grande is America’s domain. Most think it belongs to Mexico. And they resent the presence of any Americans here.

So Thornton gently pulls aside an old man at the ranch to ask him a few questions. But as they talk… Thornton hears shouts of alarm. He turns toward the ranch’s entrance and he's startled to see hundreds of Mexican cavalrymen pouring through the front gate. It seems the rumors are true, but Thornton has little time to process that fact. Instead, he quickly takes stock of his tactical situation. With fences on all sides of the ranch, Thornton and his dragoons are boxed in. His only course of action is to fight his way out.

Thornton mounts his horse, draws his saber, and orders his men to charge. As they close in… they’re met with a mighty volley of enemy fire.

Thornton has no choice but to abandon the charge and lead his men to the fence line, hoping to find some other way out. But as he draws near the fence… he’s met with more fire from Mexican cavalrymen swarming the perimeter of the ranch. In the midst of the onslaught… Thornton’s horse is struck by a Mexican bullet. It stumbles and collapses, falling on top of Thornton, pinning him to the ground. In a matter of moments, Thornton is surrounded by the enemy. And wracked with pain and trapped beneath his horse, Thornton realizes his only option now is surrender.

During the Thornton Skirmish, as this incident is known, 11 Americans are killed, 6 are wounded and several dozen are captured, including Captain Seth Thornton. But this violent encounter was inevitable. Earlier this year, US President James K. Polk sent a large force of US troops into the disputed territory, ostensibly to observe the actions of the Mexican Army in the region. But many felt Polk’s true objective was to provoke war with a weak Mexico and enlarge America’s territory.

President Polk is a believer in Manifest Destiny, the idea that America is fated, by God, to expand its domain. Beyond the disputed southern border, he also has his sights set on Nuevo Mexico and Alto California in the southwest, territories that Mexico won’t give up without a fight. But after the Thornton Affair, Polk has the justification he needs to ask Congress for an official declaration of hostilities. The ensuing Mexican-American War lasts until 1848 when America emerges victorious with new lands that expand across the entire North American continent. Still, many Americans are not enthusiastic over what seems like an obvious land grab.

Eventually, though, the tide of public opinion will change, and many Americans will begin to see the potential of this newly won American West. Because soon, the discovery of gold in California will spur a mass migration the likes of which has never been seen before. This so-called “Gold Rush” will be triggered when President James K. Polk gleefully announces the momentous discovery in Congress on this day, December 5th, 1848.


From Noiser and Airship, I’m Lindsay Graham and this is History Daily.

History is made every day. On this podcast—every day—we tell the true stories of the people and events that shaped our world.

Today is December 5th, 1848: President Polk Triggers the California Gold Rush.

Act One

It’s the morning of January 24th, 1848, 11 months before the California Gold Rush begins.

James Marshall surveys a construction site on the edge of a channel leading off of the American River in central California. James is a skilled carpenter who’s been hired to build a water-powered lumber mill, and he’s here to inspect the work of his crew. He hopes they’re on schedule because his boss, John Sutter, is a man in a hurry. James knows he will not take kindly to any delays.

In early 1848, California is a thinly populated wilderness that recently fell under United States control in the Mexican-American War. But it is not yet an American state, just an unorganized territory with ill-defined laws and government. Around 100,000 Native Americans still call California home, although their numbers have dropped by more than two-thirds in the last century. Still, they vastly outnumber the 8,000 white settlers who reside here. And among those settlers are trailblazers like John Sutter, who have grand ambitions to civilize the West and make a fortune doing so. But the majority are men like carpenter James Marshall, who eke out a living in the backcountry taking on the hard, manual work necessary to build settlements far from the comforts of civilized society.

As James continues his inspection of the construction site, he steps down into the waterwheel channel. The ground is wet and slippery, so he's careful to watch where he places his feet. And that's when James notices a tiny bright-yellow pebble glistening in the morning sun. He bends down to pick it up and notices other glinting specks scattered among the loose granite and quartz. It looks like gold. James takes off his wool hat and collects every shimmering pebble he can find. By the time he climbs out, he has more than ten tiny rocks nestled in his hat.

James carries the pebbles to the men he has put to work constructing the lumber mill. He excitedly invites them to examine what he’s found. One man suggests it’s just iron pyrite, better known as fool’s gold. But another pops one of the pebbles in his mouth, bites down, and spits it back out. He says that real gold is pliable. And when James spots a faint tooth mark on the pebble, his heart begins to beat faster. He picks up a hammer and tries bashing a different tiny rock. It flattens and dents, but it does not shatter or break like most stones or iron pyrite.

So James and his workers leave the mill and head back to the waterwheel channel. They jump in searching for more golden pebbles, joking about how rich they will all be soon. Afterward, James carries his stash to a cabin. He boils the tiny rocks in water and scrubs them with soap. But they don’t corrode or disintegrate. They remain a vivid golden yellow.

James gleefully gathers them back up and carefully wraps them in a cloth. He is now convinced the pebbles are nuggets of gold. So he tells his crew to get back to work and he mounts his horse for the 45-mile trek back to report his find to his boss, John Sutter. 

When James arrives at Sutter's Fort, it’s already dark. But he bursts into John’s office, startling his boss. James insists they go to John’s private rooms where they cannot be overheard. He doesn’t want anyone else finding out that there is gold at Sutter’s Mill before they claim it for themselves.

As soon as John shuts the door, James unwraps the cloth to reveal the gold nuggets. He bursts with enthusiasm as he describes his discovery that morning. John listens without interrupting, then pulls an encyclopedia from his bookshelf. He turns to the page about gold and follows its instructions to test the nuggets. He comes to the same conclusion as James. It’s definitely gold.

James cannot wipe the smile from his face. But when he glances at John, he notices his boss is frowning. John says they need to keep this news a secret for now. He has big plans for his land. The lumber mill James is building will supply the materials John needs to build an agricultural empire. He wants a network of ranches and farms on this fertile land, and he intends to build a city along the Sacramento River. So John says he doesn’t want an influx of gold miners pouring onto his land and ruining his plans.

But John won’t be able to keep the secret for long. James already suspects his workers have abandoned their tools to scour the river at Sutter’s Mill for more gold.

And indeed, news of the discovery will leak, eventually, reaching one entrepreneurial businessman who will spark a wave of prospectors to rush Sutter’s Mill, driven by an insatiable lust for gold.

Act Two

It’s March 1848, two months after gold is found at Sutter’s Mill.

Samuel Brannan stands in his general store in Sutter’s Fort, examining a few pieces of yellowish metal in his hand. He looks up at the two men with him. The shop assistant seems a little embarrassed that he had to call Samuel from the back. But the customer looks impatient. He wants to buy a bottle of brandy, and he's trying to pay for it with this tiny yellow pebble. The customer assures Samuel that it’s pure gold. And he says there is plenty more of it where that came from.

Like John Sutter, store owner Samuel Brannan migrated to California in the hope of making his fortune. He arrived by ship in 1846 and soon proved to be a hard-working go-getter. He moved to Sutter’s Fort and built a flour mill. He founded the California Star newspaper. And he built this general store in which one of his customers is trying to pay with what he claims is gold. If it is, Samuel senses that another opportunity to make money has just come his way.

Samuel asks the customer where he got the nugget. The customer tells him that he picked it out of the American River at Sutter’s new lumber mill. Intrigued by this, Samuel gives the bottle of brandy to the customer, bids him a polite farewell, and pockets the gold. The customer is barely out of the door though before Samuel dons his coat and practically runs out of the store, calling over his shoulder to the assistant that he’s off to see John Sutter.

Soon after, Samuel confronts John about the discovery upriver. John stutters, unwilling to reveal the truth, but he can do little to deny it when Samuel pulls out of his pocket the gold the customer used to pay for his brandy. After he secures John’s grudging permission, Samuel rides to the site of the lumber mill. He jumps into the channel where James Marshall first found gold and he himself spots bright yellow flecks tumbling through the clear water. He tries to grab some from the stream pouring past his legs, but it’s impossible to catch the tiny flecks in the current. So Samuel pulls a bottle from his pocket and fills it up with water from the stream. Then he drops the pieces of gold his customer gave him into the bottle and corks it. Samuel has a broad grin on his face. He knows exactly how to make money from this discovery—and it doesn’t involve him searching for gold. He’s going to make money from the miners.

Samuel scours the surrounding area and buys every shovel, pick and pan he can find. He piles them into his store. Then he makes his way to San Francisco, where a newly arrived ship has brought another hardy band of settlers to the west. Samuel wanders the town’s streets, waving his bottle of water, swirling the pieces of gold to catch the attention of passers-by. He yells about the discovery of gold in the American River. And he directs people to his store at Sutter’s Fort, where they can stock up with all the equipment they need to find their fortune.

Samuel's publicity stunt works. Over the next day or two, there is an exodus from San Francisco as men head for the hills. And it isn’t just the new settlers who go. The captain of the newly arrived ship in San Francisco cannot sail home because so many of his crew desert and join the pursuit of gold. And they and all other wannabe prospectors clear the shelves of Samuel’s store before heading to Sutter’s Mill.

There, construction on the lumber mill halts as novice gold miners descend on the area and jump into the river with enthusiasm. They hack at the riverbed and sieve the water. But John Sutter is not the only local businessman to suffer as a result of the influx. Eventually, even Samuel is forced to close his newspaper after his writers and printers join in the rush.

But ultimately, Samuel doesn’t mind. He has persuaded local Californians to rush into the gold fields. And, although a few lucky miners do find deposits of gold and end up with a pocketful of cash, the only man truly making a fortune is Samuel.

His general store in Sutter’s Fort is always busy. It sells $36,000 of supplies—the equivalent of over $1 million today. Samuel uses his new wealth to open two more stores. And he buys up land around Sutter’s Fort and San Francisco. He’ll soon make another fortune in real estate and become California’s first millionaire.

But even as Samuel amasses a fortune, the rest of the United States dismisses the idea that gold has been discovered out west. Newspapers on the east coast report the rumors as little more than a fairy tale. Samuel might have sparked a wave of prospectors within California. But for the Californian gold rush to really start, a reliable, trusted source must confirm the news. And there is nobody more influential than the President of the United States. Soon, James K. Polk will go public with the discovery of gold in California, changing the face of the West by triggering hundreds of thousands of Americans to join the rush for gold.

Act Three

It’s December 5th, 1848 in Washington, DC, nine months after Samuel Brannan heard about the discovery of gold at Sutter’s Mill.

Illinois congressman Abraham Lincoln sits in the House of Representatives with his arms folded, trying his best to stay warm. Snow blankets the capital city, and it isn’t much warmer inside the Capitol Building. But Lincoln’s firmly crossed arms also illustrate his disapproval of the speech he is listening to.

The congressional clerk delivering President Polk’s State of the Union address has only been on his feet for ten minutes. But already the speech is on the President’s favorite topic: how the United States was forced into war with Mexico.

Hearing this again, Lincoln harrumphs. He’s made little attempt to hide his contempt for Polk’s War against Mexico and has publicly challenged Polk’s version of events, that Mexico invaded American territory and attacked American troops on American soil, unprovoked. But now that the war is over, and the US is victorious, Lincoln has to sit through Polk’s self-congratulation. 

The clerk lists the territorial acquisitions that have arisen from the Mexican-American War. Then, the clerk begins to read a section about the discovery of gold in California. A chuckle ripples through the chamber. Lincoln shakes his head. Surely President Polk isn’t going to give credence to the ridiculous rumors that gold is abundant in the new territories.

But despite the derision, the clerk plows on. He says that government inspectors have visited California and corroborated the claims that gold has been discovered. Hearing this Lincoln leans forward, as do many other congressmen. Lincoln did not know the president actually had evidence.

The clerk goes on to report that more than 4,000 people are already searching for gold in California, and more are arriving every day. The clerk insists the rumors are true. There are riches in California beyond their wildest dreams.

Lincoln sighs. He doesn’t know what to believe yet, but he knows this much: the evidence of gold in the new territories is good news for President Polk. If the West turns out to be a plentiful source of gold and wealth, Americans will likely forgive the president’s shaky reasons for going to war with Mexico. Either way, Lincoln suspects that soon enough, there will be a stampede of prospectors heading to California to strike it rich.

Congressman Lincoln is right. President Polk’s State of the Union address will trigger one of the largest migrations in US History. Over the next six years, more than 300,000 people will make the journey to the west coast, changing the face of California, and the country, forever. This mass migration will lead to the creation of boomtowns and trigger rapid economic growth and prosperity. The ever-growing population, and the increase in infrastructure, will help California qualify for statehood in September of 1850, officially expanding the United States to the West Coast; an outcome that was triggered when President Polk announced the discovery of gold in his State of the Union speech on December 5th, 1848.


Next onHistory Daily. December 6th, 1976. After evading punishment for decades, Pieter Menten, one of the Netherlands’ most notorious Nazi war criminals, is arrested in Switzerland.

From Noiser and Airship, this is History Daily, hosted, edited, and executive produced by me, Lindsay Graham.

Audio editing and sound design by Mollie Baack. 

Music by Lindsay Graham.

This episode is written and researched by Scott Reeves.

Executive Producers are Steven Walters for Airship, and Pascal Hughes for Noiser.