What sparked the gold rushes of the 19th century?
Famine ravaged Ireland in the 1840s, which in the ensuing decades would cause half the population to leave or die. Meanwhile revolutions raged across continental Europe during the People’s Spring, with authorities responding ferociously, forcing many participants into exile. Slaves were being emancipated across the British empire and North America, and in China large sections of the population experienced displacement as a result of various conflicts, including the Opium Wars.
International travel had been hitherto unimaginable for the vast majority of the planet’s population, but in the middle of the 19th century tens of thousands found themselves uprooted, and world news was being spread, shared and consumed by ever-more people.
In such conditions, news of a gold strike was enough to induce young men to up sticks, buy picks and do whatever it took to travel to the ends of the earth on wild, life-changing adventures. The result was people from extraordinarily divergent backgrounds – from Chinese fishermen to Cornish miners – rubbed shoulders in rudimentary settlements and on neighbouring claims in remote regions.
This phenomenon had a sizable impact on both the societies the men were leaving (in numbers not usually seen in peacetime) and the places they travelled to. The discovery of gold in the American River, for example, directly led to the largest migration of people the US had ever seen. These migrant miners brought many things with them – from ideas, innovations and cultural influences to new diseases. Around the camps and embryonic townships, supply industries developed, chiefly around prostitution, booze and gambling, all of which profoundly impacted the local population, and usually negatively.
Some settlements would briefly boom and bloom, before turning into ghost towns within a few short years. Others endured and evolved into enormous metropolises – San Francisco, Johannesburg and Melbourne were all built on solid gold foundations.
Gambling was a popular pastime in gold-rush era California, with arguments and violence a common outcome. (Image by Alamy)
What were the major gold rushes of the 19th century?
Nome, Alaska (1899–1909)
In September 1898, the ‘Three Lucky Swedes’ (Erik Lindblom, John Brynteson and Norwegian-American Jafet Lindeberg) discovered gold on Anvil Creek and founded Nome mining district. Soon, however, more gold was spotted simply lying in the beach sand, extractable without the need for a claim. By 1900, a tent city sprawled across 30 miles of the treeless coast, and Nome’s population hit 20,000; it dropped to 2,600 by 1909.
Yukon Territory, Canada (1896–99)
To reach the Klondike goldfields, stampeders had to sail into the Alaskan ports of Dyea or Skagway, cross the Chilkoot or White Pass mountain trails to Whitehorse, then build boats to negotiate 450 miles of the fast-flowing Yukon River to Dawson – all while carrying a ton of equipment (Canadian authorities insisted miners travel with a year’s supplies). Still, 100,000 made the journey, including author Jack London (White Fang, The Call of the Wild). The native Hän people were moved to a reservation and many died.
Tierra del Fuego, Chile & Argentina (1883–1906)
Bizarrely, the gold rush that sent prospectors to the bottom of South America began with a shipwreck. After the French steamship Arctique ran aground on Cape Virgenes, a rescue expedition discovered gold at Zanja a Pique. News of this travelled through Punta Arenas to Santiago, Buenos Aires and beyond, and soon a stream of fortune-hunting Chileans, Argentines and Europeans (especially Dalmatians) were en route to the Antarctic-facing archipelago.
Witwatersrand, South Africa (1886)
The discovery of the world’s largest gold deposit on a Transvaal farm, Langlaagte – controversially credited to prospector, George Harrison – prompted a huge rush, which birthed the city of Johannesburg. In ten years, South African gold production went from zero to 23 per cent of global output. Conflict flared between Afrikaan Boers and the British, resulting in the Jameson Raid, in which the British botched an attempt to seize the goldfields from the South African Republic, ultimately leading to the Second Boer War of 1899–1902.
The discovery of the world’s largest gold deposit on a Transvaal farm prompted a huge rush. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
Victoria, Australia (1851–69)
The 1851 discovery of gold at Poverty Point in Ballarat, Victoria, prompted Australia’s biggest gold rush and established Melbourne as a world-leading city. Gold from the tiny, infant colony of Victoria cleared all Britain’s foreign debts – in 1856 alone, 94,982kg of gold was extracted. It was also a period of national development, with events at Eureka Stockade in 1854 (pictured above), when miners rebelled against colonial authorities over the price of their mining licences, becoming seminal in the development of Australian democracy and identity, while adverse reactions to Chinese miners led to the country’s racist ‘White Australia’ policy.
Otago, New Zealand (1861–64)
After Australian Gabriel Read got lucky in what became known as Gabriel’s Gully, claims spread across New Zealand’s Central Otago region. Foreign miners flocked in, some straight from the fading goldfields of California and Australia, swelling the region’s population by 400 per cent and temporarily turning Dunedin into the country’s largest city. Later strikes near Cromwell and Arthur’s Point attracted more, with an estimated 18,000 miners active by 1864. The rush fizzled fast, but bankrolled the building of New Zealand’s first university (Otago) in 1869.
Foreign miners flocked to Otago on New Zealand’s south island. (Image by Alamy)
Gold rushes also happened in…
An 1874 expedition into the Black Hills of Dakota Territory (now South Dakota), led by the ill-fated George Custer, found gold on French Creek. The resulting boom created the city of Deadwood and ‘the Homestake’, the US’s biggest gold mine. This was, however, all at the expense of the Lakota Sioux people.
In 1799, 12-year-old Conrad Reed found a 17lb (7.7kg) gold nugget in Cabarrus County, North Carolina. His father then used it as a doorstop for years, until a visiting jeweller realised it was gold and bought it. News of that sale prompted the 1802 Carolina gold rush.
Gold had been known to exist near Dahlonega, Georgia, since the 1540 expedition of Spanish conquistador Hernando de Soto. After several strikes in the 1830s, however, the number of migrant miners in the area caused conflict with the local Cherokee people, ultimately leading to their forced removals in the ‘Trail of Tears’.
According to one story, the 19th century Siberian gold rush began when a hunter spotted gold among the sand in the innards of a grouse he’d shot. During the rush, which peaked in the 1830s and 40s, Russia produced 40 per cent of the world’s gold (compared to 1 per cent in 1801).
When gold was discovered in the Ivalojoki River valley in Lapland in the 1870s, it prompted a rush of prospectors into the Grand Duchy of Finland, then part of Imperial Russia.
From its beginnings in the 1690s, right through the heyday of the Portuguese Empire and up to the opening of the British-owned St John d’el Rey Mining Company in 1830, Ouro Preto experienced the longest gold rush in history, producing South America’s largest gold mines.
In 1868, Robert Nelson Gilchrist – a local recently returned from 17 years in the goldfields of Australia – discovered gold in Kildonan in the Scottish Highlands. Subsequent finds were made in the Suisgill and Kildonan Burns (watercourses), and within six months more than 600 fortune hunters were panning in the remote glen.
An adaptation of Eleanor Catton’s 2013 Man Booker Prize-winning novel The Luminaries, set during the New Zealand Gold Rush of the 1860s, is airing on BBC Two from June 2020.
Pat Kinsella specialises in adventure journalism as a writer, photographer and editor.
This article first appeared in the May 2020 issue of BBC History Revealed Magazine