A big day in history: A speck of glitter triggers the California Gold Rush

Dominic Sandbrook explores the events of 24 January 1848

Gold miners in California in 1849. The gold rush sparked one of the greatest mass migrations in American history. (Universal History Archive/Getty Images)

This article was first published in the January 2013 issue of BBC History Magazine

John Sutter had a dream. As a young man he had left his native Switzerland, abandoning his wife and a string of creditors, to seek his fortune in the New World. Crossing the North American continent, he fell in with a group of missionaries, and ended up in the Mexican territory of Alta California, one of the most fertile areas on Earth. There, not far from what is now Sacramento, Sutter began work on the project he hoped would make him a rich man: New Helvetia (‘New Switzerland’) – a fort with stores and workshops, designed as the centrepiece of a thriving new agricultural community.

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