The Gold Rush of 1848

The Gold Rush of 1848 was a significant event in United States history. On January 24, 1848 a man named James Marshall discovered the first few pieces of gold that would end up causing a massive migration to California of individuals from all over the world. The idea of gold and fortune had many leaving everything behind and rushing to the West.

A big part of the Gold Rush’s appeal for people, other than the riches, was the religious freedom it offered. Many different religions found a home in California because of the Gold Rush. Groups such as the Mormons and Latinx Catholics put down religious roots in California because of the Gold Rush and what it offered. The Mormons were responsible for igniting the Gold Rush. Henry Bigler, a Mormon soldier, recounts the discovery in one of his journals saying, “On looking into his hat I discovered ten or twelve pieces or small scales of what proved to be gold” (D. Bigler, 99). Many Mormons were present for the finding and ultimately Mormons became responsible for many other findings as well. Two Mormons, Sydney Willis and Wilford Hudson, found one of the richest caches of gold known as “Mormon Island” (Bancroft, 6:48). The Gold Rush also offered Brigham Young a way to pay back his debts from his journey across the West in order to reach Salt Lake City.

Throughout the Gold Rush, miners from northern Mexico were the largest group following the call of gold. Latinx Catholics used the Gold Rush to their advantage. Latinx Catholics along with the Roman Catholic Church used it to further Catholicism as well as find peace from religious persecution (Hanchett, 30)Due to the Gold Rush, Los Angeles became a prominent city and became the home for the majority of Latinx Catholics in California. The Gold Rush also protected and strengthened the culture of Hispanics in Los Angeles which discouraged other groups from settling there. This in turn offered a place solely for Latinx Catholics. With the help of the Gold Rush, Latinx Catholics were able to find freedom from religious persecution and could finally prosper spiritually. 

Wooden gold sluice box
Wooden gold sluice in California between 1890 and 1915.” Cropped For Use Here. Public Domain.

In some cases, miners experienced religious adaptation because of the Gold Rush. These changes were not negative, but rather a necessity because of the new surroundings the religion found itself in. Protestant miners experienced this religious adaptation like none other. Those miners left behind their original beliefs in favour of a more tolerant view. The miners had to change their strict, evangelical views in order for them to find solace. For example burial rites experienced a change in frontier California. Miners lived in a constant fear that they would die alone with no burial services, so they worked hard to ensure that this never happened. Miners would go out and try to find any clergy member, regardless of their religion, and ask them to perform funeral services (Maffly-Kipp, 116). The evangelical worldview that worked so well in the Northeast could not survive in frontier California. 

The Gold Rush of 1848 was a religious haven for many groups and offered those who were persecuted new peace and freedom. Without the Gold Rush religion in the American West would not have prospered like it did. 

-Aidan Leahey, November 2018

Suggestions for Further Reading:

Bigler, David L., ed. The Gold Discovery Journal of Azariah Smith. Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 1990. 

Landon, Michael N., ed. The Journals of George Q. Cannon, Volume I: To California in ’49. Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1999.

Maffly-Kipp, Laurie F. Religion and Society in Frontier California. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1994.


Featured Image:  “1850 Woman and Men in California Gold Rush, ” Public Domain.