History Of Gold, Discovery of Gold and Aftermath


Information on the history of gold element, discovery of gold, early sources of gold, the gold rushes etc.

At same unknown time during the Stone Age, man learned to value gold for its unusual qualities. Cold’s color, luster, malleability, and ability to withstand corrosion make it unusual among metals. And its relative scarcity has caused it to be even more sought-after. The psalmist who wrote the comparison “more to be desired … than gold, yea, than much fine gold” revealed an appreciation of the metal that has characterized men in all ages.

Stone Age man used nuggets of native gold for ornaments or jewelry, and in trying to fashion these bits of placer gold to suit his taste, he learned something about metallurgy. He found that gold because of its softness could be hammered into a desired form. It could be melted in a furnace, and while molten could be cast into a new shape. Later, the essentials of smelting-the fact that gold .could be melted out of rock-were discovered.

Early Sources of Gold:

By at least the 4th millennium B. C., gold was being sought successfully through both placer and vein (lode) mining, and by the time of the early cultures from which modem civilization is descended, the search for gold was widespread. Arabia, India, Persia, Caucasia, Asia Minor, the Balkans, and many parts of Africa contributed to the ancient world’s supply of this highly valued metal, but all were subordinate in significance to the output of the mines operared in Nubia by the Egyptians, More than 100 of these mines, which were worked by slaves and captives, have been fo und in the Nubian Desert. They constituted the main source of the gold used in antiquity and were an important reason for the power of the successive rulers of Egypt, who jealously retained a state monopoly over gold mining.

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Early gold objects usually had an admixture of impurities, especially silver. In the 7th century B. C., when the art of refining was well developed, the kings of Lydia, in Western Asia, began issuing coins of gold that were guaranteed as to weight and purity; these coins bore the royal stamp as assurance to the trading community that their value was as elaimed. By thus putting gold to work as coinage, the ancient world enhanced still further the value of the metal. Gold became synonymous with purity and richness. The myth of the Argonauts and the Golden Fleece probably has its origin in a raid upon miners who were using sheepskins to catch fragments of gold, just as some modern gold washing has employed blankets.

Whether there were real “rushes” of would be miners in these early centuries seems doubtful. A “rush” requires a large number of men who are free agents, able to respond quickly to the lure of alleged gold discoveries. Yet as the German physician Ceorgius Agricola points out, in the great mining treatise that he completed in 1550, “in former days” mines were worked by slaves, serfs, and convicts.

The New World:

By the time of the discovery of America, professional miners in the more advanced parts of Europe had won for themselves a privileged status as free men. But in the New World the Spanish and Portuguese put the aboriginal inhabitants to work in the mines as forced labor and later supplemented their numbers by importing Negro slaves. Only in the latter part of the colonial era did free native labor, working for wages, gradually replace compulsory service. The presence of forced labor and of a racially distinct elass of workers distinguished Spanish American mining from that of the North American rushes of the 19th century.

Spanish law, on the other hand, was racially unbiased. All minerals belonged to the king, who decreed that any of his subjects, be they Spanish, Creole, mestizo, or Indian, might search for minerals and acquire the right to work what they discovered. The response to this open invitation was widespread prospecting and mining, all the way from Mexico to Chile, by varied crews that ranged, as one authority has expressed it, from “Iowly Indian to Spanish grandee.” The “boom towns” that arose to serve the needs of these men and their gangs of laborers had many of the characteristics of later mining communities in the United States.

The Gold Rushes:

True gold rushes, in the modern sense of the term, began when gold was discovered in California in 1848. There had been a small-scale prelude, when gold discoveries in Georgia, starting in 1828-1830, attracted a surprisingly large and cosmopolitan crowd. The rush to California dwarfed its Georgia predecessor. Its proportions were immense. Everywhere men abandoned their families, businesses, and, one might say, common sense, in order to start for this remote, little-known land where even the humblest and least experience d might hope suddenly to become a modern Croesus.

At least a quarter of a million men reached “El Dorado” during the five years (1848-1853) that constituted the gold rush proper, and there they produced an extraordinary quantity of gold, valued in excess of $200 million. Although most were Americans, the gold seekers came from virtually every part of the civilized world, including China.

No “rush” of such proportions, richness, or cosmopolitanism, no hysteria so unrestrained or so world-encompassing in its influence had been seen before. Improved means of communication, especially through widely circulated newspapers, and the beginnings of modern transportation, such as elipper ships and ocean-going steamers, do much to explain the size and speed of the movement. But also involved were the factors of mass psychology and social instability, which have yet to be adequately explained.


Life in the California Gold Rush:

Fundamental to comprehending the California gold rush and the great rushes that succeeded it is the fact that these were unplanned, uncoordinated movements of large numbers of free and independent individuals, who were subject neither to serfdom nor any other control save their own wills. Although many “forty-niners” organized themselves into formally constituted “companies” before they left home, virtually all these groups disintegrated immediately upon reaching California. The individual was left to work out his own destiny among strangers in a strange land that was utterly unprepared to cope with a horde of newcomers.

Although merchants and shipowners throughout the world quickly adjusted their operations to serve this booming new market, food and supplies of all kinds were scarce, expensive, and subject to erratic price fluctuations. Wages were abnormally high, but so was the cost of living. Housing was primitive and costly in the towns and did not exist at the mines, save as each man built his own or pitched a tent. Society was constantly in flux, with crowds of restless gold seekers ready to stampede off to whatever new mining locality was temporarily rumored to be rich. Government agencies were minimal and largely ineffective. When eriminals appeared, people set up their own self-constituted, extralegal agencies to deal with them, of ten by lynching or vigilante proceedings.

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While the California gold rush was still at its peak, Edward Hargraves, one of the many Australian forty-niners, decided to return to his own country, where in 1851 he made the discovery that precipitated the second great gold rush of the 19th century. From the British Isles alone, half a million people sailed to Australia during the 10 years beginning in 1851. A worldwide boom in commerce, shipping, and manufacturing ensued as the new demands from Australia were added to those from California. The world’s currency received an immense inflationary impetus when, chiefly from California and Australia, more gold was produced in the 25 years af ter 1850 than in the 358 years since Columbus.

Social conditions in Australia reproduced the bizarre scenes that California had made famous: extremes of good and ill fortune experienced by men from every level of society, camps and towns springing up overnight, men laboring with pick and shovel in the diggings and brawling in the saloons. But as a recent author (Geoffrey Blainey) has remarked, Australia’s gold districts “were probably more orderly than California’s,” the central government was far more effective, and there was less vigilantism and lynching.


Asimilar verdict would be justified concerning a rush that began in 1858, with news of gold on Fraser River, British Columbia, Canada. For a few months “Fraser River fever” raged so furiously that at least 25,000 people started for that northem wildemess. Again the confusion of Califomia was repeated, but as in Australia, the provincial government was firm and insisted upon a higher standard of lawand order than was found in California.

Other North American Gold Rushes:

The rush to Fraser River drew its recruits chiefly from California. There, by 1858, the boom days were over, and the state was filled with men who had leamed how to prospect and mine, how to organize society and government on a mining frontier, and how to take advantage of speculative opportunities. With the output of the more easily worked goldfields dedining and conditions no longer favorable to men with little capital, these veterans hoped for new lands as inviting as California had been in 1848 or Australia in 1851.

When Fraser River’s attractions proved to be exaggerated, these men spread throughout the Far West, as new rumors of “rich finds” reached them. They becarne a new type of frontiersman -the leaders of the mining frontier, the first comers to each boom, the experienced hands who showed tenderfeet how to mine and how to behave. They opened the great silver deposits of the Comstock Lode of Nevada, starting in 1859. They invaded the rugged mountains and forests of the northem Rockies to begin gold mining in Idaho, Montana, and the interior of British Columbia in the early 1860’s.

“Old Californians,” as they called themselves, were among those who led the way to Colorado’s steep canyons in 1859, penetrated the dusty interior of Nevada in the 1860’s, struggled through the arid Southwest, and in the 1870 s joined with greenhorns in rushing to the Black Hills of South Dakota, the Indian-plagued region around Tombstone, Arizona, and even southernmost Alaska and northern British Columbia.

Gold Rushes Elsewhere:

Meantime, far across the ocean, new “excitements” in Australia had been rivaled in the 1860’s by New Zealand’s first mining boom. At the end of the century, so worldwide was the effect of mining discoveries in an age that now had the telegraph, cables, and fast steamships, that mining veterans and tenderfeet went off to places as far apart as the Rand in South Amca, starting in 1886, the Yukon River and its tributary the Klondike, on the Canadian Alaskan border, in the 1890’s, and Cape Nome on the Bering Sea, just as the century ended.


What was the significance of the frenetic activity that constituted the gold rushes? First, it stimulated shipping, commerce, and manufacturing throughout the civilized world in the second half of the 19th century. Second, the huge increase in the supply of gold inflated the world’ s currencies and led to the adeption of the gold standard by most of the leading nations. Third, the presence to day of great cities such as San Francisco, Denver, Vancouver, and Melbourne suggests that gold rushes abruptly introduced modern civilization into regions that hitherto had been isolated, slow-growing provinces or untouched wilderness.

History Of Gold - Discovery of Gold and Aftermath

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True, the gold-rush towns were socially unstable and economically unbalanced. They existed only to serve an impatient crowd of men-women represented but a tiny portion of the population. Thus composed, many a gold-rush community proved ephemeral and is today a ghost town. In the absence of more enduring pursuits such as agriculture and stockraising, there was little to support a gold-rush region once its mineral deposits had ceased to yield a profit at the prevailing cost of wages, capital, and transportation.

Fourth, the gold rushes attracted stagecoach, express, freight, and even railroad service into sparsely populared lands. By providing local markets they encouraged farıning, and they made possible a considerable regional accumulatian of capital. Finally, the gold rushes introduced Americans to an industry that was unfamiliar to most of them in 1848. By the Iate 19th century American miners, mining engineers, manufacturers of mining equipment, and mining capitalists were in demand throughout the world.

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