President James K. Polk, at the end of a year of fantastical rumors of riches in the Sierra Nevada, ignited the California Gold Rush with his State of the Union address on this day in history, Dec. 5, 1848.
"The accounts of abundance of gold are of such an extraordinary character as would scarcely command belief were they not corroborated by the authentic reports of officers in the public service," Polk told both houses of Congress.
"The explorations already made warrant the belief that the supply is very large and that gold is found at various places in an extensive district of [the] country."
Gold was discovered at Sutter's Mill, between Sacramento and Lake Tahoe in northern California, on Jan. 24, 1848.
The vast expanse of the continent, California's disputed status during the Mexican-American War, and the lack of direct means of communication left an air of disbelief around incredible tales of wealth in the hills.
Enthusiastic corroboration from Washington, D.C., touched off an explosion of investment and human migration that reshaped American history.
The officer commanding U.S. forces in California counted in July "about 4,000 persons engaged in collecting gold," the president said in his address.
The number "so employed," he surmised, "has since been augmented."
The "number so employed" exploded in the wake of Polk's exuberant report.
"This official confirmation of the news triggered a mass exodus to California. The ‘Forty Niners’ were on their way," the Library of Congress notes.
"In the next year, close to 100,000 people went to California from the United States, Europe and every other corner of the globe. Gold-seekers from Australia, New Zealand, Hawaii and China continued to sail across the Pacific along well-established trade routes."
It was often easier for people from Pacific Rim nations to get to the port of Yerba Buena, now San Francisco, by sea than it was for Americans, who still lived largely on the East Coast, to make the arduous journey by foot across the continent or by sea around landmass barriers.
"A voyage from the East Coast to California around Cape Horn was 17,000 miles long and could easily take five months," writes the Library of Congress.
"There was a shorter alternative: sailing to Panama, crossing the isthmus by foot or horseback, and sailing to California from Central America's Pacific Coast."
Despite the challenges posed by vast distances, about 40,000 people sailed into Yerba Buena in 1849, more than 100 people per day — "and the tiny town boomed," the Library of Congress notes.
The non-native population of California grew from about 1,000 to 100,000 in 1849, while about $2 billion worth of gold was mined from the area by 1852, according to History.com.
THIS ARTICLE WAS IN THE NEWS TODAY PUBLISHED ON 12/5/202212:02 EST BY KERRY J. BYRNE AT FOX NEWS.
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