Panning for gold in the 1800s

How the 49ers found fortune in the famous Californian gold rush

On 24 January 1848, James W. Marshall struck gold in Sutter’s Mill, Coloma. The discovery didn’t stay secret for long, and prospectors searching for big bucks soon arrived in their droves. The news first spread to nearby states, but later some 300,000 fortune hunters arrived from as far afield as China and Australia. Heading to California a year after the initial discovery, they were known as the 49ers.

At first, the gold was so abundant that flakes could be picked straight from the ground, but this easy source was quickly exhausted by the first waves of 49ers. Panning became a common method to find nuggets in rivers and streams, but as these too were gradually depleted, more intricate ideas were required. Wooden cradles were constructed with a sieve at the top to catch and search much larger amounts of rock and gravel at a time, while ‘coyote mining’ involved digging a deep shaft to reach the most plentiful supplies. The most complex system of all was hydraulic mining, which used high-pressure water to loosen potential gold seams from gravel beds. It was very effective, extracting an estimated total of 340 tons of gold by the mid-1880s.

How to pan for gold

A simple yet effective way to earn a fortune in the Old West

1. The rush for gold

It’s first-come first-served in the hills of California, but every route has its dangers. Trekking over land involves perilous mountain passes, while journeys at sea are long and treacherous.

2. Choose an ideal location

Don’t just settle down anywhere; pick a spot that has the best chance of gold. Ideally, find a clean, deep stream that has slow-running currents. Also watch out for fellow prospectors stealing your territory!

3. Start to pan

Panning is the simplest way to find gold. Swirl a mixture of water and dirt, and the heavier nuggets will sink to the bottom of the pan. The gold will rush downstream, so make sure you catch it before your rivals do!

4. Tools of the trade

The best prospectors can wash around 50 pans a day and also use knives and shovels to dig on dry land. As more money floods in, you can afford bigger and better extraction methods.

5. Find your reward

The process can take time, so it pays to be patient. Not all the gold will be in convenient, large nuggets, so make sure you search the gravel for small specks of the precious metal.

6. Spend, spend, spend

Every 49er spends their new wealth differently, whether it’s setting up a business or hitting the saloon. After the gold began to run out, many prospectors returned home, but some stayed to live a new life in the West.


This article was originally published in How It Works issue 90, written by Jack Griffiths


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