A History of Gold Rushes

[ Gold mining operation on Bonanza Creek ]

Gold mining operation on Bonanza Creek, E.A. Hegg, 1898, Univ of Washington, Hegg 3027

For thousands of years, since before the time of the Pharoahs, humans have valued gold, and have searched for it. From ancient times to the present, gold has been the precious metal that has been treasured above all else. It never tarnishes or rusts, and its rich glow has started many wars. If you search the web for pictures of the treasures of King Tutankhamen’s tomb you will see what skilful Egyptian artisans did with gold over 3300 years ago. It is found in two kinds of deposits: hardrock gold and placer gold. Hardrock deposits consist of seams of gold found in minerals such as quartz that must be crushed to extract the treasure, a process that is too expensive to be undertaken by individuals. The gold extracted at places in Canada such as Yellowknife and Kirkland Lake is of this kind, and requires a large company to put up the money to blast and dig out the rock, then crush it to extract the gold.

The other kind, placer gold, was once also locked into other rocks, but was extracted over the ages by erosion or by glaciers grinding the rocks. When this happened, the original rocks were washed away as sand and pebbles, leaving the pure gold at the bottom of creeks, or trapped in mud and gravel. If you can find placer gold, it is comparatively easy to extract. All you have to do is to “pan” it, to see if it is worth working. This involves a round pan with a flat bottom, rather like a Chinese wok. You put a shovelful of dirt and stones in it, with some water, and rotate it so that the dirt and stones swoosh out over the side. If there is any gold, it will remain in the bottom of the pan. There is a picture on this site of a prospector doing this. Then you build a sluice box -- this site contains many pictures of them -- run water through it, shovel the dirt into it, and when the dirt and stones wash out the end of the box, stop the water and collect the gold. This is how placer deposits were mined all over the world, the only difference being that in the Yukon the ground was frozen by permafrost, and had to be melted before it could be sluiced.

Placer gold has been found in many places in both North and South America, but particularly in the Rocky Mountain chain. The Spanish conquistadores discovered that the Incas had huge quantities of gold, and stole as much of it as they could find. Others searched north along the mountains for gold, and the first strike in the United States occurred near Sacramento, California, in 1849. Prospectors continued north, finding gold in British Columbia on the sand bars of the lower Fraser River in 1858. Further north, the town of Barkerville (east of what is now the city of Quesnel) became the gold capital of British Columbia in 1862. While the gold lasted it was the biggest town in western Canada, and it is still a major tourist attraction. In the 1870s there was a rush to the Omineca country in northern British Columbia.

The search for gold has gone on continuously for thousands of years, and usually when a sizeable deposit is found, there has been a gold rush. What made the Klondike gold rush particularly dramatic was the tremendous amount that was found. Also, the find took place during one of the worst economic recessions in North American history, and the chance of sudden wealth lured thousands of men and women to this remote part of the continent. Suddenly, in the course of a few months, Dawson changed from a mudflat to a town, with all sorts of modern facilities -- even electricity and a telephone system. Not all the residents were miners; there were merchants, police, doctors, lawyers, missionaries, and others. Nor were they all men; some miners brought their wives and children with them. Women worked in the home, in dancehalls, in laundries, and some worked their own claims as miners. The Yukon saw the last and the greatest of the North American gold rushes, and it took place at the very northern end of the Rocky Mountain chain, where the Klondike River joins the Yukon River. It was there, in the summer of 1896, that someone made the greatest of all North American gold discoveries. It is your task to decide who that person was.


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