Gold in California

Gold in California

Gold in California became highly concentrated there as the result of global forces operating over hundreds of millions of years. Volcanoes, tectonic plates and erosion all combined to concentrate billions of dollars worth of gold in the mountains of California. During the California Gold Rush, gold-seekers known as "Forty-Niners" retrieved this gold, at first using simple techniques, and then developed more sophisticated techniques which spread around the world.


Scientists believe that over a span of at least 400 million years, gold which had been widely dispersed in the Earth’s crust became more concentrated by geologic actions into the gold-bearing regions of California. Only gold which is concentrated can be economically recovered. Some 400 million years ago, California lay at the bottom of a large sea; underwater volcanoes deposited lava and minerals (including gold) onto the sea floor; sometimes enough that islands were created. cite book | last = Hill | first = Mary | title = Gold: the California story | publisher = University of California Press | date = 1999 | location = Berkeley and Los Angeles| p. 167. ] Between 400 million and 200 million years ago, geologic movement forced the sea floor and these volcanic islands and deposits eastwards, colliding with the North American continent, which was moving westwards. Hill, Mary (1999), p. 168. ]

Beginning about 200 million years ago, tectonic pressure forced the sea floor beneath the American continental mass. Hill, Mary (1999), pp. 168-69. ] As it sank, or subducted, beneath today's California, the sea floor heated and melted into very large molten masses (magma). Being lighter and hotter than the ancient continental crust above it, this magma forced its way upward, cooling as it rose cite book | last = Brands | first = H.W. | title = The age of gold: the California Gold Rush and the new American dream | location = New York | publisher = Doubleday | date = 2003 | , pp. 195-196. ] to become the granite rock found throughout the Sierra Nevada and other mountains in California today — such as the sheer rock walls and domes of Yosemite Valley. Hill, Mary (1999), pp. 149-58. Similar forces created the granite domes and spires of Castle Crags in Shasta County.] As the hot magma cooled, solidified, and came in contact with water, minerals with similar melting temperatures tended to concentrate themselves together. As it solidified, gold became concentrated within the magma, and during this cooling process, veins of gold formed within fields of quartz ] because of the similar melting temperatures of both. Hill, Mary (1999), pp. 174-78. ]

As the Sierra Nevada and other mountains in California were forced upwards by the actions of tectonic plates, the solidified minerals and rocks were raised to the surface and exposed to rain, ice and snow. Hill, Mary (1999), pp. 169-173. ] The surrounding rock then eroded and crumbled, and the exposed gold and other materials were carried downstream by water. Because gold is denser than almost all other minerals, this process further concentrated the gold as it sank, and pockets of gold gathered in quiet gravel beds along the sides of old rivers and streams. Hill, Mary (1999), pp. 94-100. ]

The California mountains rose and shifted several times within the last fifty million years, and each time, old streambeds moved and were dried out, leaving the deposits of gold resting within the ancient gravel beds where the gold had been collecting. Hill, Mary (1999), pp. 105-110. ] Newer rivers and streams then developed, and some of these cut through the old channels, carrying the gold into still larger concentrations. ]

The Forty-Niners of the California Gold Rush first focused their efforts on these deposits of gold, which had been gathered in the gravel beds by hundreds of millions of years of geologic action.

Gold recovery

The early Forty-Niners panned for gold in California’s rivers and streams, or used "cradles" and "rockers" or "long-toms," [ Images and detailed description of placer mining tools and techniques] ; [ image of a long tom] ] forms of placer mining.Brands, H.W. (2002), pp. 198-200. ] Bancroft, Hubert Howe (1884-1890) "History of California," vols. 18-24, [ "The works of Hubert Howe Bancroft," complete text online] , pp. 87-88.] Modern estimates by the U.S. Geological Survey are that some 12 million ounces (373 t) of gold were removed in the first five years of the Gold Rush (worth approximately US$7.2 billion at November 2006 prices). [ Mining History and Geology of the Mother Lode] (accessed Oct. 16, 2006)]

By 1853, the first hydraulic mining was used.cite book | last = Starr | first = Kevin | title = California: a history | publisher = The Modern Library | date = 2005 | location = New York|, p. 89.] In hydraulic mining, (which was invented in California) a powerful stream of water is directed at gold-bearing gravel beds; the gravel and gold then pass over sluices, with the gold settling to the bottom. By the mid-1880s, it is estimated that 11 million ounces (342 t) of gold (worth approximately US$6.6 billion at November 2006 prices) had been recovered via "hydraulicking."

The final stage to recover loose gold was to prospect for gold in the flat rivers of California’s Central Valley and other gold-bearing areas of California (such as Scott Valley in Siskiyou County). By the late 1890s, dredging technology (which was also invented in California) had become economical,* cite book | author = Rawls, James J. and Orsi, Richard J. (eds.) | title = A golden state: mining and economic development in Gold Rush California (California History Sesquicentennial Series, 2) | date = 1999 | location = Berkeley and Los Angeles| publisher = Univ. of California Press | pp. 1991] and it is estimated that more than 20 million ounces (622 t) were recovered by dredging (worth approximately US$12 billion at November 2006 prices).

Gold-seekers also engaged in "hard-rock" mining, that is, extracting the gold directly from the rock which contained it (typically quartz)Rawls, James J. and Orsi, Richard (eds.) (1999), pp. 36-39] Once the gold-bearing rocks were brought to the surface, the rocks were crushed, and the gold was separated out (using moving water), or leached out, typically by using arsenic or mercury.Rawls, James J. and Orsi, Richard (eds.) (1999), pp. 39-43] Eventually, hard-rock mining wound up being the single largest source of gold produced in the Gold Country.

Geological after-effects

Curiously, there were decades of minor earthquakes - more than at any other time in the historical record for Northern California - before the 1906 San Francisco earthquake. Widely previously interpreted as precursory activity to the 1906 earthquake they have been found to have a strong seasonal pattern and were found to be due to large seasonal sediment loads in coastal bays that overlie faults as a result of mining of gold inland. [ [ Seasonal Seismicity of Northern California Before the Great 1906 Earthquake] , (Journal) Pure and Applied Geophysics, ISSN 0033-4553 (Print) 1420-9136 (Online), volume 159, Numbers 1-3 / January, 2002, Pages 7-62.]



* Bancroft, Hubert Howe (1884-1890) "History of California," vols. 18-24, [ "The works of Hubert Howe Bancroft," complete text online]

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