Thousands of people tried to find their fortune in the California gold rush. However, it's often reported that the people who became wealthy from this event were the ones that were selling supplies to the miners, and not the miners themselves.

I don't know how accurate a source it is, but I read an article on sparticus-educational.com about the California gold rush. It mentioned that "only a minority of miners made much money", but did not give any details on who they might have been, though it does go into more detail on some of the suppliers who made a lot of money, such as Sam Brannan and Josiah Belden.

Are there any examples of miners and prospectors, and not suppliers, who became wealthy due to the California gold rush?

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    Welcome to History:SE. What has your research shown you so far? Where have you already searched? What did you find? Please help us to help you. You might find it helpful to review the site tour and Help Centre and, in particular, How to Ask. Commented Sep 19, 2019 at 17:44
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    @Luck: Don't overlook Levi Strauss and his riveted heavy-duty trousers made from Genoa sail cloth. Commented Sep 19, 2019 at 18:12
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    The wikipedia entry has some indications what early arrivals, in 48, did make a fair bit of money. Whether they got to keep it and stayed rich is another question. Just because popular wisdom is very much against the miners making it big themselves doesn't mean it's infallible - it's difficult to prove an absence of something, although exceedingly wealthy would be better remembered. Wonder what documentation there exists about the success of individuals in similar situations like the Yukon gold rush or early diamond deposits. Commented Sep 20, 2019 at 22:00

3 Answers 3



Among the many thousands who joined the gold rush and dug with their own hands, a few struck it rich but couldn't be called 'exceedingly wealthy'. Many more gathered a decent sum before (wisely) packing it in and setting off back home. The large majority, of course, found little or else squandered their gains.

One non-supplier who did become very wealthy was John C. Frémont, later to become the first Republican candidate for President, but he got rich when substantial gold deposits were discovered on his property; as far as I can tell, he did not mine himself.

The other (more valid cases in terms of miners or prospectors) listed below did not become especially wealthy as result of digging with their own hands but are worth mentioning for one reason or another.


John Sullivan

John Sullivan, who dug up $26,000 in the summer of 1848, was one of the few who both struck it rich and made good use of his new-found wealth.

Sullivan was one of the fortunate few to find a true “gold nugget” in what became known as Sullivan’s Creek. The profits from this find were used to purchase and develop many of San Francisco’s noteworthy properties, including the Palace Hotel, Holy Cross and Old St. Mary’s churches. He also was the founder and first President of Hibernia Savings and Loan Society.

'Chino' Tirador

Mr. Tirador may well hold the record for squandering the largest amount of gold in the shortest time. Chino

...dug four feet down to bedrock and then spent the next seven hours picking up nuggets enough to fill a wooden batea (a Mexican gold panning bowl) so full that he could scarcely lift it.

If indeed he could 'scarcely lift it', this may have meant more 100 pounds. So far, so good, but by 10pm that same night it was all gone:

He paid two pounds of gold dust for a bottle half full of aguardiente and then shopped around the camp for silver coins ...so he could gamble. He obtained these by paying one ounce of gold for $2.50 in coin. By ten o'clock that night he was dead drunk and flat broke.

Seven white miners and 50 Indians

This group found 273 pounds of gold in 2 months by the Feather River. The Indians got only 13 pounds, leaving an average of over 37 pounds for each of the white miners.

William Gulnac

Of Mexcian origin, Gulnac was granted the Rancho Campo de los Franceses in 1844 but sold it to his former partner Charles Weber (founder of Stockton) in 1845 after failing to settle the ranch.

It seems he then turned to prospecting for, in around 1848, he dug up the second largest nugget found in California at Wood's Creek in Tuolumne County. Weighing 150 pounds, the nugget contained 75 pounds of gold. Gulnac did not live long to enjoy the proceeds of his find for he died in 1851.

Alvin Aaron Coffey

Not large amounts here, but enough for a slave to buy his and his family's freedom (so wealth in another sense). Alvin Coffey found $5,000 in gold in 1850 and another $7,000 in 1854.

The first amount was simply taken by his owner, a Dr. Bassett, who then sold him to one Mary Tindall. Her husband, Nelson, already owned Coffey's wife and children:

He agreed to let Coffey buy his way to freedom. In 1854, Coffey returned to California and earned $7,000 in the goldfields, enough to free himself and his family.

Coffey, who died in 1902, wrote an autobiography.


Of course the miners did not get rich. Miners never get rich.

Mine Owners, who hire miners to do the work, are the ones who get rich from mining.

Prospectors can get a relatively large chunk of money when they make a successful find and those are the stories that spread like wildfire and entice so many people to join the rush. Stories like William Daylor and Perry McCoon who "found" $17,000 (about $550,000 in 2019) worth of gold in a single week. But if you are going to start an actual mine then you have to make the transition to mine owner, hiring a staff of miners who will do the work for you. Daylor and McCoon were not prospectors who walked around picking nuggets up off the ground. They were mine owners who, as described on the county website, employed 4 miners and 100 Native American laborers. Daylor and McCoon made lots of money as mine owners, not the miners and certainly not the laborers.

The vast majority of people who joined the rush and actually worked in the mining were neither prospectors nor mine owners. They were miners hired by mining companies and paid a wage, not substantially different than being a coal miner in Virginia. When you consider this fact, it should be obvious why miners did not get rich in the Gold Rush.

And the later in the Gold Rush period you look, the more true all of this becomes. As the easily reached gold was extracted, the remaining lodes required larger operations and equipment. The hydraulic mining processes introduced in '53 made it possible to extract much more gold from an area but they required the mine owners to pay for the equipment and to build out the water source for their operations. Paying these up front costs meant the mines were owned and operated by corporations funded by wealthy investors. Investors who could see large profits without ever picking up a shovel and without even stepping foot in CA.

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    I think this is spot on but do you have sources?
    – mart
    Commented Sep 22, 2020 at 8:06

Some did well at the mines; the matter of whether they stayed wealthy is quite another. According to Antonio Coronel's memoir, Tales of Mexican California, (pp. 54-55), Lorenzo Soto took out 52 lbs of gold in 8 days.

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