A History of Gold Mining Technology in California and Subsequent Impacts on Natural Resources (2012)

This paper explores the evolution of gold mining technology in California, and the negative repercussions for indigenous uses of natural resources. First, I have provided an exploration of the different techniques used by California placer miners, and their subsequent effects on the environment. My discussion looks at the difference in worldview between Indigenous people and gold miners, and applies concepts from coursework to this study.

Placers are deposits of gravels that contain small amounts of various minerals, in this case, gold (Yeend, et al, 1998). In the first few years of the gold rush, surface placer deposits were abundant (Limbaugh, 1998) but as gold dwindled from the surface and into the miners’ pockets, created the need to develop more invasive mining technology. As placer mining technology transformed, the changes were developed with the goal being an increase of production, rather than an interest in preserving natural resources.

Because of the original abundance of gold, technology was that of reuse. Prospectors arrived with whatever may help, including shovels, picks, butcher knives, frying pans. Many of the tools and techniques adopted by miners were used by other cultures for years. For example, the batea from Spain, a bowl carved from a single block of wood. Miners were also known to use the intricate watertight baskets woven by the indigenous peoples of the Northwest Coast (Limbaugh 1998).

Although the panning process was not the most destructive mode of mining technology to the environment (these techniques had been used by Indigenous Peoples for long prior to the Gold Rush), the miners themselves were destructive. Chatterjee accounts that the, “settlers arrived and set about tearing up the river beds and hillsides for mining and chopping down forests for firewood to keep themselves warm and to cook, devastating the traditional food supply” (Chatterjee, 1998, 3). He provides the example of the Tahoe basin region, whose forests were devastated for a reach of one hundred miles at least (Chatterjee 1998).

By the 1850’s the surface placer gold deposits had been severely depleted, and prospectors began to develop heavier technology: the sluice, long tom, and rocker. These new devices used water and gravity to separate the heavier gold pieces from light gravel and sand (Limbaugh 1998). Water consumption increased, as well as the amount of placer deposits removed. Along with sluice boxes, miners used amalgamation, in which the riffle bars of sluice boxes were coated with mercury, to “capture” the pure gold. They then cleaned the gold by burning off the mercury (Limbaugh 1998). These chemicals have since found their way into towns and affect fish and wildlife in the communities (Chatterjee, 1996, 11).

The process of hydraulic mining is one of the most destructive forms of mining technology. Limbaugh refers to this “breakthrough” as a “revolutionary process using the destructive power of high-pressure water to exploit thick, deeply buried placer deposits at the lowest possible cost (Limbaugh, 1998, 33) Hydraulic mining was capable of speeding up the process of gold mining by weeks (Chatterjee, 1996, 16).The effects of hydraulic mining were that it causes an immense amount of debris. Approximately 40,000 acres of farmland and orchards were destroyed when buried by the washed down sediment (Chatterjee, 1996, 15). According to Anderson, the most affected rivers were the Feather, Yuba, Bear, and American rivers in California (Anderson, 2005, 99). Hydraulic technology was replaced by use of chemicals such as mercury and cyanide leach technology later in the 1960s (Chatterjee, 1996, 22). Mercury had been used prior in the sluice box, but was now on a much larger scale.

Although the focus of this paper is the effects on natural resources, it is important to reiterate that at this time there was also widespread explicit genocide on Native Americans in California. Native Americans had mining claims as well, but were in many cases forced off by miners. Shopkeepers developed the “digger ounce” as a way to swindle the gold the Native Americans were able to mine at this time. The violence expanded into a widespread militia and several massacres, the cultural damage of which is still prominent in many Native American societies (Chatterjee 1996).

One of the primary concepts we have been examining in this Native Perspective on Natural Resources course, is the difference in worldview between indigenous people and settlers. Although the presence of gold had been known prior to its “discovery” at Sutter’s mill in 1848 (Sawin 1949), this event is an example of the revival of the American Dream myth that has been blindly followed by Americans.

            Gregory Cajete offers two concepts which I believe represent the underlying difference in native and non-native worldview perception. These terms are biophilia, which is described as an innate instinct of human beings to facilitate themselves around living things, and biophobia, a basic instinct of human beings to fear nature (Cajete, 2000). The difference is a feeling of community and relationship with nature, versus the constant fear of death that creates a mistrust of nature. I find this biophobia to be the underlying influence for non-native science. I also relate this to the social/spiritual expression barrier from Indigenous Peoples and the Collaborative Stewardship of Nature, because non-native thinkers[1] have a mistrusting relationship with nature, and the universe in general, which leads to the constant questioning and proof-seeking epistemology.

            The California Gold Rush is an event that occurred as part of new Americans attempting to fulfill the myth of the American Dream. This is the era of the industrial revolution, which had resulted in idea that science, innovation, and technology could lead to success and material wealth (Limbaugh 1996). The need to fulfill this myth provided enough rationalization for the miners to ignore the consequences of their actions, and eliminate any competition to their success.

            This myth has protruded into the present era, as shown by the elevated status Americans give the story and the absence of Indigenous perspectives from the literature. In my research for example, many sources tended to leave out the fact that Sutter’s mill was on Maidu land, and Maidu workers helped greatly in the “discovery” of the gold (Chatterjee 1996).

            Mining practices have persisted into the present as well, however there are also those dedicated to the study of the process of sediment disruption from the Gold Rush (Allan, 1989). The continued degradation of natural resources has …, hidden away in the depths of our culture and we are unaware the myth even exists and continue to follow it blindly. However, as more Americans become aware of our civil religion creation myth, perhaps we can begin to end the cycle of violence that is so inherent in our country.


[1] When I say non-native, I refer to the general characteristics that have been ascribed to “Western” thinking in general.

Anderson, Kat. 2005. Tending the Wild: Native American Knowledge and the Management of          California’s Natural Resources. Berkeley: University of California.

Cajete, Gregory. 2000. Native Science: Natural Laws of Interdependence. Santa Fe, NM: Clear          Light.

Chatterjee, Pratap. 1996. Gold, Greed and Genocide: Unmasking the Myth of the ’49ers.      Berkeley, CA: Project Underground.

James, L. Allan. “Sustained Storage and Transport of Hydraulic Gold Mining Sediment in the          Bear River, California.” Annals of the Association of American Geographers 79.4 (1989): 570-92.

Limbaugh, Ronald H. “Making Old Tools Work Better: Pragmatic Adaptation and Innovation in             Gold-Rush Technology.” California History 77.4 (1998) 24-51.

Ross, Anne, Kathleen Pickering Sherman, Jeffrey G. Snodgrass, Henry D. Delacore, and Richard        Sherman. Indigenous Peoples and the Collaborative Stewardship of Nature: Knowledge                Binds and Institutional Conflicts. Walnut Creek, CA: Left Coast, 2011. Print.

Yeend, Warren, Peter H. Stauffer, and James W. Hendley II. 1998. Supporting Sound       Management of Our Mineral Resources: Rivers of Gold–placer Mining in Alaska.     Reston, Va.?: U.S. Dept. of the Interior, U.S. Geological Survey.


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