Placer gold, or surface gold, was relatively abundant in California’s waterways when the Gold Rush first began in 1848. Early prospectors initially used primitive tools such as picks, pans, and shovels to break up and wash riverbed gravel in their quest for riches.
However, hoards of gold seekers quickly exhausted surface supplies of the precious metal. Miners then turned to more invasive and technologically advanced mining techniques. Diverting waterways, blasting, and forms of hydraulic mining quickly replaced placer mining methods.
By 1857, California’s gold production stabilized at roughly $45 million annually. President Lincoln later speculated that gold from California’s mines would significantly ease the heavy burden of national debt that had skyrocketed due to the immense costs of the Civil War.
“Tell the miners from me, that I shall promote their interests to the utmost of my ability; because their prosperity is the prosperity of the nation, and we shall prove in a very few years that we are indeed the treasury of the world.”
President Abraham Lincoln’s message to California’s miners, spoken to a friend about to depart for California, April 13, 1865. As quoted in Milton Henry Shutes, Lincoln and California (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1943).