(Editor’s Note: David Hickman is a graduate student studying US history at UC Davis. And no, I didn’t make him do this. Cynics. He asked. Why? Because blogging is glamorous. Also: David would prefer that you not ask how many years he’s been in graduate school. He notes that: “If some sort of tenuous connection can be drawn between progressive horticulture and the emergence of environmental thought in California, he still might find a dignified way out of the mess he has gotten himself into.” That said, thanks to David for volunteering to do this.)

The California Gold Rush began on this date in 1848 when James Marshall plucked several tiny flakes of gold from where they had wedged between the gravel of the American River. As the first significant mineral strike on American territory, the Gold Rush forced the national government to confront the question of how best to put to use non-agricultural lands in the public domain.

The national government had a clear claim to the gold of California. The Land Ordinance of 1785 reserved for the federal government one-third of the mineral wealth extracted from the public lands, and subsequent land laws sustained the precedent. What Congress lacked was the will to make good on its claim. As gold production soared, Congress imposed neither fees or regulations, nor surveyed the lands in preparation for sale. Miners could work the land for free, but they could not own it. Trespassers on the public domain, mostly transients, they alone were to decide the land’s purpose and value.

Congressional neglect was born from weakness, the inability to impose central authority over a remote and rugged land. Yet the policy’s defenders cast it as a generous act of strength, a democratic government’s concession to popular sovereignty. In the heady days of ’49, it was easy to believe that Congress could best serve the public good by opening wide the government lands to private use and development.

For a few years, the gold fields of California lived up to that democratic promise. Winners were separated from losers not principally by skill or capital availability but by blind luck, that most purely democratic means of distributing wealth (offer applies only to white, male, American citizens in good standing with the larger community – this is Jacksonian democracy after all).

Alas, the marriage of geology and democracy proved short lived. Declining concentrations of gold required miners to process ever increasing volumes of soil. By the mid 1870s, hydraulic mines regularly processed upwards of 5,000 cubic yards a day, extracting as little as three cents of gold per ton of gravel. The largest of these mines, the North Bloomfield, diverted entire rivers through a hundred plus miles of ditches, forcing an enormous volume of water through a narrow nozzle to produce a jet stream of explosive power. The hills melted away and the debris flowed without interruption into the mountain canyons of the Sierra Nevada.

All told, California miners washed some 885 million cubic yards of dirt and gravel into the four principle rivers north of Sacramento – a volume three and one half times greater that the amount excavated from the Panama Canal. The water through the Golden Gate ran brown. Riverbeds rose, levies failed, and the cities of the lower Sacramento Valley flooded. Over 30,000 acres of farmland vanished beneath the mine tailings. Only when the value of California’s wheat came to exceed the value of the state’s gold did a federal judge order an end to the dumping, effectively terminating the hydraulic mining industry.

Californians widely celebrate the image of the lone ’49er with gold pan in hand as a symbol of the rugged individual making his way in the American wilderness by wit and will alone. Historians of the New West are more inclined to look behind that individual towards the government policy that allowed the wealth of public natural resources to be rapidly converted into private gain while the costs continued to flow down river to become public once again.