10 Gold Rushes You Should Know About
Gold! Gold! Gold! What is it about this precious metal that causes such a rush among human beings? Throughout history, the discovery of gold veins has sparked mass movements of people and capital to hitherto unknown parts of the world. Gold rushes have been documented as far back as ancient Rome, but most of the major gold rushes occurred during the modern era, which runs roughly from 1500 AD to the present.
The most famous gold rush in American history is the California Gold Rush of 1849, (RealClearHistory covered it recently), but the history of gold rushes deserves a bit more scrutiny. Why on earth would a precious metal cause so much upheaval in population transfers, in spending on infrastructure, and on violence and property rights adjudication? Here are 10 gold rushes in history that deserve more attention:
10. Klondike Gold Rush (1896-99), Yukon Territory, Canada. Let’s start with Canada’s most famous gold rush. While gold was discovered in 1896, the Klondike was so hard to reach (the Canadian government required each potential miner to travel with a year’s worth of supplies before embarking on the journey) that the gold rush didn’t really get going until 1898. By then, the gold rush had sputtered out when a new vein of gold was discovered farther north, in Nome, Alaska, but not before the local Native population was removed (for their own protection, of course) and subsequently died out on their newly-established reservation. British Columbia, just a bit south of the Yukon Territory, had numerous, smaller-scale gold rushes throughout the 19th century, and if I were a betting man I’d say that there’s plenty more gold them thar hills.
9. Otago Gold Rush (1861-64), Otago Hills, New Zealand. Located in southern New Zealand, the Otago Gold Rush of 1861-64 kicked off a frenzy of mining activity in the mid-19th century, just as the American Civil War was getting underway. The rush is known not for its conflicts between indigenous and European settlers (the local Maori clans had long been pushed out of the Otago region), but between European and Chinese miners and between miners and farmers in the region (the farmers had, of course, pushed out the Maori). Unlike some of the larger gold rushes of the 19th century, the Otago Gold Rush did not lead to massive population upheavals or infrastructure projects, but the issue of property rights makes this gold rush ripe for research.
8. Victoria Gold Rush (1851-69), Victoria, Australia. Australia’s most famous gold rush, the Victorian Gold Rush, launched the state into global prominence and established Melbourne as one of the most important financial centers in the 19th-century world. Millions of people rushed into the region and began digging for that most precious of metals. Few got rich. Most people instead turned to homesteading and agriculture, and the Australian state of Victoria became the powerhouse of Australia. Democracy in Australia is said to have gotten its roots during the Victoria Gold Rush, as did White Australia, a racist and xenophobic government policy that lasted well into the 20th century, thanks mostly to the riots that occurred between European and Chinese miners.
7. Brazilian Gold Rush (1690s - late 19th century), Minas Gerais, Brazil. The Brazilian Gold Rush brought 400,000 free souls and half a million slaves to Minas Gerais beginning in the late 17th century, and is still home to the largest gold mines on the continent. Bourne out of the southern Brazilian state of Minas Gerais, the richest and most prosperous state in the republic today, the Brazilian Gold Rush was more famous for the amount of gold that did not enter Portugal’s coffers. You see, Portugal (which at the time was the imperial power of Brazil) was infamous for bungling its bureaucracy and for its ineptness in overall governance. The crown tried to argue that because gold was discovered in Brazil it all belonged to Portugal. Unfortunately for the Portuguese Empire, the miners (and local elites) did not see things that way. Aside from the immigrants and slaves that arrived in large numbers, most of Brazil’s north was emptied as the former tenant farmers migrated south looking for riches. The indigenous tribes in the area were exterminated.
6. Nome Gold Rush (1899-1909), Nome, Alaska. The infamous gold rush in Alaska was near the top of the world, but the distance from civilization didn’t stop potential prospectors from coming in droves. After the failure of the Klondike Gold Rush to produce riches, many of the miners drifted northwest to Nome. A harbor city by design, gold was found in the sand of Nome’s beaches, as well as in nearby hills and rivers. Because it was a port city, and unlike Klondike, the Nome Gold Rush attracted many tens of thousands more people, and grew to be the largest town in all of Alaska. Claim-jumping became popular in Nome, and the schemes even brought down some high-ranking federal politicians and judges. Potential historians take heed: the claim-jumong in Alaska is woefully underexplored.
5. Western Australia Gold Rushes (1885-93), Western Australia, Australia. Australia, like the United States and Canada, had many gold rushes, and while the Victoria Gold Rush was more lucrative, the Western Australia Gold Rushes are probably more influential on popular culture. Western Australia is the largest state by area in the Australian Commonwealth and is akin to the Wild West of the United States thanks in large part to the gold rushes that occurred there in the late 19th century. Massive infrastructure projects were undertaken by the Australian government to support the rushes, and so too were violent removals of both indigenous peoples and homesteaders (“illegal squatters” is what mining interests labeled them). While none of the rushes achieved fame on their own, the nearly decade-long period in which the rushes happened resulted in Western Australia becoming wealthy and being able to punch well above its weight, politically and economically.
4. Tierra del Fuego Gold Rush (1883-1906), Tierra del Fuego, Chile. In 1883, a French steamship crashed in southern Chile and before being rescued, the crew of the ship had found nuggets of gold. Word spread quickly and soon miners (professional and amateur alike) from all over Chile, neighboring Argentina, and the Latin European world flocked to the edge of civilization to gather their riches. The subsequent boom wiped out the local indigenous population, and as soon as the gold was judged to have been removed, most of the miners packed up and headed home. Those who stayed behind ended up becoming sheep farmers or fisherman. The Tierra del Fuego Gold Rush is perhaps most famous thanks to the violent rise of Julius Popper, a Romanian-born Argentine who managed to make enemies of everybody on the archipelago (he died at the age of 35 under “sudden” circumstances).
3.Witwatersrand Gold Rush (1886), Johannesburg, South Africa. South Africa has always been known as a place of abundant minerals, but with the discovery of gold in the Witwatersrand Basin in 1885, the most massive gold rush in world history took place. The gold rush was so immense that it kicked off the Second Boer War between the United Kingdom and the Boer Republics. The Boer War, in turn, led to more direct British rule and the establishment of concentration camps in the country for Boer rebels and their families. The Witwatersrand Gold Rush led directly to the founding of Johannesburg, now the most important financial center on the continent of Africa, and one of the most important in the world.
2. Ghana (current). Today the west African country of Ghana is going through a gold rush. Prior to independence in 1959 (the first African country to do so, by the way), Ghana was known as the Gold Coast and it was one of the more lucrative British colonies in the empire. The Gold Coast’s wealth stemmed from the slave trade for a long time, but once that ended, and the British finally conquered the Ashanti Empire (which was known for exporting slaves and gold in vast quantities), gold became an important aspect of the formal market sector of the Gold Coast’s economy. Today, property rights are under siege and, as a result, the environment is being torn to shreds in Ghana. If you get a chance, be sure to check out the short-lived television series Jungle Gold for more information about the ongoing Ghanaian Gold Rush.
1. Siberia in the 1830s and 1840s. Siberia is also undergoing a gold rush of sorts today, but one that is different from the gold rushes of the past (and helps to better explain the world we live in today): non-Russians are not allowed to join the fray. In fact, it is Russian-owned and Russian-operated companies that do most of the mining, and the gold goes straight to Moscow’s war chest. In the 1830s and 1840s, anybody who was brave enough to confront the harshness of Siberia was welcome to prospect for gold. Russia has seen lots of gold rushes in its long and storied history, but the topic is surprisingly under-researched.
Indigenous populations got the short end of the stick in all of these gold rushes. The best way to view how these peoples lost their land is through a “property rights lens.” If there had been some sort of court to adjudicate the disputes of property between indigenous peoples and miners, or even between homesteaders and miners, the genocides that took place due to gold rushes would not have taken place. In addition, with a stronger property rights regime in place, the violent nature of the gold rush era would have been less so, but when you have a dispute over land that does not come with a neutral third party, you get violence.
Gold rushes are extremely underutilized in research and literature. If I were an entrepreneurial sort of person, I would start digging in to the finer aspects of gold rushes.