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Was Your Ancestor a Gold Miner?
Column published: 10 November 2006.
By: Shirley Gage Hodges   Biography & Archived Articles

Many of us have ancestors who just seemed to disappear in the 1850's or 1860's. Have you ever considered the fact that they may have gone west to find their fortune?

I was recently asked to do a talk about the California Gold Rush and how it impacted America and it made me give this possibility a lot of thought.

"The cry of gold in California!" stirred the imagination of many. Those few words eventually had a far greater effect on the United States than any other news of the time.

When James Wilson Marshall found gold at Sutter's Mill on January 24, 1848 it changed the lives of hundreds of thousands of people. Many of them were our ancestors.

After I decided to do this talk I decided that it would be interesting to see how the gold rush impacted the Hodges families. You might want to do the same for your individual families. Not all of these individuals are related to us. We have published the Hodges Family Association newsletter for 16 years and we are always collecting information on all Hodges lines.

When I did a quick check using the 1850 census records, I was amazed at the number of Hodges men who left their homes and went to the gold fields.

In the Placerville camp area we had 2 John Hodges and a Richard Hodges. Richard and one of the John's came from England. On that page of the census there was only one person who was not a miner and there were no females.

In addition to men from England there were individuals from IL, IN, KY, MO, NY, OH, PA, and VT. Quiet a diverse group geographically speaking, all working in the same area.

There were Hodges men working as miners in Calaveras, Canion Creek, Georgetown, Jamestown, Mariposa Co., Mud Springs, Rough and Ready and Yolo Co., CA.

Good old Josh Hodges was a 73 year old man in the Rough and Ready camp. He was from OH and he was listed as a trader. That would have been a very strenuous occupation for a man of that age. Can you imagine carrying all of your wares around from location to location? In addition to those 11 Hodges men who listed their occupation as miners I also found those who listed their occupation as clerk, doctor and packer. Again, quite a diverse group.

The discovery of gold had a huge impact on the United States.
  • Some 80,000 prospectors poured into California during 1849 from all areas of the country.
  • One-fifth of the voting population of Plymouth, Mass. went to the gold fields.
  • By the end of 1849, 90 vessels had left Atlantic ports and the sailing dates of 70 more had been posted
Where to "pan" for our ancestors who went to the gold fields:
  • Family albums
  • Letters written home
  • Diaries and journals
  • Hometown newspapers published during the period
  • Census records
  • Town and county histories
  • Read books about that period
The gold strike lasted until the mid 1850s. About $400 million worth of gold found its way to San Francisco alone. About $500 million in gold was taken from the gold fields by 1860. There were other great gold finds in the United States such as the Nevada Comstock Lode and the Black Hills Homestake Mine and mines in Colorado but the discovery in California helped to settle and populate the state of California. In the end, the most valuable discovery was probably the land.

If you have stories about your ancestors who went to the Gold Fields, share them with your family. Their stories are truly fascinating. We owe a lot to those who sacrificed for us, as they blazed a trail in every step of their lives

Suggested Readings:
  • Axon, Gordon V. 1976. The California Gold Rush. New York: Mason/Charter.
  • Hittell, Theodore H. 1897. History of California, Vol. II. San Francisco: N.J. Stone & Co.
  • Holliday, J. S. 1981. The World Rushed In. A Touchstone Book.
  • Knower, Daniel. 1894. The adventures of a forty-niner. An historic description of California, with events and ideas of San Francisco and its people in those early days. Albany, Weed-Parsons Printing Co.
  • Levy, JoAnn, 1990. They Saw the Elephant: Women in the California Gold Rush. University of Oklahoma Press
  • Mattes, Merrill J. 1969. The great Platte River road: the covered wagon mainline via Fort Kearny to Fort Laramie. Lincoln: Nebraska State Historical Society.
  • Seidman, Laurence. 1976. The fools of '49: the California gold rush, 1848-1856. New York: Knopf: distributed by Random House.
  • Stellman, Louis J. 1934. Mother lode; the story of California's Gold Rush. San Francisco, Calif., Harr Wagner publishing company
  • Zanjani, Sally. 1997. A Mine of Her Own: Women Prospectors in the American West, 1850 - 1950 (Paperback). Lincoln: Nebraska University Press.
Shirley Hodges, biography & genealogy lectures; email:

Editor's Note: Shirley Hodges is the author of the popular Guide to United States Census, 1790-1930

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