Mining in the West

After the civil war, many Americans turned their attention to the West, the so called last frontier that included the Great Plains, the Rocky Mountains, and the Western Plateau. Beforehand, these lands were known as "the Great American Desert". Although at first miners were driven to mine gold and silver, they later discovered industrial minerals like coal, copper, iron, oil and gas, which allowed new and continued growth of settlements in the west.

The Beginning: California Gold Rush
James Marshall discovered gold at Sutter's Mill on January 24, 1848. The rest of the United States starting getting reports of the discovery as early as September, but it wasn't until November of 1848 that the reports started bringing in more and more people. Because of the California Gold Rush, there were a number of towns that sprung up, including Amador City, Angels Camp, Auburn, Coloma, Coulterville, Downieville, Grass Valley, Jackson, Jamestown, Mariposa, Mokelumne Hill, Nevada City, Placerville, San Andreas, Sierra City, Sonora, Sutter Creek, Weaverville, and Yreka.
A similar discovery of gold near Pike's Peak, in 1859, brought 100,000 miners to Colorado.


The Far West Frontier - 1858-1868
The miners that had arrived in California and Colorado found themselves out of luck as the mining deposits were being depleted. By 1859, California miners were beginning to move East in search of new Frontiers. By the early 1860's, Colorado miners were doing the same and shifting west. The flood of people allowed many new districts to open in Nevada (Austin, Eureka, Virginia City), Montana (Butte, Helena, Philipsburg, Virginia City), Utah (Park City), and many other areas throughout the West.

The Colorado Booms
The mining history of Colorado began in 1859 with the Colorado Gold Rush to the Front Range area of the Rocky Mountains. Early gold rush towns included Central City, Blackhawk, Breckenridge, Idaho Springs, and Georgetown.
Colorado experienced a second boom in 1879, which concentrated on silver. Silver was discovered in Colorado by the early 1860's, but it wasn't until Congress authorized federal purchase of silver in 1878 that silver prices rose to levels that fueled mining. Towns founded just before or during the silver boom included Aspen, Creede, Lake City, Leadville, Ouray, Salida, Silver Plume, Silverton, and Telluride.
George Hearst struck it rich in Nevada, after discovering the Comstock Lode. It produced over $340 million in gold and silver. It allowed Nevada to enter the Union in 1864, and Idaho and Montana following it.

Mining Towns
The California Gold Rush started this pattern for what usually happened during this time. First individual prospectors would look for gold in the mountain streams, by a method called, placer mining. They used simple tools like shovels and washing pans. It wasn't long until these methods died out, and the use of deep-shaft mining begun. It, however, required expensive equipment and plenty of resources from investors and corporations.
a machine used in diamond drilling
In actuality, the vast majority became laborers, working for poor wages in dangerous environments and living in desolate communities. Their romantic images of mining were false, as they performed rigorous work and had numerous mining accidents.
The strikes that actually did succeed created boomtowns, towns that became famous for their saloons, dance-hall girls, and vigilantes. Many added their own theaters, churches, newspapers, schools, and railroads, yet the most became ghost towns once the gold and silver ran out.
Helena, as a mining town

The use of many experienced miners that were immigrants from Europe, Latin America, and China became popular. Actually, a large part of the population of these mining towns was immigrants. This led to nativist actions against immigrants such as the Miner's Tax, which demanded $20 from all immigrant miners. Congress also passed the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which stopped immigration from China.

Mining also impacted economics and politics. The increase of silver created a crisis over the overall value of gold and silver backed currency, a later issue of the westerners in the 1880s and 1890s. It left environmental scars, as well as some on the Native Americans who were forced to leave their lands because of the greed of the miners.

Sources: amsco book