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Mining the West

"We had not less than thirty thousand 'feet' apiece in the 'richest mines on earth.' … We were stark mad with excitement -- drunk with happiness -- smothered under mountains of prospective wealth -- arrogantly compassionate toward the plodding millions who knew not our marvelous canyon -- but our credit was not good at the grocer's." — Mark Twain, Roughing It (1872)

The stunning discovery of gold at Sutter's fort in California in January 1848 had a major impact on mapping after that date; many maps should be viewed in the context of "before 1848" and "after 1848." Even world maps made room for gold-painted patches on California to make clear where the goods were. Gold created a fever, which spurred the building of roads and railroads to speed the travel west. Earlier, the impetus had been British and Russian incursions on the Pacific coast; now gold fever instantly changed motivations and emigration patterns. California became an important destination, and San Francisco's population boomed. World maps emphasized railroad routes west and shipping routes across the Central American isthmus. Guidebooks for travelers across land and sea were instant bestsellers. Popular writers from Mark Twain to the explorer John Charles Frémont wrote about the gold fields.

But California was not alone in its golden treasure. Colorado, Wyoming, Alaska, and Idaho all were known for periods of time for their gold mines and potential for making anyone rich. The mapmakers were not subtle as they created and sold thousands of maps pointing the way to worldly wealth.

Gold fever also led to continuing conflicts with Native Americans. General George Armstrong Custer, a hero in the Civil War, led an expedition in 1874 to the Black Hills, where his troops discovered gold. When word got out, Americans seeking gold poured into areas considered sacred by Native Americans, thereby violating treaties signed by the U.S. government. Native Americans fought for their land, which led to the battle of the Little Bighorn (1876), a direct result of gold fever.

The maps in this section are products of the widespread dreams for material goods and wealth initially spurred by the gold rush of '48-'49 and later discoveries of gold and silver.

Map of the United States of America…   1
G. Woolworth Colton
Map of the United States of America…, 1849
NYPL, Map Division

The New Empire of Western Colorado   2
The New Empire of Western Colorado, 1888
NYPL, Map Division

The New Gold Mines of Western Kansas and Nebraska…   3
William B. Parsons
The New Gold Mines of Western Kansas and Nebraska…, 1859
NYPL, Map Division

Refer to Map of the United States and Mexico (1859), which details explorers' trails, transportation routes, and settlement patterns.

Controlling the West Map
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