A gold rush is a period of feverish migration of workers into the area of a dramatic discovery of commercial quantities of gold. Major gold rushes took place in the 19th century in Australia, Brazil, Canada, South Africa, and the United States, while smaller gold rushes took place elsewhere.
Gold rushes were typically marked by a general buoyant feeling of a "free for all" in income mobility, in which any single individual might become abundantly wealthy almost instantly. The significance of gold rushes in history has given a longer life to the term, and it is now applied generally to denote any capitalist economic activity in which the participants aspire to race each other in common pursuit of a new and apparently highly lucrative market, often precipitated by an advance in technology.
Gold rushes helped spur permanent non-indigenous settlement of new regions and define a significant part of the culture of the North American and Australian frontiers. As well, at a time when money was based on gold, the newly-mined gold provided economic stimulus far beyond the gold fields. Gold rushes presumably extend back as far as gold mining, to the Roman Empire, whose gold mining was described by Diodorus Siculus and Pliny the Elder, and probably further back to Ancient Egypt.
There are about 10 to 30 million small-scale miners around the world, according to Communities and Small-Scale Mining (CASM). Approximately 100 million people are directly or indirectly dependent on small-scale mining. There are 800,000 to 1.5 million artisanal miners in Democratic Republic of Congo, 350,000 to 650,000 in Sierra Leone, and 150,000 to 250,000 in Ghana, with millions more across Africa.
Within each mining rush there is typically a transition through progressively higher capital expenditures, larger organizations, and more specialized knowledge. They may also progress from high-unit value to lower unit value minerals (from gold to silver to base metals).
The rush is started by a discovery of placer gold made by an individual. At first the gold may be washed from the sand and gravel by individual miners with little training, using a gold pan or similar simple instrument. Once it is clear that the volume of gold-bearing sediment is larger than a few cubic meters, the placer miners will build rockers or sluice boxes, with which a small group can wash gold from the sediment many times faster than using gold pans. (See placer mining for details.) Winning the gold in this manner requires almost no capital investment, only a simple pan or equipment that may be built on the spot, and only simple organization. The low investment, the high value per unit weight of gold, and the ability of gold dust and gold nuggets to serve as a medium of exchange, allow placer gold rushes to occur even in remote locations.
After the sluice-box stage, placer mining may become increasingly large scale, requiring larger organizations, and higher capital expenditures. Small claims owned and mined by individuals may need to be merged into larger tracts. Difficult-to-reach placer deposits may be mined by tunnels. Water may be diverted by dams and canals to placer mine active river beds or to deliver water needed to wash dry placers. The more advanced techniques of ground sluicing, hydraulic mining, and dredging may be used.
Typically the heyday of a placer gold rush would last only a few years. The free gold supply in stream beds would become depleted somewhat quickly, and the initial phase would be followed by prospecting for veins of lode gold that were the original source of the placer gold. Hardrock mining, like placer mining, may evolve from low capital investment and simple technology to progressively higher capital and technology. The surface outcrop of a gold-bearing vein may be oxidized, so that the gold occurs as native gold, and the ore needs only to be crushed and washed (free milling ore). The first miners may at first build a simple arrastre to crush their ore; later, they may build stamp mills to crush ore more quickly. As the miners dig down, they may find that the deeper part of vein contains gold locked in sulfide or telluride minerals, which will require smelting. If the ore is still sufficiently rich, it may be worth shipping to a distant smelter (direct shipping ore). Lower-grade ore may require on-site treatment to either recover the gold or to produce a concentrate sufficiently rich for transport to the smelter. As the district turns to lower-grade ore, the mining may change from underground mining to large open-pit mining.
Many silver rushes followed upon gold rushes. As transportation and infrastructure improve, the focus may change progressively from gold to silver to base metals. In this way, Leadville, Colorado started as a placer gold discovery, achieved fame as a silver-mining district, then relied on lead and zinc in its later days. Butte, Montana began mining placer gold, then became a silver-mining district, then became for a time the world’s largest copper producer.
The Victorian gold rush, which occurred in Australia in 1851 soon after the California gold rush, was the biggest of several Australian gold rushes. That gold rush was highly significant to Australia’s, and especially Victoria's and Melbourne's, political and economic development. With the Australian gold rushes came the construction of the first railways and telegraph lines, multiculturalism and racism, the Eureka Stockade and the end of penal transportation.
In 1852 alone, 370,000 immigrants arrived in Australia and the economy of the nation boomed. The 'rush' was well and truly on. Victoria contributed more than one third of the world's gold output in the 1850s and in just two years the State's population had grown from 77,000 to 540,000.
The number of new arrivals to Australia was greater than the number of convicts who had landed there in the previous seventy years. The total population trebled from 430,000 in 1851 to 1.7 million in 1871.
Gold rushes happened at or around:
The first significant gold rush in the United States was in Cabarrus County, North Carolina (east of Charlotte), in 1799 at today's Reed's Gold Mine. Thirty years later, in 1829, the Georgia Gold Rush in the southern Appalachians occurred. It was followed by the California Gold Rush of 1848–52 in the Sierra Nevada, which captured the popular imagination. The California gold rush led directly to the settlement of California by Americans and the rapid entry of that state into the union in 1850. The gold rush in 1849 stimulated worldwide interest in prospecting for gold, and led to new rushes in Australia, South Africa, Wales and Scotland.- Successive gold rushes occurred in western North America, moving north and east from California: Fraser Canyon, the Cariboo district and other parts of British Columbia, and the Rocky Mountains. Resurrection Creek, near Hope, Alaska was the site of Alaska's first gold rush more than a century ago, and placer mining continues today. Other notable Alaska Gold Rushes were Nome and the Fortymile River.
One of the last "great gold rushes" was the Klondike Gold Rush in Canada's Yukon Territory (1898–99), immortalized in the novels of Jack London, the poetry of Robert W. Service and Charlie Chaplin's film The Gold Rush. The main goldfield was along the south flank of the Klondike River near its confluence with the Yukon River near what was to become Dawson City in Canada's Yukon Territory but it also helped open up the relatively new US possession of Alaska to exploration and settlement and promoted the discovery of other gold finds.
South African gold production went from zero in 1886 to 23% of the total world output in 1896. At the time of the South African rush, gold production benefited from the newly discovered techniques by Scottish chemists, the MacArthur-Forrest process, of using potassium cyanide to extract gold from low-grade ore.