Trinity County Gold Rush

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Trinity County is one of the oldest and well preserved cities in the western part of the United States with the basis of the interest in the county laying in the California gold rush that flooded people to the area over a century ago. The early period of this county saw a consistent and heavy level of population growth that brought into Trinity new groups of individuals who had never been near northern California before. These new residents came from across the country and from across the world, creating new ethnic dynamics to the region. Those first few decades shaped the county into much of what it came to be and in many ways the county remains one of the untouched splendors of the state of California. More than just California, the gold rush of Trinity, as well as the overall state of CA, played a role in the Civil War that would take place only a decade later in the United States. The geography of the state has remained mainly untouched from the time gold was first discovered there and this has been a factor in the success of the region in the past and in the future. Overall, Trinity County created an environment of diversity that brought to the surface talented people as well as prejudices and conflict that tied into the geography of the land and what economic prosperities that could hold for the individuals who risked going out there.

The terrain and geography of Trinity County made it a difficult place to get to for those who hoped to make a new living for themselves in the county. Located in the northern part of what is now California, Trinity encompassed a vast untouched area close to the Pacific Ocean. The area is included millions of square miles of mainly alpines, rivers and mountains that made movement a challenge. Pioneers had extreme difficulty reaching the location and many who attempted to get to the area quit after only a few days on the trails. The gold rush and popularity of Trinity started with the pioneer Pierson Barton Reading. This was the man to name the Trinity River in the county and also begin the trend of gold prospecting in the 1840’s. Reading is actually referred to as one of the ‘fathers’ of Northern California due to his pioneering along the Trinity and Klamath Rivers (Steger, 1943). Pearson made an effort to find out where these rivers emptied out and also worked on the rivers until he was satisfied with respect to the extent of the availability of gold in the Trinity County region. Pearson’s works led to the eventual attention that was brought to the specific regions of Trinity County and led to the influx of thousands of people to the region looking to become prosperous themselves with the gold rush.

The terrain and landscape of Trinity County is quite large and encompasses millions of square miles. The Klamath Mountains run through the county and the Trinity Alps cap the northern regions of Trinity. This area is extremely cold and snowy in the winters, another factor that made the area a difficult one to maneuver for pioneers and travelers alike. Although the winters were harsh in the region, the summers were bearable with warm temperatures and low moisture that made the working conditions more tolerable. Trinity also has an amazingly large number of scenic and extensive rivers that cut through the county, as well as the entire northern California landscape. These extensive rivers, like the Trinity River, were not only the source of the gold rush, but also home to an abundant and wide range of food and mobility. The landscape of the region is full of a large variety of fish and wildlife that could be found back in the mid-19th century, and can still even be found today. The rivers are full of salmon and trout varieties that span along the miles and miles of intricate and extensive rivers, and the terrain is ripe with bears, and deer. This was important to the development of the region since these resources were vital to those coming into the area to live and work.

Many methods were used to mine the gold during the gold rush and one that was used in the 1850’s and 1860’s was hydraulic mining, and it caused high amounts of revenue, but also ecological damage that was abysmal. The results included floods of mud and sludge that buried farmlands and contaminated entire natural areas (Kelley, 1954). There is no doubt that the gold rush in Trinity and other parts of California made the state what it is today in terms of political gains that were achieved through economic gains and prosperity. There is also no denying that the people of that gold rush impacted the ecological health of the state in a way that is still being felt today. Recent studies have found that those impacts can be seen in things like the highly dangerous levels of mercury being found in water currently (Alpers, Hunerlach, May, & Hothem, 2005). These mercury levels are related directly back to the hydraulic gold mining of the 1850’s and 1860’s, and that is a very long history of impact for what amounted to 20-30 years of prosperity. Man changed the flow and direction of the landscape by altering it in long-lasting ways. The use of dams and advanced mining techniques changed a pristine and functioning landscape into one that was altered for the sake of economic growth and advancement.

The population growth of the area later known as California was intense in the middle of the 19th century, and it was all due to the gold rush. One of the major cities of Trinity County was, and still is, Weaverville, which was established in 1850. This town is located in the northern part of the county and has been central to Trinity County since its establishment. Trinity County, and counties like it, created a boom to the state of California that may never have happened had it not been for the gold rush. The impact on the economy was significant and it created a wealthy and prosperous state that attracted miners from all over the world. In addition to miners, it brought all walks of life to the region because the miners and the new economy could not sustain themselves all alone. The growth in population saw an increase in commerce across the board as businessmen and businesswomen rushed to the region looking to capitalize on the heavy miner populations.

Contrary to popular belief, there was a large influx of women to the region as well during this period of Trinity’s history (Levy, 1992). In addition to the women that would travel to get to Trinity County, the Native American women of the region were amongst the first gold miners of Trinity. The women who came to trinity were entrepreneurs that took advantage of the mining business in Trinity County and created businesses of their own providing much needed services to the region as well as participating in mining. These women felt unrestrained, a feeling that was common in the more stringent society culture of the east. This freedom allowed for an active participation in the development of the economy of Trinity County, and California as a whole. During those formative years in the middle of the 19th century, the expectations of women in society were quite rigid and narrow. Women moving out west felt the same sense of hope and liberation from the mundaneness of their lives that the men felt. The hope was to forever change their lives by making money, and making it quickly. Many women were in fact more successful than the men because they could take advantage of the fact that they provided services that everyone needed (Levy, 1992). This could be seen in the creation of hotels, inns and restaurants that fed and housed tired and overworked miners in the Trinity County region. Sarah Royce, a pioneering woman who was one of the first to come to the California region also came to Trinity County. While there she documented how there were women in Trinity County being paid more than fair wages in excess of over a hundred dollars a month, and that this also pleased their husbands and partners (Levy, 1992). This showed that unlike the dynamics in many other parts of the nation, women were making a fair and decent living for their work. Between the genders there wasn’t a competition but a mutually agreeable set of work that made each group prosperous and successful.

This gold rush created economic prosperity and potential that brought CA into the Union as the 31st state, and more importantly, a free state. The politics of Trinity County and California played a huge role in the tipping of the scales in favor of the Union. The precursor of the Civil War was a matter of slave state versus Free states for the regions out west. Californians decided that theirs was going to be a free state, and this caused the southerners to attempt to block its induction into the Union. California was created with the north pushing it through because they emphasized the fact that it had a huge population growth, and incredible wealth and resources. This wealth and population was due exactly to parts of the state like Trinity County. As a region with considerable miner populations that flooded into the region, Trinity County was able to be a part of this change through its natural resources. California’s creation as a free state would impact not only the state, but the entire nation as it inevitably moved forward into a terrible civil conflict.

Many different groups of people started coming into the area including many Chinese, Hispanics, and blacks, during the 1840’s and 1850’s. The population of blacks to the region actually doubled by 1852, and this increased over the next decade before it started to slow down in the 1860’s (Lapp, 1977). A similar trend could be seen with the influx of Chinese into Trinity and the surrounding regions. These racial minorities faced hardships in addition to the ones faced by the other miners. There was overt hatred and animosity towards them that translated into violence and additional taxes that caused financial hardships. Many conflicts broke out and in 1854 a conflict with Chinese miners resulted in over a dozen deaths from both sides of the conflict (Trinity County Archives, 1891). Regardless of these conflicts the Chinese were an important group in the county and Weaverville still houses the oldest Joss House in the state of California. This is a testament to the diversity that was brought in by the Chinese who integrated their own culture into the region. Much of the Chinese miners began to leave the Trinity area, and mining areas in general in the later part of the 1850’s due to the slowing of gold mining and the increased work on the railroads.

Blacks who came to the region also enjoyed prosperity and access to work that was not available in many areas of the north. The south at this time was still a slave holding portion of the nation and blacks there ran away to California on many occasions (Lapp, 1977). The integration and ability to make money came in the form of not just mining, but the ability to take advantage of services that the miners needed. There were many blacks in Trinity County that added to the development and daily life of the region in both major ways and consistent small ways. Weaverville was a large and important mining community that brought out interesting and successful people from all statuses of society, and Black Dave is an example of one. Black Dave was the only fiddler musician in the Weaverville area in the early 1850’s, and his music was a way to not only make a living for himself, but also bring some much needed diversity and entertainment to the residents of Trinity County (Lapp, 1977).

Trinity County was one of the largest and most influential regions of California in its beginning years. The varied and resource rich landscape, coupled with the gold rush catapulted the county and the surrounding regions into economic and political success that was felt for years. While there were positive outcomes to the economic side of Trinity County, the ecological side suffered as a consequence in a way that can still be seen today. Today’s Trinity County is still one of the most untouched and pristine areas of the state of California with much of its historic buildings still preserved. The region also saw great ethnic and racial diversity throughout the 19th century that helped create the diverse California we know and see today. The developments of Trinity County account not only for Trinity itself, but are indicative of the change and growth the entire state saw in the 1840’s-1860’s.


Alpers, C.N., Hunerlach, M.P., May, J.T., & Hothem, R.L. (2005). Mercury Contamination from Historical Gold Mining in California. Fact Sheet 2005-3014, 1-6.

Kelley, R.L. (1954). Forgotten Giant: The Hydraulic Gold Mining Industry in California. Pacific Historical Review, 23(4), 343-356

Lapp, R.M. (1977). Blacks in Gold Rush California. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Levy, J.A. (1992). They Saw the Elephant: Women in the California Gold Rush. Oklahoma: University of Oklahoma Press.

Steger, G.A. (1943). A Chronology of the Life of Pierson Barton Reading. California Historical Society Quarterly, 22(4), 365-37.

Trinity County, CA Archives History (1891). Trinity County 1891. Chicago: The Lewis Publishing Company.