At first, the western territories acquired from Mexico had no organized governments. Congress was too busy debating the issue of slavery in these territories to turn its attention to other issues of government. This changed abruptly when the following statement appeared in a newspaper:
GOLD MINE FOUND—In the newly made raceway of the Saw Mill recently erected by Captain Sutter, on the American Fork, gold has been found in considerable quantities.
The discovery of gold at Sutter’s Mill touched off the Gold Rush of 1849—a dash to California in which the entire world participated. Prospectors, called “forty-niners,” represented all ethnic groups; they were European Americans, African Americans, Chinese, and Mexicans. Most were young men, unmarried and without family ties, who could easily drop whatever work they had been doing to rush to California in search of the treasure. Because there were no stable governments and no settled society there, the West was a wild, lawless place during the Gold Rush years. Crime and racial and ethnic hostility were rife. Miners and prospectors forced Indians off land that held the promise of rich gold strikes.
Entrepreneurs traveled west in the wake of the forty-niners. They sought a different kind of treasure—not a lucky find of gold nuggets, but the kind of treasure made by running a successful business. There was clearly money to be made by opening the first western saloons, restaurants, boarding houses, laundries, and stores for the miners and prospectors. And that is how the Gold Rush gave rise to one of the classic elements of American culture—blue jeans. Levi Strauss, an immigrant tailor from Germany, made a fortune on his sturdy blue denim work trousers, which featured a diagonal twill weave—in essence, an extra layer of threads in the fabric—that made them hold up well under the tough working conditions in the gold mines. Blue jeans eventually became the most commonly worn garment in the United States.
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