This Day in History (5-Dec-1848) – U.S. President James K. Polk informs the US Congress there are large amounts of gold in California, launching the Gold Rush

The great California gold rush began on January 24, 1848, when James W. Marshall discovered a gold nugget in the American River while constructing a sawmill for John Sutter, a Sacramento agriculturalist. News of Marshall’s discovery caused the large influx of “’49ers,” as the gold prospectors were known. California’s overall population growth was so swift that it was incorporated into the Union as the 31st state in 1850—just two years after the United States had acquired it from Mexico.

One of the migrations stimulated by the discovery of gold was the internal westward movement of Americans from the eastern states who hoped to make fortunes in California. At first, there were only two routes. The first entailed a six-month sea voyage from New York around the tip of South America to San Diego or San Francisco. Rampant seasickness, bug-infested food, boredom, and high expense made this route unattractive for many would-be prospectors. The second route brought travelers over the Oregon-California Trail in covered wagons—over rugged terrain and hostile territory. This journey also averaged six months’ duration. By 1850, the length and difficulty of both routes had inspired the construction of the Panama Railway, the world’s first transcontinental railroad. Built across the isthmus of Panama by private American companies to speed travel to California, the railroad helped to shave months off of the long voyage around South America.

In addition to massive emigration from the eastern US, the California gold rush triggered a global emigration of ambitious fortune-seekers from China, Germany, Chile, Mexico, Ireland, Turkey, and France. The number of Chinese gold-seekers was particularly large. The influx of Chinese and other foreign laborers led to ethnic tensions in California, especially as gold grew scarce. Despite the ethnic tensions it engendered, the Gold Rush forever changed the demographic face of California by making it one of the most ethnically diverse states in the Union by the middle of the 19th century.


This Day in History (24-Nov-1859) – Charles Darwin Publishes ‘On the Origin of Species’

After Darwin graduated with a bachelor of arts degree in 1831, botany professor John Stevens Henslow recommended him for a naturalist’s position aboard the HMS Beagle. The ship was to take a five-year survey trip around the world. Over the course of the trip, Darwin collected a variety of natural specimens, including birds, plants and fossils. Through hands-on research and experimentation, he had the unique opportunity to closely observe principles of botany, geology and zoology. The Pacific Islands and Galapagos Archipelago were of particular interest to Darwin, as was South America.

Upon his return to England in 1836, Darwin began to write up his findings in the Journal of Researches. He began to develop a revolutionary theory about the origin of living beings that was contrary to the popular view of other naturalists at the time. Other naturalists believed that all species either came into being at the start of the world, or were created over the course of natural history. In either case, the species were believed to remain much the same throughout time. Darwin, however, noticed similarities among species all over the globe, along with variations based on specific locations, leading him to believe that they had gradually evolved from common ancestors. Combining a series of basic facts (food is limited and animals compete for it) and inferences (species have to fight to continue on), Darwin reasoned that animals would continue to exist on based on their ability to survive and reproduce. This process was called as “natural selection,” where species that successfully adapted to meet the changing requirements of their natural habitat thrived, while those that failed to evolve and reproduce died off.

On November 24, 1859, Darwin published a detailed explanation of his theory in his best-known work, “On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection”.During the next century, DNA studies revealed evidence of his theory of evolution, although controversy surrounding its conflict with Creationism—the religious view that all of nature was born of God—still abounds today.



This Day in History (6-Sep-1522) – Victoria Sails into Port in Spain, Arriving as the First Ship to Circumnavigate the World

Twenty-five years after Christopher Columbus had set foot in the New World for Spain, Magellan and two associates presented the idea of western route to the “Spice Islands” to King Charles I in 1517.  Excited by the possibility, Charles agreed and guaranteed the men five ships — the Trinidad, San Antonio, Concepcion, Santiago and Victoria.  After building a crew of 270, the voyage departed on August 10, 1519 from Seville with Magellan at the helm of the Trinidad.  Three months later, the group anchored in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil to load up on supplies. Late in the year 1520, the ships reached Tierra del Fuego, the southernmost point of South America. Now through to the South Pacific, Magellan guided his crew northwest.  In March 1521, the expedition reached the Philippines.  Attacked by native tribes upon landing at Mactan, Magellan and 30 crewmen were killed in fierce fighting. The remaining crew, just enough to fill up theTrinidad and Victoria, setting sail in May and landing in Borneo in mid-June.  In November, the 115 remaining crew reached the Spice Islands (Maluku), just as Magellan had intended.

Ready to return to Europe, the remaining two ships split up. Victoria left In December 1521 with Juan Sebastian Elcano in charge.  In May 1522, the ship turned north up the west coast of Africa with only rice to eat, causing 20 sailors to die of starvation.  In September, Elcano had forced 13 others to disembark in order to save the 26-ton load of cinnamon and cloves. Having covered 42,000 miles of ocean, more than half of it completely unfamiliar — the leaking boat only managed to return thanks to the crew working day and night to pump water from within the hull. The 18 men remaining aboard, gaunt and fatigued, presented themselves to the court of Charles I days later. Completing the full trip around the world only occurred because Elcano, relatively unknown to history, decided to strike to the west. It is interesting to note that whilst on the Cape Verde Islands they had discovered that although all the logs on the boat showed that it was a Wednesday, the Calendars on land all showed it to be a Thursday. At first they puzzled over the mistake they thought they had made before eventually realising that by travelling a 360 degree circumference of the globe they had lost a day.



This Day in History (21-Aug-1770) – James Cook Declares Eastern Australia for Great Britain

In the first of his three expeditions to the South Pacific, Cook managed to be the first man from western Europe to lay eyes upon what is today New South Wales. When he took on the mission, Cook received a grant from the Royal Society to observe the rare celestial occurrence of Venus passing across the sun in the South Pacific and use the information to determine the distance between the Earth and its nearest star.  Seen in 1761 by scientists from Britain, Austria and France at locations all over the world, the Royal Society wished to see if Edmond Halley’s calculations about the transit of Venus were correct.  Dispatching Cook to Tahiti in 1768 for observations, the following year allowed the young navigator ample time to plan his route and gather supplies.

Leaving Plymouth, England on August 26th, Cook sailed across the Atlantic Ocean and down the coast of South America before turning west into the Pacific after rounding Cape Horn.  In mid-April 1769, a minor collection of observations of Venus’ path were made. But the mission also had a hidden military agenda. Cook carried sealed orders instructing him to seek out the “Great Southern Continent,” an undiscovered landmass that was believed to lurk somewhere near the bottom of the globe. Within a few weeks of leaving Tahiti, Cook sailed the HMS Endeavor along the edges of New Zealand, creating a detailed map of the coastline, proving it was a pair of islands and not connected to a larger landmass.   Then he turned toward New Holland – what is now known as Australia – to serve as his guide back toward Southeast Asia on a westward course to Britain.  Early on the morning of April 19, 1770, the southeastern edge of Australia came into view.  Cook and his men entered history as the first Europeans to record seeing that stretch of coastline as they slowly skirted along to the north around the land mass.

While Cook’s journeys took place during a time when Britain was variously at war with the United States, Spain and France, his reputation as a pioneering explorer allowed him to travel the seas with relative impunity.