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Edward Hargraves, a failed California gold prospector from England, sparked the second largest gold rush in the world: The Victoria Gold Rush in Australia

Goran Blazeski

The California Gold Rush was one of the most significant events to shape American history. It all began in January 1848, when the foreman James Marshall discovered flakes of gold in the American River near Coloma (northeast of present-day Sacramento).

News about the gold in the American River spread very quickly across the US, but people were skeptical. However, when Sam Brannan walked around San Francisco with a bottle full of gold dust, people started to believe that the area around the American River was full of gold. Soon, thousands of people went to California in search of the precious metal, and in less than two years, more than 100,000 immigrants had settled in California.

Edward Hammond Hargraves.

Edward Hammond Hargraves.

News of the gold continued to spread, and a large number of gold-seekers came from all over the world – Mexico, Peru, Chile, China, Europe, and Australia. Among these gold seekers was the English prospector Edward Hargraves. There, he had to face fierce competition and eventually this led to failure. He spent two years in California but didn’t manage to find any gold.

Gold diggings, Ararat, Victoria, by Edwin Stocqueler, 1854.

Gold diggings, Ararat, Victoria, by Edwin Stocqueler, 1854.

However, while in California, Hargraves met many gold-seekers who taught him various prospecting techniques, like excavating, panning, and cradling. He also discussed with them the geographical similarities between the California fields and the western districts of New South Wales. They concluded that both places were very much alike and this led Hargraves to believe that there was a great chance of finding gold in Australia.

When Hargraves went to Australia in 1851, he announced his intentions to find gold. This time he was convinced that he would succeed, but many did not believe in this, especially those who returned from California empty-handed. Hargraves ignored them and started prospecting in Bathurst, NSW, together with Tom Brothers and their friend John Lister. As you can guess, they found the first gold in Australia.

Nerrena Fossickers in Nerrena Creek outside Ballarat.

Nerrena Fossickers in Nerrena Creek outside Ballarat.

Edward Hargraves reported his discovery to the authorities in Sidney, directing them to the location where he found gold. When a government geologist confirmed that there was indeed gold in that area, Hargraves was rewarded with £500. When he returned to Bathurst fields, he renamed the richest area ‘Ophir,’ a biblical reference to the city of gold, and the Australian gold rush had begun.

 

Ballarat’s tent city just a couple of years after the discovery of gold in the district. Oil painting from an original 1853 sketch by Eugene von Guerard.

Ballarat’s tent city just a couple of years after the discovery of gold in the district. Oil painting from an original 1853 sketch by Eugene von Guerard.

The news quickly spread and soon people rushed towards the goldfields. In 1852, a huge number of immigrants arrived in Australia, and the economy of the nation boomed.

Bathurst was not the only place where gold could be found; Ballarat and Bendigo, fields in central Victoria, were amazingly rich too. Incredible wealth poured out of Victoria, contributing more than one-third of the world’s gold output at the time. The Australian population expanded greatly, growing from 430,000 in 1851 to 1.7 million in 1871.

Prospector’s Hut, Upper Dargo, Victoria (Gippsland), 1870.

Prospector’s Hut, Upper Dargo, Victoria (Gippsland), 1870.

Edward Hargraves received various expensive gifts for his discovery and was awarded £10,000 pounds, and a life pension of £250 pounds. He became a public figure and enjoyed the fame.  As a successful gold prospector, Hargraves visited England in 1853-54, met the Queen, enjoyed a lavish lifestyle and in 1855 published a book  “Australia and its Gold Fields.” 

Read another story from us: San Francisco was built on the abandoned & buried ships of the gold rush

Hargraves returned to Australia, some £3000 poorer, built a house at Norah Head, entirely of cedar, continued the lavish lifestyle and by early 1860s was essentially penniless.Despite his wealth and success, Edward Hargraves, the man who discovered gold, died in poverty in 1891.