Why Gold Rush Oranges Were Priced Like Gold

The only thing more precious than gold during the California Gold Rush was citrus. While most Americans are aware of the Gold Rush’s important place in the history of the West, many are unaware of the Second Gold Rush, which was equally important in shaping the fate of California.

The only thing more precious than gold during the California Gold Rush was citrus.

The Biggest Event in California’s History

First, the background: In January 1948 gold was discovered in Sutter’s Mill—outside of San Francisco, CA—by a man named James W. Marshall. Despite early efforts the discovery wasn’t kept secret for long and prompted one of the greatest sudden migrations of people during this time period. An estimated 300,000 people came to the state in the several years that followed. Before the discovery of gold California was a sparsely populated state of about 14,000 people. But the year after gold was discovered, in 1949, 80,000 fortune-seekers flooded the state (these people are known today as the 49ers and serve as the mascot for San Francisco’s professional football team). During the seven years the Gold Rush lasted it transformed California from a thinly-populated ex-Mexican territory to one of the most powerful and wealthiest states in the United States. It also led to what’s known as the Second Gold Rush, when the citrus industry blossomed and brought oranges to all of America. The reason why the first gold rush led to the second explains why Gold Rush oranges were more precious than gold. Here’s what happened:

The California Gold Rush brought hundreds of thousands of new people to the state and taught us an important lesson about human nutrition — people need fresh plants!

300,000 People Flood California

People came to California from all directions to find their fortune in gold. The first to hear the news of the Gold Rush were people in Oregon, Hawaii, and Latin America. Similar to what we saw in the previous centuries where most of the early sea explorers were men, likewise, the majority of people who migrated to California during the Gold Rush were men.  While most who arrived were Americans, tens of thousands came from China, Latin America, Europe, and Australia dreaming of the glittering metal that could bring them fortune. Gold worth tens of billions of today’s dollars was found which made a few men very wealthy, but most returned home without much more than they came with. It’s estimated that half of the 300,000 people arrived by sea and half by land often experiencing great hardships on their journey. 

Scurvy Claimed 10,000 Lives

Many of the men that came in search of gold did not make it back alive. Historians estimate that up to 10,000 men who arrived to this state in search of gold died from scurvy in their quest. 

If you aren’t aware of scurvy, it’s a dreadful disease – perhaps the most dreadful way for a man to die. It begins with symptoms of lethargy and weakness and progresses into spots and bruises all over the body. The gums begin to swell and bleed. Eventually teeth begin to fall out, the mouth reeks with the stench of rotting flesh, and wounds start to open all over the body. In the final stages of scurvy black putrid blood spills from open wounds and a victim’s body literally falls apart. First hand accounts attest that death is a mercy from scurvy. The pictures below speaks volumes to the horror that is this illness.

A Lack of Fresh Plants Causes Scurvy

Today we know that scurvy is caused by a severe deficiency of vitamin C. Vitamin C is an essential nutrient that humans must consume from our food. Where is vitamin C found? — Only in fresh plants! All fresh plant foods have vitamin C in varying amounts. Fresh plant foods were in short supply during the Gold Rush when food prices soared because of the sudden surge in population.

Vitamins Weren’t Discovered Yet, But The Cure Was Known

It’s not that people didn’t know that citrus was a powerful cure for scurvy— In 1747 Dr. James Lind conducted his famous experiment where he tested six different remedies on sick sailors and found that only the oranges and lemon worked to cure scurvy. Fifty years later the British navy started giving sailors rations of citrus juice which had eliminated the dreadful disease on their ships. Even though vitamins weren’t discovered until well after the Gold Rush, it was common knowledge by then that citrus cured scurvy. With thousands of people suffering scurvy, citrus juice was in high demand.

Citrus Was More Precious Than Gold

There is a simple reason why oranges were more precious than gold during the Gold Rush. Simply put, citrus saved lives. Access to an orange could mean life or death then.

The 49ers often came with limited provisions meant to last during their travels. They often had no fresh plant foods and so were not getting any vitamin C in their diet. On top of that, because so many people arrived so quickly, the local food supply had not had time to catch up. Food merchants drastically raised the prices of basic foods like potatoes. Fifty pounds of potatoes were sold for 1.21 ounces of gold dust – in today’s dollars that’s over $1,000 for 50 lbs of potatoes. Bread cost as much as $1 a slice back then which would be an outrageous price even today. But the most precious commodity of all was citrus juice, which sold for as much as $1/ounce. That would mean that my 32 ounce glass of orange juice I enjoy almost every morning would have cost me $32 during the Gold Rush. (This certainly makes me feel a little spoiled—thank you citrus farmers!)

My big mug of orange juice.

The Second Gold Rush Meets the Demand for Citrus

The demand for fresh fruits and vegetables, and specifically the demand for scurvy-preventing citrus fruits, led enterprising people to plant the first citrus orchards in California. Settlers turned large swaths of land into acres of fruit trees in what became called the Second Gold Rush. In a paper for the Journal of the History of Medicine and Allied Sciences, Anthony Lorenz writes:

“And it was the demand of the Mother Lode’s scorbutic miners for lemons which prompted the gringo pioneers of still Arcadian Southern California to extend their patio orchards of a few trees into commercial acreages. Thus William Wolfskill set out some 1,800 lemon trees in 1850, which by 1856 were bearing, and their fruits were shipped by coastwise steamer in boxes to San Francisco to compete with the Acapulco-grown limes of John Sutter, Jr. and the oranges from Papeete, over which the Tahitian queen, Pomari, exercised a monopoly. Scurvy has ever been the bane of voyages into strange lands and uncharted seas, for in scurvy time is linked with nutrition to form a physiological hazard to exploration.”

Journal of the History of Medicine and Allied Sciences.

Second Gold Rush Brought Oranges to America

The demand for citrus caused by the epidemic of scurvy brought a new wave of people to California who sought their fortune in the liquid gold of citrus juice. A single navel orange tree, planted in Riverside California, spawned thousands of new orange trees. As the orchards spread in Southern California, the demand for antiscorbutics was met and eventually deaths from scurvy ceased. Meanwhile, the new abundance of citrus fruits started to spread to all corners of the country.

By the end of the 1800s, an entire American generation would come to know California by the pictures of fields of oranges that adorned the citrus crates at the local market. At first most citrus was taken to San Francisco by horse and buggy, but as more orange trees were planted and as our transportation system improved, growers began exporting citrus to neighboring states. By the year 1900 you could find California navel oranges in every state in the United States.

From 1907 to 1914 consumption of oranges in the United States had increased 80%. Prior to 1900 the average American consumed no oranges. By 1925 the average American was consuming 19 pounds of oranges a year. By 1935, with an even greater supply made possible by the Second Gold Rush, the typical American was consuming 26 pounds or oranges.

California’s New Sunshine and Citrus Identity

There was an unintended consequence of the Second Gold Rush: advertising from the citrus industry effectively advertised the state as a sunny paradise. Images of fields of citrus, sunshine, and the possibility of growing the sweet tree fruits wooed more and more people to move to California.

In an article for Smithsonian Magazine Sarah Rich writes:

 “The label’s promise of California as a dream destination had worked almost too well. As Laurie Gordon and John Salkin note in a 1977 article in the California Historical Quarterly, ‘After the war, fifty years of ‘selling California’ resulted in the massive redevelopment of the southland never anticipated in the early years of the promotion of ‘orange gold’…The fantasy of the fruited plain transformed into a suburban vision, and new housing spread across the fields that were once covered in citrus.”

Smithsonian Magazine (2012).
There’s a lot of history behind this navel orange. I share the story of the Second Gold Rush with my fourth grade nutrition students on the covered porch of the Baldwin Park Community Garden. Our outdoor classroom sits in the middle of Second Gold Rush country, but the fields of citrus have now been replaced by houses, schools, and roads.

Now Citrus Is Affordable to All

Thanks to the first Gold Rush which made the Second Gold Rush a necessity, oranges have become widely available and affordable to all. Oranges are one of the most-consumed fruits in America and California is still the top producer of fresh oranges in the country. In 2000, California growers produced over 3.3 million tons of citrus. Although Florida produces more oranges by the pound, most Florida oranges are made into orange juice and other processed foods. California continues to supply most of the fresh oranges found at markets around the nation. 

After learning about California’s Second Gold Rush and how the history of our state is linked to the history of understanding human nutrition, Baldwin Park students juice oranges picked from the education farm as part of the Garden Gourmets program.

Lucky for us we have orange trees producing an abundant crop at Hurst Ranch Historical Center and the Baldwin Park Community Garden where I teach. We pick the oranges from the trees and students twist, press, and squeeze the sweet nutritious nectar. Thanks to the Second Gold Rush, scurvy feels like just a bad memory from a past nearly forgotten. Oranges are no longer priced like gold, but will always be just as valuable to our health.

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 SOURCES:
1. Journal of the History of Medicine and Allied Sciences, "Scurvy in the Gold Rush."
2. National Orange Show, "California's Second Gold Rush."
3. Sawyer, Richard C. "To Make a Spotless Orange: Biological Control in California." Purdue University Press.
4. Smithsonian Magazine, "Airships and Oranges: The Commercial Art of the Second Gold Rush"

P.S. If you want to see how I make orange juice more fun for me and my kids, check get my free ebook, Drink to Your Health. In this book you’ll find my simple recipe for Orange Freeze plus 32 more nutritious drinks. Get the free-ebook here.

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