When gold was discovered in California in 1848, it triggered a tremendous Gold Rush. A handful of nuggets were discovered at Sutter’s Mill, and soon, thousands of fortune seekers were flooding westward—a population surge so great that within two years, California had enough people to become a state. There were a number of lesser gold rushes in other states through the 1870s, but California’s was the big one, the one that defined Gold Rush in the American mind.
However, though people flooded in from the East Coast, the lure of gold also drew a flood of fortune seekers from China—20,000 a year at the height of the Gold Rush. The Chinese called America Gam Saan—the Gold Mountain. Driven by poverty and hardship, they left China and came to the United States, hoping to strike it rich and then return home.
When gold was discovered in Australia a couple decades later, Australia became “New Gold Mountain,” and hopeful Chinese fortune seekers flooded southward—not just because it was the newest site—and a much closer one—but also because things weren’t all that easy in the U.S. Gold was hard to find and Californians, both new and established, weren’t adjusting well to the dramatically increased competition for limited resources.
As with the California Gold Rush, the idea in Australia was to strike it rich and then go home with as big a piece of the gold mountain as possible. However, as with California, not everyone made it home. Sometimes folks just settled down and made new lives. Sometimes, having failed to strike it rich quickly, they just worked on year after year. Of course, many died—of all nationalities. It was a remote area and life was hard.
Outside Cooktown, in the far north of Queensland—site of one of Australia’s several gold rushes—the Chinese community erected a memorial, shown below, to those who did not return from the gold rush. It is a solemnly isolated monument, surrounded by the thick foliage of this region.