As with most gold and silver rushes, relatively few individuals made a lot of money finding the shiny stuff. Because of the extreme tonnages of earth and water movement required after the brief initial somewhat easy pickings, large commercial enterprises took over most of the effort and profit within months, often hiring solo prospectors – almost all of them rank amateurs, remember – who were finding little or no gold and quickly becoming desperate. They weren’t paid well, which made it difficult if not impossible to save up for passage back home. A decade after the California Gold Rush, even Mark Twain tried and failed miserably at the Comstock (silver) Lode in Virginia City, Nevada, later documenting the mortification in his fantastic 600-page travelogue of the West, Roughing It (links to a sample from the book). The great majority of individuals who did make a bundle were the shrewd women and men who supplied hotel and boarding house rooms, hot meals, prospecting tools, and camping gear to the pipe dreamers – at prices commensurate with the times.
“How much is this hyar pickaxe?”
“Depends – how much you got?”
I think it’s almost a certainty that the value of all those ships in San Francisco Bay far exceeded the total riches found by their crews. One can only imagine their thousands of stories of lives changed forever.