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The first major gold rush in modern times occurred in the 16th century, when Spaniards flocked to South America in search of El Dorado. This was a mythical 'Golden Land', and El Dorado, a 'Golden Man' who covered himself with gold dust, was said to own it. The Golden Land was thought to exist in the area of the Orinoco and Amazon rivers, but centuries of exploration, including two expeditions led by Sir Walter Raleigh, failed to locate it. Figuratively, El Dorado remains a symbol of fabulous wealth, or an opportunity to obtain it. Silver gradually became more important, and eventually made up 90 per cent of the precious metals sent back to Spain.

The French and English, spurred as much as the Spanish by the desire to find gold and to claim profitable lands for their crowns, decided to attempt permanent settlement in the Americas in the 16th century. In the late 16th and 17th centuries, many English, French and Dutch emigrants went to North America in search of gold and silver, but they did not find it. Instead, settlers were forced to support themselves by cultivating crops that they could sell in Europe, like tobacco, indigo and rice.

After the first gold rush in Georgia large amounts of gold were found elsewhere in the United States. Discoveries were also made in Canada, Australia and South Africa. Populations increased and cities grew up in areas where gold was found. Later the California gold rush (1848-9), the Victoria gold rush in Australia (1851), the Witwatersrand gold rush in South Africa (1886) and the Klondike gold rush in Canada (1896) were the most significant.

The California gold rush was started by the American carpenter John Marshall, who discovered flakes of gold on Californian land. Despite his efforts to keep the discovery secret, the news soon broke out and over 100,000 prospectors rushed from Europe and from the Eastern US in the hope of finding their fortunes. Prospectors 'panned' the river, hoping to find gold in the gravel. Some were lucky, but many others left empty-handed. Traders who sold supplies to the gold diggers grew rich by charging high prices for food, drink and clothing. Thousands of Chinese went to California in the 1850s and the 1870s to work as labourers. Many stayed on in California after the gold had run out, forming the basis of the Chinese community in the state today. These prospectors became known as the 'forty-niners'. In a few years new cities were founded, and the area began a period of rapid growth and prosperity. The gold rush gave California its nickname of 'The Golden State'.

Sometimes gold-rush towns disappeared just as quickly as they had grown. Virginia City in Nevada did not exist until 1859, when gold and silver were found nearby. By 1876 it was a large town. When the gold and silver had all gone, people left as quickly as they had come and it became a ghost town.

One of the gold prospectors in California was an Australian, Edward Hargraves. He noticed that the land was similar to his home country. Returning home, he washed a pan of gravel in a creek, and found gold. Soon after, gold was also found in Melbourne. Gold fever hit Australia. In ten years the country's population almost tripled.

In 1886 gold was discovered in South Africa. Uitlanders (foreigners) poured into the Transvaal republic in thousands. The city of Johannesburg is the business centre of South Africa today and is built around the site of the early gold mines.

In 1896, gold was discovered at Bonanza Creek, a tributary of the Klondike River in Yukon Territory, in the far northwest of Canada. Thousands of prospectors joined the gold rush, the last one. Prospectors in the Klondike region extracted over 22 million dollars' worth of gold in the year 1900.

The purity of gold is measured in carats: the purest gold is 24 carat.

The gold standard was a monetary system which obliged governments to be able to exchange paper currency for gold on demand. The gold standard was first adopted in the early 19th century by Britain and the USA to correct imbalances in international trade. International debts were always settled in gold, and when a country had a deficit in its balance of payments, more gold had to be paid out for imports than it earned in exports. Gold reserves fell, forcing the authorities to lessen the money supply to cover the debt. This caused prices to fall (making exports more attractive) and wages to drop (reducing demand for imports), so bringing the economy back into balance - but often at a depressed level of activity. Most currencies, led by sterling, came off the gold standard in the 1930s. Today many countries are happy to run long-term balance of payments deficits, which they could not have done in the days of the gold standard.

There is more gold discovered in sea water than there is on land. The concentration is 0.000004 parts per million.

The greatest gold reserves are held by the United States at Fort Knox, Kentucky. The gold bars are stored in bomb-proof vaults, surrounded by armed guards.

Gold coins are the oldest and most precious of the coins collected by numismatists.

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