Skip navigation

College of Arts, Humanities & Social Sciences

Department of Anthropology


Museum of Anthropology

American Material Culture

The Gold Pan: A simple tool, with a big impact

Man using gold pan black and white 

A gold pan being used in South Dakota

Courtesy of Gold Rush Trading Post.

The gold pan is the cheapest and most accessible way to mine for gold. The gold pan gave people hope and the chance to strike it rich during the 1849 Gold Rush in the west.

Two men with donkey

Two gold prospectors standing with their donkey. Notice the gold pan strapped on the donkey. The durable device, allows miners to travel and mine with the device frequently.

Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

A device that made possible for many to mine for gold in streams and rivers. Even though the gold pan is considered a simple metal object, it was one of the most influential devices in the start of one of the most significant times in American history. In 1848, the first gold nuggets were found in Sacramento Valley, California. The news of this discovery spread throughout the country and the world, causing a flood of people to travel to the west. This movement of people was so significant, that between 1848-1849 the non-native population of San Francisco grew from 1,000 to 100,000 people. The Gold Rush was underway, and hopeful miners could only think about gold. Between the years of 18481855, a total of $2 billion worth of precious metal was extracted from just the San Francisco area. This does not count the mining happening in Colorado, Utah, Wyoming and Oregon. The Gold Rush was underway, and people were on their way to strike it rich.

The gold pan was accessible to everyone, and gave everyone to same chance during the gold rush. Being a simple metal pan, the production of the gold pan was cheap, and the price reflected that. Once someone got their hands on a pan, they were given an instant opportunity to succeed and strike it rich. While being inexpensive, the gold pan was also very durable. The durability of the gold pan, allowed people to make a onetime investment in this mining product. With no need for repairs or additions, the gold pan was the best long-term investment someone going west could make.