Gold-bearing quartz vein, or the area containing this vein, along the west side of the Sierra Nevada, in east-central California. It is famous as the scene of the Californian Gold Rush of 1848–49. Its name came from the belief that somewhere the ‘mother’ of all the small gold deposits found in streams would be discovered.
In 1848 deposits of gold were discovered on the South Fork of the American River at Sutter's Mill near Coloma. In the following decade, the area was inundated by gold prospecters, who first panned for the metal in streams and later mined it from the earth (a process known as ‘dry digging’). Well-known centres along the Lode include (south–north) Sonora, Tuttlestown, Angels Camp, Mokelumne Hill, Amador City, and Fiddletown. These formerly lawless mining settlements were the setting for adventure tales by the authors Bret Harte and Mark Twain, while the real-life bandits Joaquin Murrieta and Black Bart are also associated with the Mother Lode country. Today, some commercial mining and much recreational gold-panning is undertaken here, and ‘ghost towns’, some of which have been designated as historic landmarks, attract tourists. Silver, tungsten, molybdenum, and other minerals have also been extracted in the area.
There is disagreement as to the extent of the Mother Lode. At most, it is thought to stretch some 275 km/170 mi north-northwest from the vicinity of Mariposa, in Mariposa County. While some regard only the Southern Mines, which run in a band 110–160 km/70–100 mi long, roughly from Mariposa (south) to Placerville, as the true Lode, others include the Northern Mines, up to Nevada City or even Oroville. It is variously described as being from 3.2 km/2 mi to 10.5 km/6.5 mi wide. The vein is known in Mexico, where its southern extremity lies, as la Veta Madre.