Literature of the California Gold Rush
Literature of the California Gold Rush
In May of 1848, Sam Brannan, a financier of the general store at Sutter's Fort in Sacramento, California, realized that some workers were paying for their purchases with gold. Visiting the nearby Coloma sawmill, he confirmed that a carpenter, James Marshall, had indeed discovered gold at the site some four months earlier. According to legend, Brannan quickly departed for San Francisco, where he ran through the streets brandishing a glass bottle filled with gold dust and shouting “Gold! Gold, from the American River!” The sensational discovery sparked the greatest internal migration in United States history. Within one year it is estimated that over one hundred thousand people from all walks of life converged on the state—first in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada and later in the northern coastal mountains and the southern Cascades. Included among these “modern-day Argonauts” were actors, doctors, shopkeepers, lawyers, former slaves, gamblers, artists, and writers. They came from as far away as China, Sweden, France, Australia, South America, and England, and by 1852 had mined an estimated two hundred million dollars in gold.
The Western gold rush is generally divided into three phases: California from 1848 to 1858; Nevada and the far West from 1858 to 1868; and the remainder of the West beginning in the late 1860s. For the early miners, there were two ways to reach California. The first was over land, an approximately 2,000-mile journey over mountains and plains. This route was generally preferred by those from the inland states. The second was the long ocean voyage around Cape Horn, typically chosen by New Englanders, who were already familiar with the hardships of the sea. Each trip took about five months. Upon reaching California, the prospectors set up “boom towns,” or scattered settlements that were virtually isolated from one another. Most mining towns followed a common cycle: first gold was discovered, then rumors—both truthful and exaggerated—would spread, attracting a diversified crowd of prospectors. Claims would be fought over, and if gold was indeed found, the town might survive for a time. However, most boom towns lasted only as long as the gold lasted; when the precious minerals had been stripped from the land, miners would move on to a new site, leaving a ghost town in their wake, and the cycle would begin again.
Many who came were hardly prepared for the hardships of prospecting. Even after months, and perhaps years, of mining, the majority never “struck it rich.” Often it was more profitable to resort to farming or construction work or to return to a trade one had practiced before the rush. Living conditions were also less than ideal. With little time to devote to—and often little regard for—living conditions, miners often resided in the garbage that was strewn about, alongside the rats and fleas attracted to filth. Streets were unpaved, making travel difficult. The heavy rains during the winter of 1849-50 made travel especially hard, turning the dirt roads into slippery muck.
By the mid-1850s, the first “pick-and-shovel” phase of the gold rush was just about over. No longer could individual prospectors become rich on their own; the majority of the land had been claimed by mining companies that used tools to probe for gold well below the surface of the earth. New machinery and methods began replacing the individual fortune-seeker, and “corporate” mining became a lucrative business. When the transcontinental railroad arrived in the late 1860s, the era of the gold rush had passed.
Prior to the gold rush, much of the literature about California described it as a romantic wilderness where freedom and wealth could be found. For most Americans, personal narratives and travelogues by such writers as Edwin Bryant and John C. Fremont shaped their initial impressions of the area. Most of these early travel essays extolled the natural beauty of the land with unrestrained images of gorgeous valleys, mountains, and coastlines, and soil rich for planting. After the gold strike of 1848, many of these early accounts were reissued in the hopes of capitalizing on the enormous interest in the area. Publishers also included excerpts from these and other early California writers in hastily compiled gold-rush guidebooks and pamphlets that emphasized the appealing landscape and climate in an attempt to draw even more hopeful adventurers to the land. With the country eager for stories about the gold strikes and new discoveries of precious minerals, local newspapers were quickly established. By the mid-1850s, the city of San Francisco boasted that it published more papers than London; however, the news accounts were not always truthful. Since it was in the best interest of local papers to populate their areas, stories about the mineral strikes were often peppered with gross exaggerations.
Many early writers, however, attempted to present a sober, balanced view of the West. Much of the literary wealth of the gold-rush era resides in these works of nonfiction. From 1848 to 1858 a variety of those who had made the trek West met the demand for authentic mining camp literature, and literature of the West in general, with an array of journals, diaries, letters, and personal narratives. Most of these, like Louise Amelia Knapp Smith Clappe's popular The Shirley Letters (1854-55), written to her sister in Massachusetts, detail day-to-day life, such as the heat and filth of the camps, mining techniques, the price of goods and materials, and claim disputes. Some writers described the arduous journey west, relating the sickness, drudgery, or sheer boredom of the trek. With keen accuracy, these early writers also revealed the unending, exhausting, and often fruitless labor that met their arrival; the realities of gold-rush life, though, however shocking, did little to curb the enthusiasm of naïve hopefuls back home. Other writers also sought to debunk melodramatic and sensational myths of western life. Among these was journalist Bayard Taylor of the New York Tribune. Assigned to cover the gold rush by famed editor Horace Greeley (who coined the phrase “Go West, young man. Go West!”), Taylor wrote the hugely successful Eldorado (1850), which went through ten editions in a little more than thirty years.
Acknowledged to be less talented than their successors—such as Francis Bret Harte and Mark Twain—early fiction writers typically mixed factual persons and events with fabricated elements. One of the first major works of fiction was Leonard Kip's The Volcano Diggings (1849), a tale told in letters and published under the pseudonym “A Member of the Bar.” Other writers also trifled with their pen-names. George Washington Peck, for instance, published his novel Aurifodina (1849) under the pseudonym Cantell A. Bigly, humorously concealing the moniker “Can Tell a Big Lie.” In The Life and Adventures of Joaquín Murieta (1854), the first novel published by an American Indian, author John Rollin Ridge fictionalized events surrounding the real-life Mexican bandit's life. In doing so, Ridge introduced a new romantic folk hero into American literature. Writing as Yellow Bird, Ridge, a Cherokee Indian by birth, depicted the often tense and uneasy interracial relations among miners. According to historical accounts, Joaquín and his gang were responsible for daring robberies and murders during the early 1850s, when the United States government had placed a tax on any “foreigners” who mined. Ridge's version established Joaquín as a peaceful man driven to violence by the greed, prejudice, and hatred of Anglo-Americans who unjustly beat him, raped his beloved, and killed his half-brother.
Among the most popular forms of literature during the gold-rush era were the humorous and satirical pieces published in local newspapers. One of the most well-known frontier humorists was Alonzo Delano (known as “Old Block” in San Francisco). Originally a banker, Delano traveled West in search of gold, but turned to writing when his mining attempts failed. Writing of various western types—such as the gambler, the speculator, the drunkard, and the miner—Delano contributed whimsical sketches to the Ottawa, Illinois, Free Trader and the San Francisco Pacific News, among other papers. He later collected his newspaper writings in two books: Pen Knife Sketches (1853) and Old Block's Sketch Book (1856). George Horatio Derby, writing under the pseudonyms “John Phoenix” and “John P. Squibob,” was another popular humorist. Published in various papers, his parodies, caricatures, and comical satires were later collected in Phoenixiana (1855) and the posthumously published Squibob Papers (1865).
Two newspapers in particular stood out during the gold-rush era. The Golden Era (1852-93) achieved its popularity in large part due to the contributions of Harte, who began his career with the paper and emerged during the next decade as the most celebrated American writer of the time. Harte, a native New Yorker, traveled to California in the early 1850s in search of gold. Unsuccessful as a miner, he spent the next eighteen years in the San Francisco area writing and virtually defining the popular images of the gold rush with tales of awkward, coarse men and their attempts to create moral order out of chaos. Eventually returning east in 1871, Harte continued writing about the West for more than three decades, but by then his fiction had greatly declined in popularity. At the Golden Era he enjoyed a great deal of literary freedom, allowing him the opportunity to experiment with style in his short stories, articles, and sketches. Among his early efforts is The Work on Red Mountain (1860), about a woman's attempt to forge a life for herself in the raw mining world of the Sierra foothills.
The Overland Monthly (1868-75) was another newspaper for which Harte worked, serving as its first editor upon its inception in 1868. Within the next three years, he became a champion of romance in gold-rush fiction. Prior to this time, Harte, like most other satirists, had referred to the miners and the gold rush with sarcasm and abuse, criticizing the myths, values, and customs of the West and lambasting the meager literary talents of local writers. However, after Overland Monthly publisher Anton Roman convinced him of the merits of California as a serious literary setting, Harte abandoned his prejudicial philosophy for one of optimism and faith in the goodness of man. Harte's move towards sentimentality marked a major turning point for the literary movement that had become known as “local color.” This new literary movement, born in mid-1860s San Francisco, was defined by Hamlin Garland in Crumbling Idols (1894) as writing with “such quality of texture and background that it could not have been written in any other place or by anyone else than a native.”
A second key figure in the local color movement is Mark Twain. Born Samuel Langhorne Clemens, Twain moved to San Francisco in 1864 as a reporter. Bored by the monotony of covering routine affairs, he eventually settled with the literary paper, the Californian (1864-68), where he indulged his fondness for satire and invective humor. Beginning to develop a reputation as a writer, he spent some time in mining camps, where he first heard the story of a jumping frog from a local yarn-spinner. The result, “Jim Smiley and His Jumping Frog” (1865), is a parody of the tall tale which attracted national attention for Twain; he achieved even greater fame with his later collection The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County and Other Sketches in 1867. Four years later Twain published what is regarded as the finest work of satirical local color: Roughing It (1871), a tall tale about Clemens's journeys from Missouri to the South Seas, mixes gross exaggerations with deceptive understatements to achieve its ironic comedy.
Led by Harte and Twain, western writers of the 1860s and early 1870s transformed the gold rush into mythic history, often obscuring the actual accomplishments of the miners. Indeed, California gold-rush fiction is often thought to have begun with Harte and Twain, a fact that fails to take into account almost twenty years of work by early gold-rush writers. The popularity of gold-rush literature passed quickly, though; by 1875, with the gold rush dead and most major writers of the West having left for the east coast or for Europe, gold-rush literature had lost its appeal to most readers.
The Duke of Sacramento (satire) 1856
Louise Amelia Knapp Smith Clappe
The Shirley Letters [as “Dame Shirley”] (letters) 1854-55; published in the journal Pioneer
Three Years in California (journal) 1850
Pen Knife Sketches, or Chips from the Old Block (sketches) 1853
Life on the Plains and Among the Diggings (journal) 1854
Old Block's Sketch Book, or Tales of California Life (sketches) 1856
A Live Woman in the Mines; or, Pike County Ahead (drama) 1857
Alonzo Delano's California Correspondence (letters) 1952
George Horatio Derby
Phoenixiana; or Sketches and Burlesques (sketches) 1855
Squibob Papers (prose) 1865
Crumbling Idols (essays) 1894
Francis Bret Harte
The Work on Red Mountain (novella) 1860
“The Luck of Roaring Camp” (short story) 1868
Two Men of Sandy Bar (drama) 1876
Charles E. B. Howe
Joaquin Murieta de Castillo, the Celebrated California Bandit (drama) 1858
Alfred T. Jackson
The Diary of a Forty-Niner (journal) 1906
The Volcano Diggings [as “A Member of the Bar”] (novel) 1849
California Sketches with Recollections of the Gold...
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Criticism: Overviews And General Studies
SOURCE: “The California Gold Rush as a Basis for Literature,” in Americana-Austriaca: Beitrage zur Amerikakunde, Vol. 2, 1970, pp. 61-80.
[In the following essay, Reynolds presents an overview of the literature of the gold rush era in California, offering a detailed history of the period and examining how the literature reflected the times.]
The discovery of gold on the banks of the American River in 1848 was the signal for one of the most unique mass migrations since the Völkerwanderung of the Germanic tribes. Some 100,000 adventurers are estimated to have converged on the gold fields of California within the twelve months following James Marshall's sensational discovery. “The gold in the rivers, the dry diggings and ravines, is accessible to any man who has the strength to use a pan or washer, a spade and pick-ax,” reported the Honorable Thomas Butler King to the American Secretary of State1.
“It is supposed there were not far from 5,000 men employed in collecting gold during that season. If we suppose they obtained an average of $1,000 each—which is regarded by well-informed persons as a low estimate—The aggregate amount will be $5,000,000”, continued the Senator. “Information of this discovery spread in all directions during the following winter; and, on the commencement of the dry season in 1849, people came into the territory from all quarters … In...
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SOURCE: “The Literature of the Mining Camps,” in Updating the Literary West, Texas Christian University Press, 1997, pp. 99-116.
[In the following excerpt, Berkove and Kowalewski survey the work of writers John Rollin Ridge, Alonzo Delano, Louise Amelia Knapp Smith Clappe, and George Horatio Derby, maintaining that these individuals were the first to introduce the California gold rush to the American public and that they paved the way for later literary talents including Mark Twain, Ambrose Bierce, and Bret Harte.]
For the world as well as America, the thrilling news that gold and silver were to be had for the taking in the West fired the imagination. The West's already mythic aura brightened anew. The demand for writing about the West grew more insistent, and the literature of the mining camps was an on-the-ground response to this market. Men and women with impressive and varied verbal talents were among those who immigrated to the West, and in the relatively few years of the heyday of prospecting and the beginning of industrial mining they created a regional literature of surprising range and power.
Subsequent generations of writers have used the Old West as a fictile era, to be shaped retrospectively by the issues of later days. Some great authors have used its settings and situations to create memorable works of art, and the continuous outpouring of new literature about the Old...
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Criticism: Early California Gold Rush Fiction
SOURCE: “Some Notes on California Gold Rush Fiction Before 1870,” in Quarterly News-Letter, Vol. 30, No. 4, Fall, 1965, pp. 75-81.
[In the following essay, Swingle reviews the portrayal of the California gold rush in early fiction, chronicling U.S. as well as foreign works.]
The California Gold Rush had an appeal, immediate, monetary, and lasting, to the imaginations of many writers, good, bad, and indifferent. Almost from the moment of the first news from Sutter's Mill, books with a background of the Gold Rush began to turn up in the literary placers.
In 1849 appeared a fantastical pastiche entitled Aurifodina; or, Adventures In The Gold Region, by Cantell A. Bigly, which pseudonym masked the author's real name of George Washington Peck, and lightly concealed the statement: Can Tell A Big Lie.
The narrator in this tale is a mountain man (“I led a hunter's life up and down the wild region between Monterey and the mouth of the Columbia”) who had first heard accounts of “gold in the Sacramento valley” from an old trapper, who in turn had heard it from an Indian woman. What does he decide to do? To look for it. And after hardship and hunger, thirsty too, he falls upon hands and knees to drink from a mountain spring found providentially in the course of his travels.
Imagine my astonishment, when, as I looked into the...
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SOURCE: “The Americanization of Arcadia: Images of Hispanic and Gold Rush California,” in American Studies, Vol. 19, No. 1, Spring, 1978, pp. 5-19.
[In the following essay, Mann argues that writings about both Hispanic California and gold rush California utilize three types of imagery: wilderness, paradisiacal, and pastoral.]
During the 1840s and 1850s California's landscape and inhabitants enjoyed a literary reputation as the geography and people of an earthly paradise, or a Romantic wilderness, or a peaceful, pastoral Arcadia, where fantasies of wealth, ease, sensual release and personal independence could be realized. At the same time, Americans in California reestablished with rapidity all the institutions and values of the urban East, the very social forces from which the myth offered an escape. The popular images of Hispanic California and of gold camp life, as expressed in the travelogues and personal narratives that gave Americans their initial impressions of these societies, contribute to this apparent contradiction between coveted freedoms and accepted restrictions. Although the discovery of gold changed the idealized image of California from that of a beautiful bucolic province thinly populated by a dashing natural gentry to one of a land of free gold thronged by roistering natural democrats, the expression of desires for liberation from worries and restraints remained constant. Yet the...
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Criticism: Gold Rush Folklore And Legend
SOURCE: “The Folklore of the Gold Rush,” in Huntington Library Quarterly, Vol. 44, No. 4, Autumn, 1981, pp. 293-308.
[In the following essay, Rosenberg focuses on gold rush lore, describing three of the most common types of legends: those revolving around the lone prospector, those chronicling the birth and death of boom towns, and those emphasizing the “lost mine.”]
When Jim Marshall's eye was caught by some glittering “color” in the Sutter Mill raceway on the American River that January day in 1848, the greatest internal migration in American history was soon to begin. Late in that year Monterey, San Jose, Santa Cruz, and San Francisco (as they were then) were said to have been all but abandoned in the headlong rush for gold, while the population around the mill rose to more than ten thousand. Within a few years many goldseekers would leave for other parts of the Mother Lode country, for more lucrative fields to the east, north, and south, the most famous of which was Bodie, “home” of the “bad man” who was both a folkloric character and the great destroyer of Doctorow's Welcome to Hard Times. They also went to places they would name Jackass Gulch, Dead Horse, Whiskey Slide, Hardscrabble, Egg Nog Settlement, and Placerville (née Hangtown). Afterwards, many of the bedraggled argonauts left for the Comstock, the Fraser River country, for Central City (Colorado), Tombstone,...
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Criticism: The Rise Of Western Local Color
SOURCE: “Bret Harte, Mark Twain, and the San Francisco Circle,” in A Literary History of the American West, Texas Christian University Press, 1987, pp. 339-58.
[In the following essay, Morrow details the birth and growth of the Western local color movement, emphasizing the contributions of such figures as Bret Harte and Mark Twain.]
The year was 1866. The Civil War concluded, America (save the South) had settled into an era of prosperity, and San Francisco proved to be at the vanguard of this national trend. In almost all phases of economic expansion, San Francisco by 1866 had been booming for more than a decade. No longer a supply station and recreation center for the motley gold miners, but an emerging major urban center, San Francisco enjoyed a population explosion and building boom that had been going strong for years. Brick and stone business establishments several stories high, opera and theater houses, picturesque dwellings perched on steep slopes, government and financial centers (including a branch of the U.S. Mint), and even paved streets were features of the “new” San Francisco. People of every description poured into the Bay Area, but what made this relocation and settling unusual was the extraordinary number of artists, artistes, and writers who arrived during this era. Far from the wounds of war, the humiliating poverty of Reconstruction, and the riots of eastern industrialization,...
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SOURCE: “Rewriting the Gold Rush: Twain, Harte and Homosociality,” in Journal of American Studies, Vol. 30, No. 2, 1996, pp. 189-209.
[In the following essay, Stoneley focuses on the theme of male-male relationships in the works of Bret Harte and Mark Twain, illustrating how these gold rush writers reflected the changing nature of homosocial ties in the American West during the mid- to late-nineteenth century.]
For adventurous young men, the experience of the gold rush was one of transformation. The most keenly-sought transformation was from “not wealthy” to “fabulously wealthy,” but the literature, histories and memoirs of the era point toward a much more general sense of change and disorientation. One writer noted of the new arrivals to Sacramento that as “each one steps on shore, he seems to have entered a magic circle, in which he is under the influence of new impulses. The wills of all seem under the control of some strong and hidden agency.”1 Joining the rush may have promised an escape from the restraints of home, but the writer here suggests an altogether more complex exchange. The “new arrival” may have been active in leaving home, but he is placed in a passive position as he is welcomed into the brotherhood of a “magic circle,” seduced or enchanted by a regulatory power of which he is scarcely aware. The experience, it seems, was familiarly fraternal, but also...
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SOURCE: “Epilogue: Telling Tales,” in Roaring Camp: The Social World of the California Gold Rush, W. W. Norton & Company, 2000, pp. 315-44.
[In the following essay, Johnson focuses on the Southern Mines of California, suggesting that because of such factors as the ethnic diversity of the region and its “unruly history” (which did not coincide with typical American tales of success), the Southern Mines have been virtually forgotten by twentieth-century society.]
In the 1990s, a travel writer for the New York Times encouraged readers to visit the foothills of the Sierra Nevada. Her article, “Exploring the Mother Lode,” begins with a spare but serviceable two-sentence history of the California Gold Rush:
In 1848, a carpenter named James Marshall noticed flecks of gold shining in the tailrace of the sawmill he was building for John Sutter on the American River in California. Though the discovery did neither Marshall nor Sutter any good, it spurred tens of thousands of fortune hunters to struggle by land and sea, hoping to find its riverbeds strewn with the stuff of dreams.
The author goes on to assure her readers that now anyone can visit this land of dreams, “with less discomfort,” by taking a three-day tour along California's Highway 49, which traverses the gold region. She recommends that tourists restrict...
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Conner, William F. “The Euchring of Tennessee: A Reëxamination of Bret Harte's ‘Tennessee's Partner.’” In Studies in Short Fiction 17, No. 2 (Spring 1980): 113-20.
Finds Harte's story “Tennessee's Partner” an example of the author's skillful use of “California wit,” a type of American humor that mixes irreverence with deliberate sentimentality, in order to mock traditional morality.
Hale, Douglas, ed. “The Artist as an Argonaut: Gold Rush Letters of Cyrus Worth Pease.” In Cimarron Review 5 (September 1968): 23-48.
Reprints letters written by Cyrus Worth Pease, a New England artist, to his lady friend Lucy Crane, both during and after Pease's 17,000-mile-long ocean voyage to gold rush country. Includes a brief biography of Pease.
Hume, Charles V. “They Came to See the Elephant.” In Theatre West: Image and Impact, edited by Dunbar H. Ogden, Douglas McDermott, and Robert K. Sarlós, pp. 93-98. Amsterdam: Rodopi, 1990.
Traces the emergence and development of “Gold Rush Theatre” in California.
Martin, George. Verdi at the Golden Gate: Opera and San Francisco in the Gold Rush Years. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993, 321p.
Focuses on the role Italian composer Giuseppe Verdi's works played in the development...
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