Literature of the California Gold Rush Critical Essays


(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

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.