What I’ve Learned About the Gold Rush So Far
I’m barely a quarter into Malcolm J. Rohrbough’s Days of Gold: The California Gold Rush and the American Nation, but I’m already overwhelmed with the scale of the event. Here’s what I’ve learned so far.
Initially, anyone could find gold.
All that was necessary to join the race for wealth was a shovel and a pan. In fact, the most rudimentary Gold Rush technique simply involved digging around rocks with a knife and removing particles of gold with a spoon.
And you could keep the gold, because there was no government.
Furthermore, the search for gold was uninhibited by institutional authority. The authority of the Mexican government largely had disappeared in the aftermath of the peace treaty signed at Guadalupe Hidalgo in February 1848, which ceded California to the United States; the American government had yet to establish more than a military presence. Access to the rivers, streams, and valleys was, for all practical purposes, without limits.
So everybody went.
The changes in California over a few short months were those characteristically associated with a plague or war. Larkin described the manifestations to the secretary of state, James Buchanan, in June 1848: three-quarters of the houses in San Francisco had been abandoned: every blacksmith, carpenter, and lawyer in the town had left for the mines; large numbers had deserted from the army in both San Francisco and Sonoma; crews had abandoned ships as soon as they anchored in San Francisco Bay; brickyards, sawmills, and ranches had been shut down by the absence of labor; the alcaldes of San Francisco and Sonoma had left to join the Gold Rush; newspapers had suspended publication for want of workingmen.
Everyone went, so social order was refigured.
One of the immediate by-products of the discovery of gold for Californians was the disappearance of a servant class. Colton lamented his attempts, along with those of Governor Mason and a Lieutenant Lanman, to cook their own meals, for “our servants have run one after another, till we are almost in dispair… and this morning, for the first time, we had to take to the kitchen, and cook our own breakfast.”
“These gold mines have upset all social and domestic arrangements in Monterey… the master has become his own servant, and the servant his own lord. The millionaire is obliged to groom his own horse, and roll his own wheelbarrow; and the hidalgo-in whose veins flows the blood of Cortes-to clean his own boots.”
Also economic order was reconfigured.
Gold rapidly transformed upper California into a gold-based cash economy. Goods and services were quoted in ounces of gold dust-visits to the doctor or lawyer were generally one ounce-and California rapidly changed from an economy without a circulating medium (the previous currency had been cowhides known as “California bank notes”) to an economy rich in a circulating medium recognized around the world. Indeed, it was so rich that gold was sometimes discounted because it was more plentiful than goods that could be purchased.
The prices of all goods and services rose in proportion to the new, enlarged circulating medium. E. Gould Buffum, the discharged lieutenant from the New York Volunteers, described a breakfast that he and a partner shared in a small boardinghouse near the mines. The men ate their fill of ordinary fare, and the bill for the two was forty-three dollars. The two men paid without question. Buffum apologized for the high cost and ruefully observed that the usual cost of breakfast in the mines was five dollars each. He did not mention (although he might have) that the same meal could be bought in San Francisco or Monterey or anywhere else in California for twenty-five cents six months earlier.
But there were no luxuries to buy with all the gold, so camps became egalitarian.
“We found assembled around an excellent fire a group of persons of the most opposite appearance and character, hard-fisted, unshaven, leather-coated miners, being seated side-by-side, and on terms of perfect equality, with well-dressed lawyers, surgeons, and mercantile men. The wondrous influence of gold seems to have entirely obliterated all social distinctions, and a general conversation was kept up, in which everyone, no matter how vaguely he expressed himself, had something to say, and was listened to with attention. In fact, it seemed as if a weather-beaten countenance and soiled and tattered attire formed one’s chief claim to consideration. Besides, no one could judge of another’s circumstance by his appearance, for it not infrequently happened that the most wretched looking and ill-clad persons were those who carried about them the largest share of this world’s wealth.”
Word leaked out and the story was made for media hype.
Editors borrowed, exaggerated, disparaged the exaggerations of others, and then succumbed altogether to the wild enthusiasm. They scrambled to produce their own improbable stories of wealth, preferably with an equally improbable figure. Children were especially popular subjects, for the image of a child finding gold in California dramatized the claim that this opportunity was truly open to everyone. A leading North Carolina newspaper, for example, reported two such instances in language that made such discoveries unremarkable in their frequency and democratic nature. In the first case, two servants of an official went to the mines and soon returned with seventy-five thousand dollars; in the second, the gold was “so abundant that there is not necessity for washing the earth; $700 per day is the amount by each man.”
But: the hype was true.
Among the most astounding features of the California Gold Rush was that the most outrageous stories of wealth were true.
The Gold Rush in fact did deliver on its promise: from 10 million dollars in 1849, gold production rose to 42 million dollars in 1850 and 76 million dollars in 1851.
To be sure, the egalitarian atmosphere faded as more and more miners arrived. Conditions increasinly favored large scale operations, which would decimate California’s ecology (our current issues with mercury are largely due to quartz-style mining in the Rush’s later years). And we’ll get to that soon.
The cultural impacts of the Gold Rush seem to persist today. It’s not odd that Mark Zuckerburg drives a VW and wears hoodies everyday. Or that Steve Jobs wears off-the-rack turtlenecks and jeans. Rather, it’s the ostentatious displays of wealth that seem odd to Californians. The Gold Rush literally built the state in record time, creating it’s economy from thin air and completely replacing the population several times over:
Within a year, the small population of California-perhaps on the order of thirteen thousand at the time of Marshall’s discovery-had been submerged by a foreign population eight times as large, and each successive annual immigration further inundated it.
This was the seed from which our culture grew. A multicultural, international base whose only common ground was it’s desire for quick wealth. This is the beginning of California.