California Gold Rush

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Gold was discovered in California by the carpenter James Marshall on a fork of the American River in January 1848. The effect of the discovery was electric, triggering a stampede of miners from around the world headed to California to find instant wealth. What made the California gold rush a significant social—and literary—event was not simply the $400 million in gold extracted by miners between 1849 and 1855. It was the carnivalesque atmosphere of swagger, heightened expectation, and boomtown hokum that characterized the tens of thousands of young, self-styled "Argonauts" who poured into a remote Pacific maritime province recently wrested from Mexico in the Mexican-American War. The gold rush inspired more written documents than any other nineteenth-century historical event except the Civil War. The bibliographer Gary Kurutz has cataloged over seven hundred individual documents published in the five years from 1848 to 1853. Gold rush writing included fiction, plays, diaries, essays, letters, song lyrics, and satiric squibs written by authors of various nationalities. It provided a vivid, on-the-ground response to life in frontier California, one that embodied imaginative extremes and often fluctuated between exultation and sour disillusionment.

The gold rush was assessed in divergent, even contradictory ways from the start, both by the miners themselves and by outside observers. Initial exuberance about golden prospects in California was often quickly tempered by the sobering realities of cholera, sickness, bad weather, exorbitant prices, fleas, and the demands of hard, repetitive manual labor. Glowing reports of riches in the Golden State were matched by dispirited letters home from impoverished or homesick miners or by disparaging criticism from outside observers. Henry David Thoreau, for instance, was appalled by the spectacle of thousands of miners scrambling for gold. "The hog that roots his own living would be ashamed of such company," he noted in his journal in 1852. "Going to California. It is only 3,000 miles nearer to Hell" (p. 317).

The people writing about the gold rush in the 1850s had been translated from conditions of relative stability to social chaos. The boom-and-bust mentality of San Francisco, along with its rapid settlement and polyglot mixing of cultures, helped sponsor a literature that tended to stress the novel and the picturesque. The literary historian Franklin Walker has pointed out that the emphasis was on lawlessness rather than law, gambling rather than the slow accrual of a fortune, the prostitute with a heart of gold rather than the pioneer mother, the abandoned orphan rather than the extended family with solicitous relatives. Although various promotional tracts and pictorial letter sheets portrayed images of the "industrious" miner, that character did not capture writers' imaginations.


Gold rush writing included all the major literary genres, but poetry tended to be undistinguished in early California, characterized by either belabored dialect poems or self-consciously literary celebrations of the landscape by California "songsters." The variously bawdy and maudlin lyrics of such gold rush songs as "Seeing the Elephant," "Sweet Betsey from Pike," and "Ho! For California!" however, provide a rich record of poetic sentiment and satire.

In fiction, the one notable work inspired by the mining camps was John Rollin Ridge's (1827–1867) sensationalist romance The Life and Adventures of Joaquín Murieta, the Celebrated California Bandit (1854), which was the first novel published by an American Indian (Ridge was half Cherokee). An action-packed potboiler, Joaquín Murieta suggests the uneasy, often indiscriminately violent interracial relations of miners on an ethnically diverse frontier. The novel's landscape of isolated arroyos and campfire canyons matches the sensationalistic plot twists of daring disguises and quick getaways—followed, ultimately, by the decapitation of the novel's hero and the public display of his severed head in a jar.

Gold rush drama embodied the love of melodrama and action displayed in Joaquín Murieta. The popular melodramas and farces of the day, such as A Live Woman in the Mines; or, Pike County Ahead (1857) by Alonzo Delano (1806–1874) and Fast Folks; or, The Early Days of California (1858) by Joseph Nunes (1818–1904), are more historical curiosities than fully realized plays. Yet these works feature a wild and wooly western vernacular indebted to the Southwest humorists, and they possess a kind of rough-and-ready impudence that can still beguile. Delano's A Live Woman in the Mines, for instance, comically presents hardships faced by the miners, even starvation. When the food runs out in camp, the men dine on rats and boots. As a last resort they tie the last piece of pork to a string; each man swallows the pork, then pulls it out and passes it on.

Sergeant James H. Carson, a Virginia native, arrived in Monterey, California, with his army regiment just after the Mexican-American War ended. He deserted while on furlough to prospect for gold from 1848 to 1850. He struck it rich at what was soon called Carson's Creek, but not before contracting a severe bout of rheumatism for which he was hospitalized for eighteen months and "lost the use of his speech." In 1852, from his sickbed, he furnished readers with an account of his experiences in the gold diggings. First published as a series of thirty-three articles in the Stockton, California, newspaper the San Joaquin Republican, the editors noted "an abandon in [his] style, . . . a broad humor, and a liberal soul . . . , which are characteristics peculiarly Californian." Carson died in April 1853, a month before his wife and daughter arrived in California.

Yes, Billy, I can see you yet, just as you stood before me on that sunny 10th of May, looking so much like the devil, with that great bag of the Tempter on your back! Then he told me it was gold, . . . not in dust or scales, but in pieces ranging in size from that of a pea to hen's egg; and, says he, "this is only what I picked out with a knife." . . . a frenzy seized my soul; unbidden my legs performed some entirely new movements of Polka steps—I took several—houses were too small for me to stay in; I was soon in the street in search of the necessary outfits; piles of gold rose up before me at every step; castles of marble, . . . thousands of slaves, bowing to my beck and call; myriads of fair virgins contending with each other for my love, were among the fancies of my fevered imagination. The Rothschilds, Girard, and Astors appeared to me but poor people: in short, I had a very violent attack of the Gold Fever"

Carson, Bright Gem of the Western Seas, p. 3.


The true imaginative wealth of the gold rush resides in its nonfictional prose: diaries, letters, journals, memoirs, government documents, and personal narratives. Gold rush writing frequently addressed practical matters such as the arduous travel to and from California, the price of meals or hardware, and claim disputes. Yet in the best works this very emphasis on the demands of everyday life—on the mud, fleas, and open-air autopsies in the camps—contributes to the rough-and-tumble piquancy of these memoirs. The best mining camp narratives, such as Louise Clappe's (1819–1906) The Shirley Letters (1854–1855), blend satire and appreciation in unexpected ways. Writing under the nom de plume "Dame Shirley," Clappe wrote a series of twenty-three letters from two high-country camps in the upper reaches of the Feather River to her stay-at-home sister in Massachusetts. The primitive living conditions startled her eastern notions of decorum:

How would you like to winter in such an abode?—in a place where there are no newspapers, no churches, lectures, concerts or theaters; no fresh books, no shopping, calling nor gossiping little tea-drinkings; no parties, no balls, no picnics, no tableaux, no charades, no latest fashions, no daily mail, (we have an express once a month) no promenades, no rides, nor drives; no vegetables but potatoes and onions, no milk, no eggs, no nothing? (P. 50)

Yet just when conditions seem most crude and unredeemable, Clappe adds a characteristic sparkle of candor and mischief. "Now I expect to be very happy here. This strange, odd life, fascinates me" (p. 50).

Clappe did not gloss over the ugliness and the prejudice she encountered in the camps. She was sometimes insensitive in her portrayal of California Indians, seeing them as degraded savages who fell disappointingly short of "the glorious forest heroes that live in the Leatherstocking Tales" (p. 12). But she was exhilarated by the cultural heterogeneity of the mining camps, and her letters offer a unique blend of sympathetic social portraiture and literate satire. (Both Bret Harte and Mark Twain seem to have found inspiration in Clappe's letters for some of their best-known stories without acknowledging their origin.) The Shirley Letters creates a narrative of rejuvenation. In her last letter Clappe states that it is no longer a "feeble and half-dying invalid" but a "perfectly healthy" woman who will miss the mines: "I like this wild and barbarous life; I leave it with regret" (pp. 178–179).

A number of other American gold rush narratives are worthy of note, including Walter Colton's Three Years in California (1850); Edward Gould Buffum's Six Months in the Gold Mines (1850); Alonzo Delano's Life on the Plains and among the Diggings (1854); Eliza Farnham's California In-Doors and Out (1856); The Life and Adventures of James P. Beckwourth (1856), the as-told-to autobiography of an African American fur trapper and mountain man; John Letts's California Illustrated (1852); and Mary Jane Megquier's letters from 1849 to 1856, collected in Apron Full of Gold (1949).

Realistic prose accounts of the gold rush were often less well known at the time than the work of frontier humorists like Alonzo Delano and George Horatio Derby. Delano published works under his legal name in the East, but he presented himself as the long-nosed character Old Block in San Francisco. He wrote popular whimsical sketches, or "whittlings from his Pen-Knife" (p. 32), of western types like the miner and the gambler, for San Francisco's Pacific News. These articles were collected in two books, Pen Knife Sketches; or, Chips of the Old Block in 1853 and Old Block's Sketch Book; or, Tales of California Life in 1856.

George Horatio Derby (1823–1861), whom Mark Twain called "the first of the great modern humorists," was a caricaturist and U.S. Army topographical engineer assigned to California in the early 1850s, after service in the Mexican-American War. He wrote under the pseudonyms John Phoenix and John P. Squibob and became famous as a wag and practical joker. His letters, squibs, and burlesques, which often struck a pose of urbane absurdity, appeared in various California newspapers. His occasional prose was collected in two volumes, Phoenixiana; or, Sketches and Burlesques (1855), which went through some twenty-six printings, and the posthumous Squibob Papers (1865).


The writings of Derby, Delano, Ridge, Clappe, and others helped lodge the California gold rush in the American imagination. In the 1860s and 1870s a second generation of authors that included Twain, Harte, Joaquin Miller, Charles Warren Stoddard, Ina Coolbrith, and Prentice Mulford helped transform the gold rush into mythic history and eclipsed the work of those who had preceded them. The Overland Monthly catalyzed the influence of this later group of writers and was arguably the most important literary periodical ever published in California. Founded in San Francisco in 1868 by a local bookseller and former miner named Anton Roman, the Overland Monthly was designed to encourage emigration to California, yet the magazine actually eulogized the romantic frontier days eclipsed by modern life after the Civil War. Although he never actually published in the Overland Monthly, Mark Twain (1835–1910) captivated his eastern audience with the local color of California subject matter in November 1865, when he published his short story "Jim Smiley and His Jumping Frog" (later retitled "The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County") in the New York Saturday Press. A parody of a tall tale, in which a nameless confidence man outwits the con man Jim Smiley in one of the animal contests of which miners were so fond, Twain's story made literary capital out of subliterate frontier humor and established his talent for simultaneously celebrating and satirizing the vigorous, misspelled slang of the western mining frontier.

More than any other writer, Bret Harte (1836–1902) was responsible for creating the legendary, larger-than-life image of the gold rush. He did so by transforming squalid mining camps into robust mythical communities inhabited by a citizenry that looked intrepid and stouthearted in hindsight. Harte's "The Luck of Roaring Camp," which was published without a signature in the second issue of the Overland Monthly, was an overnight sensation and helped make Harte a household name by the early 1870s. Stories such as "The Luck of Roaring Camp" (1868), "The Outcasts of Poker Flat" (1869), and "Tennessee's Partner" (1869) feature a cast of endearing character types: grizzled sentimentalists (Kentuck and Stumpy), debonair gamblers (John Oakhurst and Jack Hamlin), young innocents (Piney Woods and the Luck), and golden-hearted but fallen women like Mother Shipton and the Duchess.

Harte's stories are filled with violence and degradation. In "The Luck of Roaring Camp" the baby's mother, Cherokee Sal, is an Indian prostitute who died during childbirth; at the end of "The Outcasts," John Oakhurst has committed suicide and the reader is left contemplating an image of the corpses of two frozen women. What keeps Harte's stories from becoming truly terrifying or morally ambivalent, however, is his ability, in Kevin Starr's words, to create mythic history by depicting the gold rush as "quaint comedy and sentimental melodrama, already possessing the charm of antiquity." Harte's narrative voice creates a warmhearted, ameliorating safeguard against violence. He highlights the tender emotions that lurk unexpectedly beneath the hardened shells of his characters and thus prepares his reader for the moral transformations these characters undergo.

Although the heyday of prospecting for gold in California was relatively short-lived, it nevertheless proved to be an irresistible literary subject. Both first-hand accounts of the gold rush and retrospective, reimagined versions of that era like those of Harte and Twain provide an impressive panoply of literary responses whose aesthetic complexity and documentary insight has still not been fully appreciated.

See also"The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County"; Humor; Tall Tales


Primary Works

Carson, James H. Early Recollections of the Mines, and aDescription of the Great Tulare Valley. Stockton, Calif.: San Joaquin Republican, 1852. Reprinted as Bright Gem of the Western Seas: California, 1846–1852. Edited by Peter Browning. Lafayette, Calif.: Great West Books, 1991.

Delano, Alonzo. Pen Knife Sketches; or, Chips of the OldBlock. Sacramento: Published at the Union Office, 1853.

Shirley, Dame [Louise Amelia Knapp Smith Clappe]. TheShirley Letters from the California Mines, 1951–1852. Edited with introduction by Marlene Smith-Baranzini. Berkeley: Heyday Books, 1998.

Thoreau, Henry David. The Writings of Henry DavidThoreau, Volume 4: 1851–1852. Edited by Leonard N. Neufeldt and Nancy Craig Simmons. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1992.

Secondary Works

Brands, H. W. The Age of Gold: The California Gold Rush and the New American Dream. New York: Doubleday, 2002.

Dwyer, Richard A., and Richard E. Lingenfelter, eds. Songs of the Gold Rush. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1964.

Fender, Stephen. Plotting the Golden West: AmericanLiterature and the Rhetoric of the California Trail. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1981.

Holliday, J. S. Rush for Riches: Gold Fever and the Making ofCalifornia. Oakland and Berkeley: Oakland Museum of California and University of California Press, 1999.

Holliday, J. S. The World Rushed In: The California Gold Rush Experience. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1981.

Johnson, Susan Lee. Roaring Camp: The Social World of the California Gold Rush. New York: Norton, 2000.

Kowalewski, Michael, ed. Gold Rush: A LiteraryExploration. Berkeley: Heyday Books in conjunction with the California Council for the Humanities, 1997.

Kowalewski, Michael, ed. Reading the West: New Essays on the Literature of the American West. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1996.

Kurutz, Gary F. The California Gold Rush: A DescriptiveBibliography of Books and Pamphlets Covering the Years 1848–1853. San Francisco: Book Club of California, 1997.

Perry, Claire. Pacific Arcadia: Images of California, 1600–1915. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999.

Rohrbough, Malcolm. Days of Gold. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997.

Starr, Kevin. Americans and the California Dream, 1850–1915. New York: Oxford University Press, 1973.

Starr, Kevin, and Richard J. Orsi, eds. Rooted in BarbarousSoil: People, Culture, and Community in Gold Rush California. Berkeley: California Historical Society and University of California Press, 2000.

Walker, Franklin. San Francisco's Literary Frontier. New York: Knopf, 1939.

Michael Kowalewski