- Historic Sites
All That Glittered
Save for the Civil War, what occurred after a carpenter glimpsed a flash of yellow 150 years ago was the biggest story of the nineteenth century. RICHARD REINHARDT examines what we think we know (and don’t) about the people who made it happen.
February/March 1998 | Volume 49, Issue 1
Among these lantern flashes strides the bearded forty-niner, dressed in knee boots, denim trousers, red flannel shirt, and slouch hat, armed with a pistol or a bowie knife, hefting a shovel on his shoulder. Californians see him, persistently if incorrectly, as the father of their state, a fair-skinned Anglo-American lad from the Atlantic Coast, who came West searching for easy money, made his pile, and stayed on to plant grapevines and orange trees, build roads, plan cities, and found universities. He is an American icon, as familiar as the Cowboy, the Pathfinder, the Whaler, the Pilgrim, the Indian Chief, the Johnny Reb, the Pioneer Mother. He turns up in murals and friezes, statues, and beer labels, at costume parties, and in the municipal seal of the city and county of San Francisco. He is a dictionary entry in Webster’s unabridged, a verse in a song about an awkward girl named Clementine, the mascot of San Francisco’s professional football team.
As for the substance that lured the forty-niner here, it remains the metaphoric symbol of the West, although mining long ago declined into a minor industry in an urban, industrial state. California continues to call itself the Golden State. Its historic entrance is the Golden Gate. The colors of the state university are gold and blue; the state flower is the golden poppy. The motto of San Francisco is “Gold in Peace, Iron in War.” The motto of the state is “Eureka!”—I have found it!
Like many archetypal figures, the forty-niner has no name, no heroic prototype. He is the composite of thousands of humble men, most of whom went home poorer than they came. As a prospector and placer miner, he was a failure and a fraud.
“Few goldseekers stuck with mining for more than a brief time,” according to J. S. Holliday, whose bestseller The World Rushed In has become a standard reference work on the gold rush. Their experience in the diggings was “sickness, foul food, loneliness, the high cost of even the most miserable living, and mining claims that produced more disappointment than gold.”
Most of the few who profited from the gold rush did so hy selling barrels of whiskey, kegs of nails, cords of lumber, bags of flour, bottles of ipecac and liniment and India tonic, portable houses made in Baltimore, tombstones carved in Philadelphia, porter brewed in New York, sherry blended in Spain. They got rich by buying Mexican land cheap and selling it dear or by stealing it from Indians, by opening banks and stage lines and steamboat services, by running saloons, whorehouses, gambling halls, boardinghouses, beer gardens, or private mints.
Briefer and less hazardous than a foreign war, the trek to California also was a splendid opportunity to make a literary reputation. Bayard Taylor, a sometime correspondent and editorial staffer for Horace Greeley’s New York Tribune , seized the day in June 1849 and headed for California, dressed in stout hunter’s boots and a suit of fustian and equipped with a pocket thermometer, barometer, compass, spyglass, sketchbook, journal, blanket, and “a good revolver.” His detailed and candid reportage made Eldorado , published simultaneously in New York and London in 1850, a popular success and an enduring classic of Western Americana. Other correspondence, guidebooks, and memoirs rolled out of the presses of Britain, France, Germany, and the United States while mining companies were still recruiting members and chartering sailing vessels: E. Gould Buffum’s Six Months in the Gold Mines (1850), William R. Ryan’s Personal Adventures in Upper and Lower California in 1848-49 (1851), and James Carson’s Recollections of the California Mines (1852).
(It was two decades later when Samuel Clemens, Francis Bret Harte, Prentice Mulford, and Charles Warren Stoddard—all relative latecomers to California—found the forty-niner a ready-made character and installed him permanently in the gallery of American literary images, even inventing for him a language compounded of Down Eastern, Southwestern, and Sierra Nevada rustic. The resulting outburst of California color was exploited still later by the poet Joaquin Miller. Dressed in high boots, sombrero, and buckskin jacket, which his hostesses took to be characteristic California attire, Joaquin [whose real name was Cincinnatus] invaded the drawing rooms of New Orleans, New York, and London and claimed the entire Sierra Nevada as his spiritual territory.)