J. S. Holliday. Rush for Riches: Gold Fever and the Making of California. Berkeley, Los Angeles, London: University of California Press, 1999. xi + 354 pp. $38.95 (paper), ISBN 978-0-520-21402-6; $60.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-520-21401-9.
Reviewed by R. A. Burchell (Eccles Centre for American Studies, The British Library, London, UK)
Published on H-California (February, 2000)
A Rich Contribution to Gold Rush Historiography
This must be the most handsome book in print today on its subject, as befits a volume connected to an exhibition. The exhibition, held at the Oakland Museum of California, to mark the 150th anniversary of the discovery of gold in California and the subsequent gold rush, was itself connected to four separate travelling exhibitions, a fifth produced for the California Council for the Humanities, a national gold rush symposium, many diverse public programmes, the manufacture of statewide educational materials for the public schools, two exhibition catalogues and the present volume. Such a plethora of interconnected activities certainly required a volume of the highest quality and in Rush for riches they found it.
The volume opens with a survey of California life before the gold discoveries. It reminds us that the first use of the name California came in a Spanish novel about a mythical island, which may prompt the response that there has been much myth connected to the region ever since. Reflecting modern scholarship the author does not reproduce Gertrude Atherton's view of pre-Gold Rush California as splendid and idle, though he clearly feels there can be too great a pursuit of pleasure. He notes the sombre fact that the indigenous population melted away, as the nineteenth century phrase had it, but not as its users were wont to infer, as the result of the warm breath of Providence, but because newcomers brought diseases against which there was no appeal, no way of circumventing. The newcomers were few in number: in 1846 Oregon had more settlers than California, partly because land titles were so clouded in late Mexican times. The social, political, military and economic situation at the end of Mexican rule can be gauged from the fact that when the Mexican authorities surrendered Monterey to the victorious Americans, they did not possess a flag to lower.
Chapter two deals with what the author calls a "Free for all". It covers the year 1848 and the gradual spread of the realization that the gold discoveries were real, extensive, generally accessible, open to individual and small-partnership effort, and egalitarian, if capricious. The author illustrates the story by mentioning individuals, men like Sam Brannan and Charles Weber. This opens up a problem that faces all general histories of the gold rush which use such examples, for arguably neither man was a typical gold-seeker. Unlike the many they saw commerce, real estate speculation, transportation or agriculture as the routes to riches and unlike the many they had capital to invest. They were not miners, though admittedly they could not have succeeded had there been no Argonauts. In one way the problem is connected to the sources. While surviving caches of letters, well used in the present volume, do give some idea how the ordinary, if usually very literate, gold-miner behaved, surviving sources as a whole are better on those who did extremely well from the rushes. Theirs were the stories collected and retold as the pioneer generation passed away and a flood of highly self-regarding biographical sketches were gathered into commemorative volumes. These works were usually financed by those who were included. Consequently,the rich were presented as representative, but the books made no mention of the hundreds who died and the thousands that returned east now aware that goldmining was a form of gambling and that gamblers, particularly amateurs, have always lost.
But what this chapter succeeds in doing is making clear how important it was that the federal government abdicated its responsibilities both to the Indians, onto whose lands the incomers poured without invitation or sense of obligation, and to the common weal, permitting private individuals to plunder the public domain in a way which would it would never have done had other kinds of property been involved.
The third chapter on worldwide contagion is slightly odd in its accent on France and its silence on Great Britain and Ireland, not to mention Australia's Sydney Ducks. Punch could have provided the author with some telling cartoons, the advertisement pages of the London Times further examples of crackpot technology to go along with the illustration of the advertisement put out by Rufus Porter. Porter, who founded Scientific American, promised to carry goldseekers by air to California from New York, in something that looked like a very primitive ancestor of the airships of the 1930s. The author has presumably decided that we have had more than enough of the overland journey from the eastern United States, since this is not highlighted, though it is recalled. The chapter ends with the Argonauts of '49 not always safely in their mining camps facing the rains of the Californian winter.
The fourth chapter "Careless Freedoms", recounts the society of 1849, one that appeared in such a state of flux, almost anarchy, certainly a great contrast to the steadier, more hierarchical, more family-orientated east. It plots the beginnings of American San Francisco and the origins of the postal service which failed spectacularly to deliver the mail. It shows how, in the face of Congressional deadlock, Californians created their own government and how they gave more rights to women than was customary, partly to attract not women of the night but "women of fortune". In the mines it was becoming ever more necessary to band together to build flumes, divert streams, dig ditches, construct dams, for it had become clear that gold lay most accessibly on streambeds. But as the year passed some of the implications of haphazard, uncontrolled, almost heedless development, began to be seen. Fires destroyed San Francisco time and again; floods washed away puny dams and ditches. Mud and debris became more common.
Chapter five, "The getahead years," covers the 1850s. The themes evident in the last chapter replay ever more loudly. The author tells us in his introduction that he has been much influenced by Robert L. Kelley's Gold vs. Grain: The Mining Debris Controversy, originally published in 1959 and his debt becomes ever clearer. The 1850s increasingly showed a society ignorant of the law of the commons, that the selfish, unceasing desire to maximise individual gain without reference to general needs and obligations, was leading ever more frequently to catastrophes, but while bigger remained better for Californians, they were their own worst enemies. Fortunately, as many readers may feel, it is often the case that hubris leads to nemesis and this, the author implies, was increasingly the case here.
The chapter also deals with the founding of Californian agriculture and the preservation of law and order. Historians of the American West, including California, fall roughly into three camps. There are those who argue that the West was not particularly lawless, indeed was remarkable in its respect for private property and the sanctity of human life (within the white community). There are those who stress inter-communal violence, not quite the same as lawlessness, but something that produced the most shaming episodes of the late nineteenth century West. And then there are the traditionalists who like to see law and order as recreated on the frontier in the face of great threats, by the operation of citizen democracy, of decent individuals wresting control from often corrupt institutions. These writers praise Committees of Vigilance as central to the American tradition of resuming power to the people when the elected authorities failed.
Early writing on lawlessness and law and order in California almost entirely took this line. It was not until the 1960s that historians began to question the complexion of both the Committees of Vigilance and their victims, which the present author does not do. Indeed he accepts the Committees on their own terms, producing in passing perhaps the only suspect sentence in the book: "Statistics from the district attorney for San Francisco affirm the gracious amenability of sheriffs and judges to timely bribes: for 1,200 murders committed in the city between 1850 and 1853, the official legal system managed to sentence and convict only one defendant."(p. 174). Surely Roger Lotchin, included in the bibliography, exposed the misleading character of these statistics some decades ago.
The sixth chapter, "Astounding enterprises", takes the story to Nevada, so much a Californian colony in the nineteenth century, where silver discoveries augmented and extended gold. A careless rhetorical question "Where else but in this unique society would Irish and Chinese compete (sometimes fighting in the streets) for jobs as they did in San Francisco in 1877?" should bring the answer Queensland or New South Wales, but leaving that aside, the author carefully shows the increasing inegalitarianism of society, especially after the rewards of the Nevada mines fell into fewer and fewer hands and the new Central Pacific Railroad ennobled its caste of four.
Meanwhile technological advances were making hydraulic mining increasingly effective in the sense of bringing down ever larger hillsides and more widely influential in the sense of requiring more and more timber and hence deforestation and more and more acquiescence from farmers whose lands were disappearing below the consequent mining debris brought down from the mountains by the annual floods. Gradually, however, farmers came together to begin the fight to curtail hydraulic mining. Like many since then they sadly came to realise that political pressure would not work against powerful vested interests but that recourse to the courts might. By the middle 1870s they were ready for the legal fray but in short order discovered the great weakness in the new strategy: the sloth-like pace of the law, with its appeal procedures; its often perverse decisions based on narrow legal considerations
Nonetheless, as the last chapter shows, in the end grain beat gold and as so often within capitalism it was a body of capitalists pursuing their own economic self-interest that produced what was a more socially conscious policy. This last chapter is in one sense the most important in the book in defining why it is so different from most histories of the Gold Rush which seldom venture past the early 1850s. It is but one of the reasons why the work deserves to become one of the definitive surveys of its subject.
At the same time, however, it also reminds us how much we still do not know about the Gold Rush. Questions remain: what percentage of the Argonauts prospered and to what degree? How was capital raised for the mining ventures; who provided it? The work has references to foreign sources of capital, particularly British, but no one knows what percentage came to California from abroad. Furthermore the work does not always tell us what we already know. We hear nothing of labour unions in the mines or the struggle for the eight-hour day in San Francisco. The floating rural proletariat, so evident by the 1870s, or the urban underclass which slept in roominghouses and relied on episodic employment are not part of the story here. That this is so is a result of the book's great strength, its exposition of its theme of the effects of untrammeled exploitation on the environment. But we need a work to complement this, on the effects on those who came west to fail in their desire to find gold and better their material lives significantly.
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R. A. Burchell. Review of Holliday, J. S., Rush for Riches: Gold Fever and the Making of California.
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