California Gold Rush: A Look to the Past

Malcolm Rohrbough (photo BA)
The California Gold Rush was the significant national event of its time. James W. Marshall's discovery of gold "led to a series of changes that would affect not only the history of California, but also the entire nation in dramatic and long-lasting ways," explained Malcolm J. Rohrbough, Pulitzer- nominated author of Days of Gold: The California Gold Rush and the American Nation.

The initial skepticism of communities and newspapers to the news from California in the summer of 1848 gave way to Gold Fever by winter. After President Polk's State of the Union address sanctioned the reality of gold, the nation was ready to believe the stories.

"And what stories they were!" said Rohrbough. While agricultural workers earned a dollar for a twelve-hour day, and artisans a dollar and a half, "the average miner in good health along the watercourses of the Sierra was averaging twenty dollars a day." Stories of servants and children plucking nuggets from the streams dramatized the availability of gold to "individuals of every social rank."

The gold seekers, the Argonauts, came and harvested some $300 million between 1848 and 1854. Rohrbough contrasted the earnings of prominent Midwest farmer Eddin Lewis, who earned $350 in the very good year of 1847, and miner C. C. Mobley who, in 1850 recorded gold earnings of $250 one week, and $150 the week before.

Rohrbough posed the question at the heart of the national debate among historians at that time: "Was the discovery of gold in California a signal of a nation blessed by heaven or alternatively was the road to California the road to national ruin?"Rohrbough quoted the Reverend James M. Davis, who directed the women of his congregation to "vaccinate the souls of their children against this gold mania just as you would vaccinate their bodies against the smallpox," and to prevent their men from going to "the golden tomb."

Others argued that the Argonauts were the new pilgrims, who would travel with "the Bible and McGuffy readers in their hand, and pick and pan in their packs," said Rohrbough. They would "replace Catholicism with Protestantism; they would replace Spanish language and Mexican culture with English and American values; they would Americanize the most western parts of this newest addition to the republic."

The national debate led to family discussions in thousands of homes about who would go, who would stay, who would make decisions, and how to support the family in the absence of the Argonaut.

Amid tears and promises of letters, remittances, and a quick return, the Argonauts departed. The fantasies gave way to the harsh realities of prolonged absences, hardships at home, and no remittances. Rohrbough noted the changes for women: some reported charity and solidarity while others told of loneliness, hardship, and destitution. In some families, the absence "meant a degree of independence and decision-making for wives and children; a new degree of control over their own time, however onerous the burdens they inherited."

Communities faced uncollectable debts and labor shortages. Young women and men faced changing marital prospects. In California, miners formed new communities and sent news of their hometown neighbors. In a letter from James Lyne to his family in Kentucky, he relayed news of fourteen of his neighbors from home. That only two of these still searched for gold, suggested the "proliferation of economic opportunities associated with the Gold Rush," said Rohrbough.

While some found great wealth in California, most did not. "The California Gold Rush raised, for the first time in the experience of the American frontier, the specter of failure on a large scale," explained Rohrbough. Many forty-niners "severed contacts with their families, disappearing forever into the golden haze of California."

Rohrbough concluded, "What they sought and sometimes found was a world in which any man or any woman, and there were increasing numbers of women after 1851, might make a substantial sum, whether from the placers or in the growing and profitable service industries, in which the new arrivals labored on an equal footing, without regard to family name or social rank."


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