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Table of Contents

Explorations of the West
Sam Dalsheimer

Caitlin Goss
Nick Schradle
David Sena

Representations of
Native Americans

Richard Dybas
Amanda Leong
Cynthia Robertson

The Western Railroads
Ronni Toledo
Kayt Fitzmorris
Jon Ingram
David Halperin

The California
Gold Rush

Jordan Helle
Adam Lawrence
Marisa Pulcrano
Patrick Ryan

California as Western Destination/ Mediterranean Boosterism
Maddy Kiefer
Danielle Mantooth
Molly Nelson
Stefanie Ramsay

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The California Gold Rush infused images of opportunity and individual glory to thousands of prospectors traveling west, creating an event that was dictated more by fictitious ideas of wealth than of the actual possibility. For many, the event helped solidify the possibilities out west, as “the discovery of gold, always an object of ambition, has not infrequently been prosecuted with eagerness and avidity, and the wildest schemes have been proposed to obtain these coveted treasures” (Shuck, 1869).[more]

The hysteria created by the Gold Rush, first appearing in San Francisco and then throughout the entire state of California, reshaped not only the region, but also the entire country, something Hubert Howe Bancroft describes in the History of California Volume XXIII. However, it was the hysteria that produced visions of widespread gold and wealth, as the event itself was short-lived and not nearly as prosperous as it was exaggerated to be out west.

This study will focus on defining some of the key factors of the Gold Rush, and use primary source documents to detail the experience of the event. The California Scrapbook, written by Oscar T. Shuck, examines the mining tools used by prospectors during the Gold Rush, emphasizing the technological advances that changed both the state of California and the event itself. The idea of “panning” for gold was often viewed as the main form of mining during the event, yet, in reality, it was almost a complete myth, exaggerated by the hysteria caused by the event. Another key factor during the Gold Rush was the contact zone between Native Americans and prospectors. Frank Marryat illustrates the relationship between these two groups in his book, Mountains and Molehills. Prospectors often treated these people as bloodthirsty savages, a treatment which Edward Said would define as a clear example of Orientalism, thus allowing prospectors to obtain powerful hegemony over these indigenous people. Furthermore, the lack of government and political institutions created an emphasis on individuality in a world of increasing crime, which is expressed in The Letters of Dame Shirley, by Louise Amelia Knapp Smith Clapp. This problem was a key reason why settlements became so dangerous, as the lack of an organized society drove prospectors to care little about the ethics and laws of society and thus, focus entirely on individual ideals of wealth.

The Gold Rush impacted the not only the country, but also the world, as prospectors became so engrossed with the idea of wealth and glory that they were willing to give up almost anything in order to have a shot at the “American Dream”. The mythologies of the Gold Rush provided people with an unprecedented ambition; the drive to obtain gold fueled desires to obtain a lifestyle that had the potential to be incredible. While the Gold Rush was often viewed as a powerful antidote to withering western expansion, its true nature provided prospectors with only dreams of wealth, as almost everyone did not “strike" it rich.

[i] Cabeza de Vaca, Adventures in the Unknown Interior of America, (New Mexico: Crowell-Collier Publishing Company, reprinted in 1983), p.63

[ii] Dame Shirley, California in 1851[-1852] ; the letters of Dame Shirley, (San Francisco: The Grabhorn Press, 1933), p. 120

[iii] Dame Shirley, California in 1851[-1852] ; the letters of Dame Shirley, (San Francisco: The Grabhorn Press, 1933), p. 122


History of California Volume XXIII

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- Jordan Helle

"California’s Initial Reaction and Hysteria to Discovery of Gold"
The quick and sudden explosion that was the California Gold Rush was the substance of myth just as much as fact.  Chapter IV in Bancroft’s History of California Vol. XXIII provides excellent insight into the madness that the discovery of gold brought to California in 1848, which would lead to the mass migration of gold seekers from all corners of the globe in 1849.  Initially, the first discovery of the precious metal did not create much buzz at all.  But after a couple of months passed and a few more found gold, the rush was on and an entire territory was captivated. 

Bancroft describes the initial reaction to the discovery of gold as filled with skepticism, and not even given much press in local newspapers. However, once a few more discoveries were made, such as the one by the Mormon leader Samuel Brannan, people “were thrown into a fever of excitement”. [1]  Bancroft used Brannan’s discovery as an example possibly because he was a strong religious leader and “man of God” who held a lot of credibility, increasing the likelihood that people would start believing there were actually riches in the hills. 

San Franciscans now started to believe, and many went as far as immediately dropping everything and just leaving.  They blazed new trails, many after selling everything they had. [2] It is almost unimaginable to think of the atmosphere created by the discovery of gold and ensuing spread of news by tall tales and word of mouth.  The fever that Bancroft mentions sweeps San Francisco completely as the legend grows.  Gold was discovered in January and by June three-fourths of the male population had left for the mountains in search of riches they have only heard of, leaving the city all but abandoned. [3]

The hysteria was not confined to just the city of San Francisco, as soon all of California had heard for themselves.  People from all walks of life figuratively dropped everything and went as “judges abandoned their benches, doctors their patients, soldiers fled their posts, and criminals slipped their fetters”. [4] It was a sight to see as all humanity left and gave up their homes.  The landscape was suddenly barren of human presence and the “country seemed as if smitten by a plague”. [5]

For miles and miles it would have appeared as if all humans had been wiped off the face of the earth.  All of California was now packed into the hills, as widespread mythical tales of gold and riches drew them.  Once there, these fortune seekers took to mining the hills in search of the precious metal.  Soon to follow was the rest of the country and the world as the news of gold would only continue to spread and as the tale grew taller.  With the flood of people whose sole purpose was to search for wealth and riches, there came an atmosphere with little law and justice.         

[1] Hubert Howe Bancroft, History of California Volume XXIII (San Francisco: History Company, 1888), 56.

[2] Bancroft, History of California, 58.

[3] Ibid, 59.

[4] Ibid, 62-63.

[5] Ibid, 63.

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California Scrapbook

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- Adam Lawrence

The California Gold Rush brought prospectors from around the country in search of wealth and a desire to experience the seemingly infinite possibilities that the region had to offer. As a primary source, the California Scrapbook, complied by Oscar T. Shuck in 1869, contains not only a plethora of information about the expansion and history of the Gold Rush, but also about the manner in which this gold was found and mined. Mining technologies during the Gold Rush paved the way for many instrumental techniques that built wealth and prosperity in California, however, the ideas of panning and individuality within mining were mere myths to the event itself.

At the start of the Gold Rush, individualistic attitudes coupled with a tremendous quantity of gold brought the desire to mine without any delay nor complication. This resulted in the development of placer mining (also known as panning for gold), which involved shoveling the earth for gold dust in sandbanks looking for alluvial deposits which could contain the precious resource. Even before the events before the Gold Rush, “traders who visited [California] obtained small quantities of gold dust from the earth in the southern part of the state” [1]. Although many prospectors were attracted to the simplicity and immediate wealth of placer mining, gold began to diminish quickly in quantity, and a more collective process of mining began to develop in Northern California. During the majority of the Gold Rush, panning  was rarely utilized, yet it was a tool used cherished by many, including Frederick Jackson Turner, to endorse and celebrate the individuality and possibility out on the Frontier [2]. While prospectors and westerners saw visions of glorious wealth in San Francisco, the mining industry, which helped dictate the influx of wealth during the event, did not share these emotions.

Within a year after the first finding of gold at Sutter’s Mill, other forms of mining were needed to reach veins of pay dirt. Thus, hard-rock mining and other forms of hydraulic mining became prominent tools to search for these mineral deposits. Shuck later notes that there became not only a desire to mine for gold, but also to mine for other precious minerals that stood in the way of prospectors and businessmen [3]. This often drove prospectors to carelessly mine in even the heaviest banks of sedimentary volume or on lands of Native American people (causing major conflicts). Thus, after the hysteria of placer mining, mass mining became the only reliable technique to increase the quantity of gold found in California, diminishing the ideals of individual fame and fortune that the Gold Rush is often associated with in a positive light.

The symbols of fortune and prosperity that stem from placer mining during the Gold Rush often takes a forefront in defining the era as a whole. While the notion that success and opportunity awaited anyone who traveled to California during this time may have been accurate within a span of several months in 1848, the Gold Rush was, in reality, little more than a myth, causing prospectors in search of fame and glory to fall back onto the mercies of corporate mining moguls who offered minuscule profit for intense labor.

[1] Shuck, O, California Scrapbook (San Francisco: H. H. Bancroft and Company, 1869), 79

[2] Turner, F, The Significance of the Frontier in American History (American Historical Association, 1893), 37

[3] Shuck, O, California Scrapbook (San Francisco: H. H. Bancroft and Company, 1869), 81

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California in 1851[-1852]
; the letters of Dame Shirley

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- Marisa Pulcrano

"Justice in the Gold Rush"
Frederick Jackson Turner’s frontier was a place where “savagery met civilization”, where government institutions were a foreign concept and hierarchy was inexistent, with populations having “no chiefs [1],” as explorers as far back as Cabeza de Vaca discovered with surprise. Similarly, the societies created by the California Gold Rush had only a fragment of government structure and authority. Beginning on the Overland trail, the inherited power structure was left behind, to be replaced by the immigrants’ new and constantly evolving relationships. However, the Native Americans’ anti-proprietorship society and the mining communities diverged because of one critical element: gold. This material, which combined natural and social advantages and which directly conferred great fame and fortune, caused primal desires to surface and gave prospectors something worth stealing and fighting over. Louise Amelia Knapp Smith Clapp describes life at the gold mining camps of mid-19th-century California in The Shirley Letters. Under the pseudonym “Dame Shirley,” she gained a first-hand experience of the opulence generated by the Gold Rush at its beginning, with the creation of a flashy and rich mining town, where gambling and drinking the gold-dust away was a constant occupation. When one of the miners, Little John, is convicted of gold theft, Dame Shirley can’t believe that “the last person that would have been suspected,”[2] was capable of theft, which illustrates just how strong a motive gold was for even the most innocent.

Enforcing new, hierarchical rules on the frontier was clearly difficult. In the Gold Rush, having left all familiar structures behind, individuals were free to embody a new personality in their quest for wealth and other life opportunities. The newly constituted communities had to find ways to deal with the increased recklessness on the trail, which meant instituting a popular judicial system. In Dame Shirley’s mining community one encounters a Squire, however he had a lesser impact on judicial decisions than did the miners. In Little John’s trial, a president and a jury were elected from amongst the miners, while the Squire was allowed to “play at judge sitting at the side of their elected magistrate,”[3]a task which he docilely accepted. The mob was ultimately responsible for deciding to hang Little John, which was the sentence for most men having stolen even small amounts of gold. Turner emphasized the positive necessity for the dismantling of power structures on the frontier; however Dame Shirley illustrates the downsides of lawlessness in a society struggling to rebuild their hierarchy. This schism was due to gold, as it caused a frontiersman to privilege their individual desires for wealth over the growth of their society. The mythology of the Gold Rush was a powerful motive that could turn any man or woman into a thief, but one that also generated a hierarchical structure within the frontier’s community.

[1] Cabeza de Vaca, Adventures in the Unknown Interior of America, (New Mexico: Crowell-Collier Publishing Company, reprinted in 1983), p.63

[2] Dame Shirley, California in 1851[-1852] ; the letters of Dame Shirley, (San Francisco: The Grabhorn Press, 1933), p. 120

[3] Dame Shirley, California in 1851[-1852] ; the letters of Dame Shirley, (San Francisco: The Grabhorn Press, 1933), p. 122

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Mountains and Molehills

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- Patrick Ryan

The Gold Rush in California created a frontier contact zone between prospectors and the native peoples of California. Many people who traveled west on the overland trail seeking gold were greatly concerned with how to deal with the native “savages”. The book Mountains and Molehills is an excellent primary source document that explores the interactions between the Native American tribes of California and the gold prospectors.

The discovery of Gold in California in 1848 drew large numbers of people who wanted to find wealth and pursue the American dream. The Native Peoples of California were clearly viewed by many prospectors as a source of danger that needed to be dealt with:

Indians--laboring under the ridiculous notion that anything can belong to them that the white man wants—become troublesome, it is customary to drive them back; but the Indians of this regime when so driven, will find their revenge in carrying on an exterminating warfare against the overland emigration—at least so it appears to me.[1] 

The indigenous people of California are viewed as a bloodthirsty band of savages who were driven solely by greed for gold and for anything else the prospectors were after. The author of this text clearly believes that the Indians have no right to own property like white men do. The most prevalent method of dealing with native peoples appears to be to drive them away from any areas that might contain gold or other precious resources that the whites desired. In reality, the native peoples did not pose a serious threat to mining interests and were as much a part of the mythology of the Gold Rush as the mythology of the frontier. Furthermore, the author accuses the natives of “carrying on an exterminating warfare”. The hypocrisy of this assertion cannot be overlooked in light of the numerous atrocities and genocides that the United States government perpetrated on the indigenous peoples of North America.

This account describing perceptions of Native Americans clearly comprises what Edward Said termed an “Orientalist Discourse” that denigrates the natives of California as nothing more than animals driven only by the desire for gold and bloodshed. [2] Moreover, the text implies that there is no “Middle Ground”, as defined by Richard White, between the natives and the prospectors because the prospectors exert a clear hegemony over the natives. [3] The Indians are not bargained or negotiated with but are usually driven away from mining areas by force and many are moved onto reservations by the U.S. Government. This book’s description of the frontier seems to fit into Frederick Jackson Turner’s framework very well as the far west is a place filled with violent “savages” and a general atmosphere of rampant lawlessness. [4] The result is a text that attempts to justify the Gold Rush craze as well as the blatant disregard toward Native American ownership of the land. 

[1] Frank Marryat, Mountains and Molehills (New York: Harper and brothers, 1855), 221.

[2] Jeremiah B.C. Axelrod and Rise B. Axelrod. Draft of “Postcolonialism” (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2004), 1.

[3] Richard White. The Middle Ground (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991), 9.

[4] Frederick Jackson Turner. The Significance of the Frontier in American History (Washington D.C.: American Historical Association, 1893), 3.

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 About this Project / Acknowledgements

Occidental College's "American Frontier" Research Seminar was developed by
Dr. Jeremiah B.C. Axelrod, Adjunct Assistant Professor of History.

The library project is developed in collaboration with the Special Collections Department:
Dale Ann Stieber, Special Collections Librarian
with student staff
Henry Boule and Claire Lem and
Laila Tootoonchi and Anahid Yahjian.

Title Image: Thomas Moran, "Nearing Camp, Evening on the Upper Colorado River, Wyoming, 1882," from http://www.boltonmuseums.org.uk/collections/art/paintings_prints_and_drawings/oil/nearing_camp_moran

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