The nineteenth century was the great era of North American gold rushes. Beginning in North Carolina in 1799, gold rushes were initially a southern phenomenon, centered along the eastern piedmont of the Appalachians. A rush in the Cherokee Nation contributed to the forced removal of Cherokees in the 1830s.
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The western rushes began in 1848 with a gold discovery in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada, just as the United States acquired California from Mexico, and they shared characteristics with those in the South. The story begins with James Marshall’s accidental discovery of gold on the north fork of the American River in early 1848. By June 1848, the local rush to the gold fields was in full course, and President Polk’s message to Congress made on December 5 that year, incorporating news of the possibilities of great wealth, inaugurated the international excitement.
As news spread, adventurers from all over the world made for California. Hard drinkers and gamblers, the ‘forty-niners’, the generation of the emigrants to California, created an archetypal saloon society, where more fortunes were made from speculation in land and goods than from gold. Ships were diverted from their usual routes to carry gold seekers from European countries, China, Australia, and the South Seas. Many Mexicans came by overland routes, and it is believed that a total of nearly 100,000 persons had entered the territory by the end of 1849. Gold was a strong incentive for the Chinese to come to California, but there was a stronger enemy that pushed them out of their ancestral homeland in search of a better life. For many centuries Chinese in the southeastern part of China had fought hunger and starvation. The reality of present misery, coupled with the prospect of future wealth, was strong enough to send much adventure-seeking Chinese on their journey to the “Mountain of Gold,” as California was then called by the Chinese. California also set a pattern for future rushes whereby Anglo-Americans, sometimes aided by the state, fought to control the players.
The thousands of emigrants from the eastern U.S. used three principal routes: by ship around Cape Horn; a combination of sea and land travel, crossing Central America by the Panama or Nicaragua route; and in wagon trains across the Plains.
The common goal was the Mother Lode region. They dispossessed native peoples, focused on places, as they called surface gold deposits, and attracted disproportionately male and stunningly diverse populations. California’s was the most male of the rushes, though native women were present in the diggings, and Miwok women, for example, took up mining in order to supplement older subsistence strategies. The rush drew gold seekers from around the world, especially from Mexico, Chile, the United States, China, and several European nations.
In “Disorder, Crime, and Punishment in the California Gold Rush,” Martin Ridge writes on the efforts of “socially acculturated men who sought wealth” to create an efficient and prosperous community in a place where there were little effective government and few civil servants to carry it out. Opportunities opened for many non-American emigrants, as set forth by Caughey. As a result, “within a few short years, James W. Marshall’s discovery of January 24, 1848, made California into the most cosmopolitan place in the world.”
Consisting of equal parts democratic epic and drunken debauch, the gold rush has been characterized as a period of freedom and “raw experience unfiltered by the dictates of culture”. (Roberts, 4) Roberts argues that the gold rush was a “democratic epic, an example of America's commitment to social equality, rush-era California as a classless society characterized by the event’s vaunted freedom of expression and rough frontier egalitarianism. If the middle class appeared at all, asserted Roberts, it was primary as a gray and lifeless background against which the colorful history of the frontier, the gold rush, and true democracy would play itself out.
California during the flush times was a place of disputed claims, shoot-outs, gambling halls, and prostitution. It was a place where an anti-aristocratic national character could express itself, unfettered by bourgeois respectability. Finally, it was a place populated by the most liberated of men: the California forty-niner. As Anglo women began to arrive, they, too, inaugurated a pattern common in later rushes by campaigning against such public amusements as dance halls and brothels, which often employed Mexican, Chilean, French, and Chinese women.
Traditional treatment of women in the gold rush has eclipsed the northeastern woman’s experience of the event. It seems mired in problematic assumptions about gender and class, actually strengthening the stereotypes that middle-class women were prisoners in the home, or that the eastern home was a refuge from work, a place where nothing of any real importance happened. Women who arrived in California were central to the experience: as partners who ran businesses in their husbands’ absences, as audiences for men in California, as key figures in negotiating the meanings of the event. Many of these women were forty-niners, the people who experienced the gold rush, individuals who helped make it an event of wide-ranging social and cultural significance. For over a century the forty-niner has remained a happy figure, a symbol of freedom from bourgeois restraint. The gold rush continues to be interpreted as a reversal of middle-class standards, as a rebellion against a cultured elite and “culture” itself, as perhaps the last and greatest example of the liberated West.
The gold rush swelled the population from 15,000 to 250,000 in just four years but it also brought violence, gender discrimination and discrimination against foreigners and people of color. Nonetheless, the gold rush hastened California’s entry into the Union as the thirty-first state in 1850. Under the Compromise of 1850, California joined as a free state.
The western rushes coincided with industrialization and class formation in the United States and with an era of North Atlantic global economic dominance. For many in industrializing nations and in countries ruled by colonial powers, the rushes seemed to provide opportunities outside of the economic and geopolitical bounds that circumscribed their lives. That so many people from so many different places descended on the players and contended with one another over access to gold, and that Anglo-American men often succeeded in limiting access for so many others, demonstrates that gold rushes were no sideshow; they were part of the main event of nineteenth-century history. Even Anglo men, however, try as they might impose themselves as the rightful claimants of North American gold, could not extract from the hills the promise they sought - at most, a fortune; at least, an escape from a lifetime of wage labor. For most participants, gold rushes never lived up to the hopes they inspired.
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