The Bloomsbury Review, September/October 1998
In 1848, the discovery of gold at Sutter's Mill, California, triggered one of the largest human stampedes in American history. The story is well enough known to have evolved into cliché, as is the case with similar stories of other American gold rushes such as those in Colorado and the Alaska territory, also in the 1800's. Although fascination with the concept of sudden riches was the predominant motivation behind the mass movement of people toward the goldfields, America at the time was also coming to the end of an era of ever-expanding frontiers; a slowing-down of the pace of expansion marked the age, gradually turning the country into a nation of permanent settlement. At the edges of this known civilization were images of new frontiers, discovery zones where a good life could be uncovered through the exploitation of the earth. To many of the residents of the stagnant, settled burgs of the Midwest and East, the image was too rich to resist.
The coincidence of a major anniversary in 1998, marking the 150th anniversary of the Sutter's Mill discovery, has triggered its own stampede, this one by publishers hoping to latch on to public interest in the topic. Books already emerged from this scramble examine the history itself, sociological and cultural implications, commercial angles, artistic philosophies, and the role of overlooked populations groups, particularly women. More are on the way, but the cliché of any gold rush, particularly those uniquely American, is unlikely to be erased by this process. It's a permanent part of the symbology we have of such events, the greed, luck, desperation, adventures, and tragedy encountered along with the occasional nugget.
A few titles, however, have cast appealing and intriguing insight into this phenomenon, one we often relegate to past generations and eras even though gold rushes are currently under way in South America and, some would argue, on the World Wide Web. In William Haskell's narrative of his adventures in various Alaska goldfields at the turn of the century, the reproduced story illuminates the daily cycles required of those in the remote outposts where gold was being sought. Unconventionally for the time, this prose carries tremendous clarity and the unstilted writing style of a pro. Neither a journalist nor a professional writer, however, Haskell was unencumbered by the requirements of newspaper editors or thrill-seeking readers; his focus details just what physical effort meant in the gritty environment of Alaska mining. As well, his own experience often fell outside of active mining in his attempt to earn enough money to pay for food and shelter. This story, almost a cliché in itself, is a powerful symbol of the commerce involved in mining adventures. At times he worked as a carpenter for wages, building cabins for miners, and in the process far outstripped in earning power what even the highest ranks of business managers were earning in "the lower forty-eight." For him, the mining experience ended up being an almost joyful experience of living, coming of age, and thriving in an adverse climate, with no great disappointment at not striking it rich with gold.
Haskell's detail includes intriguing descriptions of the chaotic streets and establishments of towns that were founded and expanded to meet the demands of the gold rushers. With this detail fresh in mind, Ronald Bailey's book about the frontier photography of P.E. Larson, long forgotten as a photographer, and deservedly so, made a living for a few decades following the various mining fevers that swept through the West and Alaska. Uninterested in the art of the landscape or the aesthetic potential of the camera, he focused on miners and their money. For a suitable fee, he captured on film their faces, equipment, business ventures, and camps, the miners and business owners stiffly posed amidst their efforts. Form this plebeian record comes a wealth of detail, the everyday grind, the bleakness of the terrain, the shabbiness of the structures put up in haste. Look at Larson's photograph of Front Street, Dawson, in 1899 and you realize how well Haskell described this environment, particularly something missing from the Hollywood image of a gold rush city, the density of advertising, from banners to sandwich signs. Rarely in Larson's imagery would one gather romantic notions about the era, unless the image were of one's own ragged enterprise.
Romanticism about the gold seekers is not a product of modern endeavor, but sprang as quickly from the scene as did the first gold nuggets. Art of the Gold Rush is the appropriate venue with which to view the phenomenon from this angle. A richly illustrated title, the works it includes portray the editorializing influence of artists confronting the precious metal, in the process erasing or ignoring ugly details and glorifying the environment from which the gold was being stripped. The artists of the time were not hiding the danger; they preferred to embellish the adventure. In Charles Christian Nahl's Dead Miner, a howling sled dog perches in misery on the recently dead body of its master, mining pick discarded in the snow. The image is of death, but the message is one of heroic endeavor in the jaws of nature.
Words were also a powerful tool in the editorial climate of the times, stirring emotion and disdaining logic. Hindsight, of course, tells us that no logic would have been useful in controlling the tidal wave of interest that swept the country, all dreams drifting toward the fertile deposits of the West, but in a contemporary effort, the average publisher would have included more rational depictions. First published in 1877, Frances Fuller Victor's "The New Penelope" played on emotion but centered it in the action of the mining environment, including some realistic depictions. The work is fiction, however, and drama plays out against the backdrop of gold seekers, camp life, and wilderness adventures. The writing style may be old- fashioned - certainly the interactions between men and women are long out of date- but this production paints another level of complexity onto the ordinary elements involved in the forty-niner experience. And unusual for the time, a woman's voice and interests emphasize a perspective that the average gold miner, or wannabe, might not have grasped while reading gold rush accounts in the local paper.
Sally Zanjani examines the woman's role in the western mining experience in A Mine of Her Own, a nonfiction contemporary account focused on the gold rushes of Alaska and the Rocky Mountains and the subsequent organized mining ventures that followed. This book humanizes the experience through the lives of women miners, including some major characters and others noted only for the written record they left behind. Generally invisible in the larger cliché of the gold rush adventure, women were an active part of almost every gold-seeking endeavor of the era, even if in the minority. The study is as dramatic in detail as Frances Fuller Victor's is in imagination, for like the mining effort everywhere in this period, adventure, tragedy, and serendipity played major parts. But the story here is the personal impression generated by females, often a subtle and lingering touch, not the hard macho saga most often carved by men.
When women did emerge as characters in the clichés of the gold mining experience, it was most often as prostitutes. This image dissolves quickly as the reader experiences Lael Morgan's Good Time Girls of the Alaska-Yukon Gold Rush. The "soiled doves" of this frontier were a major part of the commerce that accompanied the quest for riches, but often at a major part of the commerce that accompanied the quest for riches, but often at a major cost in health and well-being. Some women, however, did prosper in this environment. As well as the view of the prostitution experience, clinical details excepted, this book tells an engrossing story of the evolution of urban life as the gold rushes emerged, peaked, and then dissolved. Left behind were a number of permanent settlements, where prostitutes turned into businesswomen, entrepreneurs, and wives. Their long-lived success blossomed and carried forward even as the cribs, bawdy houses, and red-light districts crumbled.
All the above angles and perspectives and more are touched upon in Precious Dust, by Paula Mitchell Marks, originally published in 1994 and newly released as a paperback. Here the clichés are not avoided so much as dissected, with the voices of miners, businessmen, and other participants intertwined to add personality to a well-written history lesson. This is a publishing endeavor that never forgets to balance events with a wider perspective, adding the real cost in human sweat and suffering that was linked to the alternately calamitous and numbing activities that defined the gold rush experience.
Yet, through this title and the others covered here seeps another message, one that reinforces the glossy romance of gold rushes. Despite reality, facts, and objective reporting, nothing can completely erase the image as it must have appeared to these pioneers, a symbol of something hidden and gleaming, waiting for discovery at the edge of the frontier.