The Impossible World of the ’49ers


Between 1841 and 1847, approximately 2,700 American Overlanders trekked to California, expecting to settle on fertile land for farming and homesteading. On January 24, 1848, men working at Sutter’s Mill, near present-day Sacramento, gave migrants new reason to head west. They literally plucked nuggets of gold from the surface of the soil when they diverted the path of a stream to make a mill race. A week later U.S. diplomats (who were unaware of the find) imposed a punishing peace on Mexico, with whom the nation had been at war, forcing the defeated to sign the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo. The treaty granted Americans ownership of land stretching from Texas to the Pacific Ocean. Once news of the discovery reached the Northeast the following fall, gold fever gripped the nation, which serendipitously held title to Alta California, the site of those initial gold finds. During 1849, some 80,000 immigrants flocked to the California mine fields, half of them coming over land, the other half making their way across the isthmus of Panama and sailing on to the growing port city of Yerba Buena, soon to be known the world over as San Francisco.

The experiences of these ’49ers, mostly white men flooding West to find their fortunes, have captivated us ever since. Professional and armchair historians have pored over personal diaries and letters, newspaper and autobiographical accounts, as well as faded, silvered daguerreotypes of scruffy miners holding in one hand tools of the trade (picks, shovels, and, most important of all, shallow pans) and small bags of gold in the other. As a nation, we have glorified these humble prospectors who escaped disappointment by migrating to California and striking it rich. While evidence demonstrates that all but the first wave of independent prospectors did little more than break even, legend has it that those who joined the rush amassed vast fortunes and in their spare time caroused, drank, and frequented brothels. As one historian has written, in just a few short months, “the world rushed in” to take advantage of the freedom and wealth America had come to represent.

It wasn’t so much that the whole world rushed in, Susan Lee Johnson tells us in Roaring Camp, her brilliant new study of the California diggings. It was that “more men and fewer women from very particular places at very particular times left their homes” to find their fortunes. Focusing her sharp analytical gaze on diaries, newspaper accounts, court records, and oral histories, the author, a professor of history at the University of Colorado at Boulder, explains better than any who have come before her what it meant to join that rush. “Gold Rush migration was global but selective,” she writes. “Chileans went; Argentineans and Brazilians, for the most part did not. Cantonese speakers from South China went; people from Shanghai and Nanjing did not. African Americans, both enslaved and free, went; Africans did not. France sent many forty-niners; Spain, hardly any.” Johnson carefully explains what was happening politically and economically in each of these destabilized, far-flung locales that motivated fortune-seekers to throw caution to the wind and move to California. Her fascinating stories about work, leisure, and power struggles encourage us to think carefully about the ever-permeable categories of race, gender, and class.

A fine historian with a particularly graceful approach to narrative, Johnson frames her study with multiple re-tellings of the saga of Joaquín Murrieta, an infamous Mexican bandit who in 1853 stole gold and livestock from miners in the foothills of the Sierra Madre mountains. Depending on the tale-teller, Murrieta was either a crazed, dark-skinned, vicious outlaw who slaughtered unprotected Chinese miners, or a righteous avenger, punishing Anglos who had horsewhipped him, driven his family from rich mining claims, murdered his brother, and raped his wife. Some stories end with state-sponsored Anglo rangers beheading and dismembering him; others have Murrieta’s wife, Rosa, selling the family claims, remarrying and taking the profits back to Mexico. The multiple versions of the story illustrate the tensions between official history and memory, and the ways different groups have assigned meaning to events no longer connected to their daily lives, Johnson argues. The Murrieta stories, and not the many stories of Yankee ingenuity and luck, best serve as emblems for her project. “My task here, then, is not so much to construct an accurate narrative of what happened in the Sierra foothills after 1848, to create a new main plot,” she writes, “but to take issue with received wisdom about the Gold Rush by encouraging the proliferation of alternative plot lines, stories not customarily nourished by the dominant culture, broadly defined, or even by most historical scholarship.”

In academic jargon, she is creatively “de-centering” the story many Americans have accepted as the description of the Gold Rush. Her task has been to uncover the experiences of all those other folks who rushed to California in 1849–the Chileans, Sonorans, South Chinese, French, African Americans, and women–as well as the Indians (mostly Miwoks) who suffered invasion. Most historians have chosen to tell stories of the Gold Rush by studying mines north of Stockton. In contrast, Johnson focuses on the southern mines, where not all participants were white males and where it is “more difficult to enlist in American narratives of success, stories of progress and opportunity that are linked to financial gain and identified with people racialized as white and gendered as male.”

Throughout the book, the author uses those terms, “racialized” and “gendered” to help make sense of a world that seemed as topsy turvy then as it does now. This is the kind of language that often scares off lay readers (and for good reason), but what Johnson is trying to do is to ask some fundamental questions. What were the experiences of those men? How did all participants make sense out of their lives? How have subsequent generations understood their stories? She examines the ways ’49ers used the categories of culture, color, convention and style, because she wants to persuade her readers that “the gold rush… marked a time and place of tremendous contest about maleness and femaleness, about color and culture, and about wealth and power.”

In the past, we’ve focused on stories of mining and mining only–”productive” labor that earned money. But Johnson wants to shift emphasis from public to private lives. In 1849, just 800 of the 80,000 immigrants to the mines were Anglo women. Because of the skewed sex ratio, men, who had had little to do with mending and tending, were left to sort out who would do what. Johnson is at the peak of her powers here when she discerns patterns in the historical record. Using those categories of race and gender, she figures out that in the absence of Anglo women, “certain tasks, such as cooking or laundry, came to be associated with particular groups of non-Anglo American men….” Chinese men, for instance, often made their way by making meals and washing clothes, tasks Anglos and Chinese usually associated with women. Johnson then takes these observations one step further, noting that when describing these men performing domestic service, Anglos tended to characterize them in feminine terms. “[W]here men of color performed tasks white men associated with white women,” she writes, “Gold Rush race relations became gender relations as well.” Back home, Anglo men adhered to divisions of labor following along gender lines. In the diggings, they maintained the divisions, but categorized them in terms of race. “[G]ender in California chased shamelessly after racial and cultural markers of difference,” she argues, “heedless of bodily configurations.” White men who had come to the mines to make money found “a bewildering array of humanity that confounded whatever sense of a natural order of things they could find […] in western Europe and eastern North America.”

Given that white women were a rarity in the mines, how did men engage in “social” pursuits? Diarists often commented on their lack of “the sweets of society,” by which, Johnson concludes, they meant the kinds of things they would ordinarily have done with white women, especially things attached to family, like having procreative sex, going to church, and gathering with relatives. Rather than assuming they did without and spent all their time panning for gold, she looks for clues of alternative social interactions. “These transient, unsettled people […] turned the diggings into a grand field for human interaction and connectedness,” she writes, “not only in the ways they organized mining labor and domestic and personal service work but also, and perhaps particularly, in the ways they occupied themselves during their leisure hours.” Johnson sheds light on the many ways men “made do.” She shows them worshipping in makeshift meeting houses, where preachers used brandy casks or monte tables for pulpits. She reveals that miners attended dances at which men signaled their willingness to assume women’s roles by wearing colored patches on their pants; as “dancing boys,” they “gendered” themselves female. At “bull and bear fights,” men met in circular arenas to watch wild animals fight over roosters buried up to their necks in sand. Johnson concludes that men sought sexual gratification with other men, a subject up until now historians have considered taboo. She explains that we know that men paid what women there were (Anglo, Latina, Miwok, etc.) for sex. Until now, we haven’t known–or haven’t been willing to acknowledge–that diaries reveal that men may also have done more in beds together than slept. Not “homosexuals,” in 21st century terms, they may well have turned to each other for comfort, solace, and even sexual gratification. Some readers may balk at Johnson’s analyses, as did some of my conservative undergraduates, who found her interpretations and conclusions forced. I remain open to her interpretations and grateful for her tenacious pursuit of lives too often hidden in historical shadows.

In her final chapters, Johnson narrates the dramatic changes in the area due to capitalistic market forces occurring as early as 1852. Once the first wave of miners had picked the topsoil clean, subsequent waves had to compete more heavily with one another to make money. Returning to Murrieta and his sorry fate, Johnson documents fights and alliances among the various groups of diggers in an area that levied heavy taxes on “foreigners,” actively persecuted Indians and Mexicans, and upheld laws returning runaway slaves to their owners. In 1849, Anglo men might have viewed these “others” with curiosity and even disdain, but it was in their best interests to integrate themselves into a world of work and socializing that included and drew upon all manner of people. As surface deposits dwindled and soldiers and middle-class managers entered into the fray, Anglo men were less willing to tolerate and incorporate differences into their lives.

As with virtually every tale of boom and bust in the West, water was a critical factor. With the decline in surface deposits, miners increasingly turned to water, to wash gravel and separate out gold. Controlling water, diverting streams, and building companies to manage flow became the next big business in the mines. Johnson expertly lays out the conflicts in the early ’50s between individual miners fighting collectively to control rights to water and a new, well-financed management elite, which stepped in to take over the diggings. She includes in her story a long explication of the political and economic travails of one-time presidential candidate John C. Frémont, who built his fortune on a dubious Mexican land grant and rights to diggings and water. Once again, Johnson shows how the categories of gender, race, and class were scrambled. Those in charge of the new water companies–including Frémont–became the first Gold Rush elites, creating class differences where previously none had existed. With their affluence, they could afford to bring out their women, who were indoctrinated in cultural practices that kept them in the home and out of the work force. They set up proper churches and erected schoolhouses for their children. They had workers build post offices, hotels, and cottages. Not long after came the broad, paved streets, printing offices, newspapers, and banks. The bordellos, the fandangos, the alternative ways of creating community that had made the southern mines such a fascinating counter-narrative to the American story of progress and prosperity soon disappeared. Anglo miners were not uniformly thrilled with the changes they witnessed. “[I]n spite of white men’s frequent complaints that the mines lacked the ‘sweets of society,'” Johnson writes, “not a few such men paradoxically bemoaned the arrival of increasing numbers of Anglo women in California.”

Only in the epilogue does she overtly engage with the short story whose title she has borrowed. In Bret Harte’s “The Luck of Roaring Camp,” a woman gives birth to a mixed-race baby and dies. A group of ’49ers tries to raise the baby they call “The Luck.” Though the men do their best to care for him, they, their camp, and The Luck himself are wiped out in a freak flood. Johnson reads the short story as a metaphor for the world she has documented: “This, then, is another piece of the Gold Rush of collective memory: an amoral community of men confronts a baby’s birth and begins to build a world worthy of that child. It is an impossible social world, however, and it ends in sentimentalized destruction.”

Cathy Corman is an assistant professor at Harvard teaching courses in early American history.