Good Prospects: Life in the California Gold Fields
May 9, 2007 – Summer, 2009
“Monday 24th this day some kind of mettle was found in the tail race that looks like goald, first discovered by James Martial …”
– Henry William Bigler, Diary, 1848
This sentence, written by Henry Bigler at the end of a day’s work at Sutter’s Mill, is the first account of the discovery of gold in the northern part of what was then Alta California. The impact of the discovery was immediate and spurred an influx of people from the East and Midwest as well as from Europe, Mexico, South America, Asia, and Australia to the mining regions of the Sierra. Good Prospects: Life in the California Gold Fields examined with an affectionate eye the lives of the “forty-niners” who traveled to California with hopes of making their fortune. The exhibition traced their travels, experiences, and hardships with a selection of sheet music and instruments, photography, paintings, books, maps, and journalistic and eyewitness accounts found in the permanent collections of The Society of California Pioneers.
The life of the California miner spawned a rich and enduring popular culture that has come to define this era in history. Songs were written about mining, song books were published for miners to carry with them to the gold fields. Melodeons and music halls drew performers such as Lola Montez and Lotta Crabtree to entertain the influx of hopeful miners. Artists created images of the mines and miners – some realistic, but many idealized. Photography introduced the daguerreotype, which allowed miners to send photographs of themselves with pick and shovel to their loved ones back home – or to carry with them an image in a locket.
Much of the literature of the day – plays, poems, essays and books – focused on the mines and mining. With the exception of the Civil War, no other period in American history is so rich in written personal accounts. Diaries were kept on trips to and from the gold fields, on the covered wagon trails, on board ships around the Horn, and on the journey via Panama by ship and wagon. Scores of letters were written by the miners and their distant loved ones. Many of these survive, giving us a clearer picture of life during these times. Peter Decker, an early member of The Society, wrote many diaries, including an 1857 account of a trip to Yosemite. James Mason Hutchings, another early member, produced a magazine which featured illustrations from the whole state, as well as mining scenes and early scenes of Yosemite. The southern mines, in the vicinity of Yosemite with their center at Sonora, became an even more lawless area than those mines in the northern part of the state. Guns and daggers were standard equipment for a miner along with the pick, shovel and gold pan.
The nineteenth century was also an age of printed media, and newspapers, magazines and books flourished. The first printing press came around the Horn to California on board ship – and those on board printed an account of their journey aboard ship. Artists and printers joined forces to produce lettersheets, which were often used by miners to write home. These sheets were illustrated with scenes from the mines, cities and people of the gold rush. Books were published on the gold rush in many languages – German, French, Swedish, Italian – to name a few, reflecting the origins of many of the gold seekers. Much of our most direct knowledge about the lives of the miners comes, however, from on-the-spot accounts by individuals who lived it. Louise Amelia Knapp Smith Clappe, known to her readers as Dame Shirley, wrote a series of letters from the California gold fields during 1851-1852. Her letters describe incidents from everyday life, as well as murders, accidents, hangings, and mob justice in vivid and unvarnished prose. In her last letter from a log cabin at Indian Bar on November 21, 1852 she wrote:
My heart is heavy at the thought of departing forever from this place. I like this wild and barbarous life; I leave it with regret. The solemn fir trees, “whose slender tops are close against the sky” here, the watching hills, and the calmly beautiful river seem to gaze sorrowfully at me, as I stand in the moon-lighted midnight, to bid them farewell…
The Gold Rush brought great wealth for some and disappointment and/or emigration for more than a few. But like Dame Shirley, few forgot their early experiences in the California foothills that the present exhibition, more than 150 years later, seeks to evoke.
Tim Evans and Patricia Keats