Clare V. McKanna, Jr., Book Review Editor
Days of Gold, The California Gold Rush and the American Nation. By Malcolm J. Rohrbough. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997. Illustrations. Maps. Bibliography. Notes. xv + 353 pages.
Reviewed by Michael J. Gonzalez, Assistant Professor of History, University of San Diego.
“The eyes of the world are turned toward us,” cried an Anglo Californian during the Gold Rush, and if global attention waned, the Argonauts revived interest with letters, diaries, and reports whose outpouring was only exceeded by the correspondence of the Civil War. Malcolm Rohrbough, little different from a forty-niner who sweated to find nuggets, mines the documents to uncover telling words or phrases which reveal Argonaut sensibilities. Largely avoiding the reminiscences composed in later years when romance clouded memory, Rohrbough fixes on letters and breathes life into the intimacies miners exchanged with their loved ones: Husbands pined for their wives; wives professed love for distant spouses and asked when, if ever, their husbands would return home; siblings dashed off notes to each other; and friends filled in miners with news from home while the Argonauts regaled their audience with tales from the diggings.
Rohrbough, however, goes beyond the letters” details, and cuts to the heart of the correspondence, for beneath the complaints, queries, and declarations of affection, lay matters whose significance most writers missed but nonetheless expressed. Democratic feeling, says Rohrbough, pervades the letters. The hunt for treasure abolished distinctions and convinced many that drive, not reputation or social rank, would bring success. Letters from the mines rejoiced that life began anew in California when men, and some women, supposedly had an equal chance to strike it rich. Back home — Rohrbough rightly says that loved ones left behind also participated in the Gold Rush — many wives proclaimed in missives that they could manage the farm or family business without their Argonaut spouses.
Rohrbough, though, refuses to romanticize the Gold Rush and says that democratic sentiment often inspired cruelty or violence. Argonauts, the majority Anglo Protestants from the Midwest or East Coast, could invoke their common heritage to claim fellowship, but they had little patience for different peoples who went prospecting. Mexicans and Chinese faced expulsion from the mines, an indignity capped by laws imposing taxes on foreign miners. Indians, meanwhile, fell before forty-niner guns or landed in labor gangs.
For families who lapsed into poverty when left at home, their welfare sometimes mattered little to men bent on hitting paydirt. At this point, the innovative Rohrbough shies from an argument which seems clear in the evidence he presents. If the gold fields promised miners a fresh start in life, then new opportunities tempted some to toss aside family obligations. One can only wonder how many men, tired of their wives or exasperated by children, bolted for California at first word of the Gold Rush, vowing to return once they made money. Indeed, many miners kept their promise and came back bearing riches for the family. For others, however, freedom, not wealth, seemed to be the prize. Ephraim Delano refused his wife”s pleas to come home. Another Argonaut, James Wilson, widowed and father of four children, left his eldest daughter in charge of the youngsters and headed west. The wife of John Kerr wrote that she and the children were almost naked from want. Kerr did not budge and remained in California for eight years. In the end, Rohrbough poses subtle conclusions. Democratic attitudes granted Anglo miners the hubris that only they, and not peoples of color or foreigners, had the privilege to extract gold. At another level, the fraternal spirit of the diggings released Argonauts from the drudgery of home life. Of course, few men in the 1850s would admit that they rarely missed their families. Yet, the truth may be in a miner”s letter to his wife begging him to return, “It is hard to give up a good business after laboring…for two years to build it up.” In one sense, his “business” referred not to making money, but to keeping his independence.