A Sense of History


Gold rush


I’ve heard it said that California has no history.

Well, that’s wrong. Written history of human lives, not so much. The people who lived here before the Spanish came didn’t leave records, but they were here. Richard Henry Dana’s Two Years Before the Mast gives an interesting glimpse of California life before the Gold Rush.

After the Gold Rush, California’s history becomes pretty wild. I found this book at a used book store mega-sale (sigh, another one bites the dust) and what a treasure.

The sense that anything can happen, and often did, is probably the prevailing impression that one carries away from these readings: when people left home to travel to Gold Rush country, they left the rules governing their society behind just as much as they left those familiar farms, cities, clothes, and food..

One of the most fascinating aspects of the Gold Rush experience is the details of daily life.

I picked out three of the narratives in which I found the coping with the exigencies of day-to-day survival vivid and different in tone and expectation, as well as experience.

The first is light-hearted, Prentice Mulford’s “California Culinary Experiences.”  Beginning with the observation that “Cooking had always by us been deemed a part of woman’s kingdom,” Mulford goes on to describe some of the culinary disasters men had come up with absent of any women to do their cooking for them.  He also describes the idiosyncrasies of various male cooks encountered along the trail, and observes how even then, cans and bottles littered the trail.  At the end there is a triumphant description of a perfect trail meal, what we’d call a barbeque–indicating that yes, when put to it, men could indeed learn to cook.

The narrative seems straightforward though told in a tongue-in-cheek tone. The reader is asked to believe that prospectors had to face their ignorance once they were out in the fields without women to feed them, and retails the disastrous experiments in bread-making, pie-making, and even in preparing pork and beans (when one doesn’t know that the beans need to soak all night before cooking).  It makes sense that out in the field, denied the societal-ordained divisions of labor, men could and did come up with their own ways of dealing with food preparation.  I chose this particular narrative as important because it illustrates, in homely detail, just how ordinary males survived the vanishing of domestic comforts that hitherto had been so taken for granted the logistics of them were invisible.

Clarence King’s “Mountaineering in the Sierra Nevadas” starts off observing the mad race to California from all over the world–and he does not whitewash the effect on human beings with jingoism about progress or pioneer spirit.  A few lines encapsulate his view of Gold Rush life:”…nor can we imagine to what height or horror it might have reached had the Sierra drainage held unlimited gold.  Those were lively times….For a few years the solemn pines looked down on a mad carnival of godless license, a pandemonium in whose picturesque delirium human character crumbled and vanished like dead leaves.”

He goes on to illustrate his point with the story of a prospector who came into one of the camps, and because he’d seen spur marks following his trail, assumed that a Mexican had stolen his two donkeys and one horse.  “Such news as this naturally demanded drinks all around.”  After which the gathered men declared that the one way to deal with Mexicans was “Give ‘em a fair jury trial and rope ‘em up with all the majesty of law.”  Having chosen a victim, a jury is picked, sequestered–and bullied into giving the ‘right’ verdict.  But when they emerged it was to find that the hapless man, who had just been walking by whistling, had already been strung up. Not long after, the animals were found–right where the man had left them.

King talked about Vigilance Committees and how they summarily dealt with lawlessness in a land of no permanence.   He illustrates riding through abandoned towns with animals running wild and ramshackle buildings left open to the weather.  After an  observation of how old survivors of those days tended to brag about the adventures of their youth, calling it the time of their lives, he observes, “Traveling to-day in foot-hill Sierras, one may see the old, rude scars of mining; trenches yawn, disordered heaps cumber the ground, yet they are no longer bare…”

What King has illustrated is how for an intense period human beings came together, shedding the constraints of society in order to get rich quick, and in the midst of the environmental rape and scramble, summarily reinventing rules in order to gain, if not a semblance of order, at least enough force to survive.  The narrative is convincing in two ways: its observations match so many other journals of the time, and also regrettably match journals of human behavior through sudden radical changes all through history.

So what about women?  There are not a lot of records here about the women who came to the West.  According to the narratives here, and histories elsewhere, few women came to California to prospect for gold.  Most of them were looking for better lives than the ones they left behind.

The most vivid and harrowing of the narratives is Ruthanne Lum McCunn’s “Thousand Pieces of Gold,”  in which is told the arrival of Lalu, a Chinese girl coming to California to find a husband, but who had actually been sold into slavery.  By her family.  And the gold that crossed hands was taken by other women.  Lalu was confined in a stinking hold, fed slop twice a day (that was the only time the hold was opened so air could get in) and what keeps her sane is the thought of the gold she will bring back to her family.  She has to pretend to be someone’s wife first, in order to get past customs–and when she stumbles, her supposed protector bribes the customs official to let her pass.  Collusion being apparent here: soon after, Lalu discovers that she is expected to strip and parade herself to be bought.  And she’s one of the lucky ones, for the ugly women, the battered or ill ones, will finish out miserably lives in ‘cribs’ begging men for sex in order to earn less than a dollar.

There was a lack of women in California that made this trade thrive, and the corresponding lack of value for females back in China made it possible.  The narrative is about a real woman, though written years later by someone else, but the squalid details all ring true.

What we see in these narratives is adjustment to a life absent of the usual rules of society–both constraints and safety measures, and how individuals, groups, reinvented rules in order to cope.



A Sense of History — 18 Comments

  1. And that’s just the history after California became part of the United States! Before that are the rancheros of Northwestern Mexico and before that the Missions of the Spanish colony. There are the Natives, too, but then we leave the realms of conventional history.

    • Very true. Visiting some of the museums makes it clear that there was plenty of history, and it was full of interesting stuff.

  2. I find this actually very confusing. I have lived in California for very close to 40 years now, and I think of it as a state full of history, and not just starting with the Gold Rush, though of course that is where it flowers.

    What struck me enough to comment is that anyone who says “California has no history” is taking the opposite side of “white people have no culture,” and I bet it’s often the same people.

    • Yep. I read it occasionally, but when I was in Europe, I heard it said frequently enough that it was a kind of pattern. It happened most often when I said I was studying history, then there would be a mildly contemptuous laugh, followed by something to the effect of, “You Californians! You have no history.”

      If I’d been older and smarter I would have said, “California has as much history as anywhere else. Just not a lot of it is about white people.”

    • Interesting. Using the Gold Rush as a point of departure, I’d say the Anglo (using that term as a catch all for white people with no Spanish or other Hispanic heritage) history of California began 20-25 years later than the Anglo movement into Texas — not a long time by historical standards — but no one ever says Texas has no history. Of course, we Texans are notorious for over-hyping our history, but still.

      I think of San Francisco as a city with a lot of history. Seems to me when people say California has no history, they’re mostly talking about Southern California.

      • It depends, but yes. (Though the history of Los Angeles is also pretty wild.)

  3. Certainly the public schools in San Francisco gave their kids (in elementary school, anyway) a good sense of local history–a lot of it, as said upstream, involving non-white, non-European people. Once the damned STAR tests were over there were always field trips and projects about San Francisco and California history.

    Interestingly, one of the problems my now high-school senior has had with history classes in high school (particularly US history) has been some of her teachers’ focus on non-white, non-European experience to the exclusion of white and European experience. “I mean, Mom, Europeans might have been dicks, but they were there.”

    • The history of San Francisco reads like one of those sprawling generational novels–so wild, and talk about personalities!

    • Ah, the pendulum swings. Outside of my Texas history teacher and his discussion of Texas Indians, I don’t think any history class I ever had focused on anything but the European influence.

  4. Gertrude Stein famously remarked of California “There is no there there.”

    But I’ve never encountered anyone who studies history to say California has no history.

  5. There’s sometimes been a theory that if women were scarce, they’d be more valuable (…to men; obviously inherently a person is always valuable). The story of Lalu (like the situation of women in countries where sex selection has unbalanced the population in favor of men) shows that that’s not true.

    I’ve heard of Two Years before the Mast, but somehow (I guess from the title) I’d thought it was mainly a seafaring narrative. What elements of California history does it cover?

    • It doesn’t talk about history so much as Dana’s experiences on the coast of what would become Southern California. His descriptions are so vivid that I can recognize various places he describes–including one about five miles from me right now!

        • A small mission in what is now Long Beach, by the university. It later got converted to a rancho, then a house–the last owners had a huge library of mostly turn of the century to thirties books. Among them I saw a full set of first edition Oz books, I recollect.

  6. I am a great great grandson of a 49er. On another side, my Irish great great grandparents were here before the Gold Rush. I’ve studied the family history a great deal. One of the things that strikes me is not the vivid crimes, abuses, and deprivations, but the way the melting pot effect springing from the Gold Rush erased boundaries that would have remained rigidly in place in the East and in the Old World. My great-great grandpa was a son of a slave owner, yet one of his best friends in his middle-aged years was a former slave who was the boss of the big hard-rock gold mine on the adjacent property. My great-grandpa spent so much time as a boy in the mining camps he learned to speak Chinese from the Chinese miners and cooks who worked beside (and in the employ of) his father. Some of the cousins married Yosemite Indians — not in the early days when there were no white women around, but later because they had a lot in common, having been raised in Mariposa County.

    • Just to follow up on this, there’s an entire river divide in Southern Oregon that was essentially settled by several miners who married into the Karok Native tribes and settled in the isolated (still quite isolated) Illinois/Rogue River confluence. It’s quite a story (I worked near there in the summer of 1975, it’s very impressive and isolated). There’s a book about that settlement, called Illahee, by Kay Atwood.