Social Problems During California’s Gold Rush Presaged Those We Face Today

by Louisa R. Brandt, an undergraduate student at UC Davis who spent her Summer 2015 break processing manuscripts at The Bancroft Library (originally posted to the “What’s New” blog on 2016/04/20)

Selection of gold rush letters from the Bancroft Library

Gold Rush-era letters, and others like them, are open for research at The Bancroft Library. Visit the library to conduct your own inquiries into the experiences of Californians living through past booms and busts.

As the Eastern United States met the West in the months and years following the 1848 gold discovery at Sutter’s Mill, California’s shores and gold-filled hills became riddled with problems the eager prospectors might have thought they had left behind: racial tension, concern over rainfall, economic disparities between neighbors, overcrowding and high rent. These sound familiar, don’t they?

At The Bancroft Library, recent acquisitions of letters sent from California during this widely-studied era illuminate through the voices of young men, both optimistic and pessimistic, how they saw this “land of opportunity” and tried to explain it to their relatives and friends back home. Although many of the letter writers in this collection are not famous, and some even unidentified, the aggregate of their experiences and descriptions paint an honest likeness of this not-so-foreign past.

The influx of prospective miners into California after January 1848 brought the racist stereotypes regarding the native population already common in the East to the forefront of western social interaction. Common claims of the day deriding the character of the Indians are seen in the December 25, 1852 letter by Abram Lanphear to his brother in New York as he calls the native population a “poor indolent lazy set of mortals” (BANC MSS 2015/12). Similar ideas drove the state military’s pursuit of revenge for the death of one sergeant during an altercation that had already left eight native people dead, as explained by Brigadier General Albert Maver Winn’s July 21, 1851 letter (BANC MSS 2015/16). Some men were not so blindly willing to believe the prejudice against Indians, and asserted that this hatred was sometimes used to cover for violence between whites. A Virginian miner in Butte County tells a friend of the “band of robbers who committed such wholesale & fiendish murders in our neighborhood” leaving victims with their “throats cut & arrows stuck all over them.” Despite the attempt to make the murders fit the Anglo perception of native warfare tactics, the author does believe that the Indians are blamed “probably falsly [sic]” (BANC MSS 2014/19). This method of exploiting the new immigrants’ fear and ingrained ideas of native people attacking was also used in San Francisco, as carpenter Christopher Toole notes that “the great trouble is with the indians but….the fault is not with indians it is with the whites” (BANC MSS 2015/19). That some people saw through efforts to make them believe in the evil of the native people mirrors today’s concerns over racial profiling.

Due to the need for water to wash gold from the gravel pulled from mines, and the fact that too much water made it impossible to reach the ore-rich hills, the amount of rain and river water was an important subject for men in the fields and in the cities. Miners writing from their claims often wished for a “wet winter” in order to have the rivers filled throughout the spring and summer months (BANC MSS 2014/12). When the rains came at an inopportune time, however, as was the case during the late winter of 1850, it created chaos as a dry February caused “such rush for the mines you never see in your life,” and the succeeding wet March sent the prospectors flooding back into cities (BANC MSS 2015/19). This dependence upon the rain is familiar to today’s Californians, who daily hear about the prolonged drought, and the possible flooding that could occur if the projected El Nino winter proves to be as strong as predicted. Even though many people do not rely solely on water for employment, the concern over water is unabated, and remains as common a topic of conversation today as it was during the Gold Rush.

Like most new careers, digging for gold held its fair share of monetary risk and depended on luck. A man identified only as “Charles” observed in 1850 that “99 out of 100” men get not a cent from mining (BANC MSS 2014/53). While some men struck it rich upon arrival, many were not so fortunate and spent months in squalid conditions. The different financial outcomes between men who dug for gold in the same areas proves just how random success was, and can be reflected in today’s business environment in which one new technology soars while a similar one fails. Frank William Bye, a miner who spent at least a decade in California’s gold fields, noted in 1852 that he “cleared over one hundred dollars per month.” This success did not allow him to forget that he was one of the few, as he follows by conceding that “hundreds of men equally as competent as myself [who] have been here all summer spend the last dollar” (BANC MSS 2014/58). An unidentified miner digging at the Yuba River in the Sacramento Valley perfectly describes how big the difference a short distance can be in his assessment of a claim located less than a mile from his where “there was a company of 20 men making 20 to $30 a day while all around there was many not making their board.” (BANC MSS 2015/3). What are now entrenched issues of economic disparity were already at play in the 1850s.

Rent and the cost of food in California are prime examples of too much demand for not enough land and supplies. Even though there were vastly fewer people in gold rush San Francisco than there are today, numerous letters marvel over the enormous sums asked for rent, which were far larger than anywhere else in the country. Architect Gordon Parker Cummings, whose contributions to California include San Francisco’s “Montgomery Block,” and Sacramento’s capitol building, complains to a friend in Pennsylvania that his two “3rd story rooms” in San Francisco rent for $900 a month, a cost that “would sound extravagant in Phill [but] it is a cheap one here” (BANC MSS 2014/35). The cost of basic foodstuffs also was drastically more expensive in California thanks especially to the difficulty of moving provisions from the port of San Francisco to the mines. In an 1853 letter to a friend, Charles Stone, a miner in Columbia, California (now a state park), notes at the beginning of the letter that flour costs $0.38 per pound, and by the end of the letter, written after a rainstorm, it was raised to $0.75 per pound (BANC MSS 2014/36).

Despite all of the unexpected hardships, California still held its charm for some newcomers who boasted of its “handsome buildings” and health benefits that were “worth all the Gold in California” (BANC MSS 2014/13; BANC MSS 2014/3). Even today, California is a beautiful place to live and generally has salubrious weather. So maybe there is more than one reason that millions continue to call it home.

– Louisa Brandt