When James Wilson Marshall saw something golden shining in the tailrace at Sutter’s Mill, he not only set off a worldwide rush to California but also touched off the greatest writing and artistic frenzy in our nation’s history.
Newspapers, guidebooks, government reports, sermons, diaries, and letters written home all spread the word about a land where golden dreams could be realized. Artists through sketches, paintings, prints, pictorial letter sheets, birds-eye views, and illustrations for books likewise gave visual meaning to this new El Dorado. The California State Library got its start during the height of the Gold Rush. Many libraries and archives across the country from Yale University to the Henry E. Huntington Library preserve formidable collections of Gold Rush material, but the State Library’s direct relationship to Marshall’s earthshaking discovery gives it a unique role. Without the mad scramble to our golden shore, California would not have been admitted into the Union so quickly and the institution of the State Library would not have come into being as it is presently constituted.
The goal of the exhibit is many fold: provide an overview of the Gold Rush, emphasize the strength of the Library’s collection, and incorporate items that will simultaneously delight, surprise, and inform. In creating this exhibit, the varieties and richness of the material proved to be both a joy and challenge. Literally, Hundreds of items were scrutinized and various themes explored. Unavoidably, because of space limitations, many choice documents and topics were grudgingly set aside. It is no accident that so much documentation exists about the run for gold. In fact, it could be argued that the California Gold Rush stands as the best documented event in our state’s history. There are many reasons for this. Most importantly, though, the Gold Rush took place when people commonly kept diaries and wrote detailed letters. Fortunately for us, many Argonauts possessed exceptional powers of description, the ability to express philosophical thoughts, and the gift to record what they saw with drama, emotion, and on occasion with humor. Because the Gold Rush represented the adventure of a lifetime, participants, through letters and diaries, eagerly shared their experiences with friends and relatives and made sure that their writings would be preserved for future generations.
A Collection of Gold Rush Materials
The exhibit features many examples drawn for the California History Section’s extensive manuscript collections. Scores of Gold Rush manuscript collections holding thousands of letters were examined. Included are such treasures as Marshall’s own map showing where he discovered gold, pioneer preacher Joseph A. Benton’s journals of his voyage to California and his first years in Sacramento looking for souls instead of gold, and letters to his mother by Sacramento’s first historian, Dr. John F. Morse. Letters by those less well known, however, vividly tell us of the travel to California by land and sea and then the cold reality of the diggings and its hardships, loneliness, lawlessness, and disappointments. Printed books, pamphlets, periodicals, and newspapers, of course, form a major component of any Gold Rush exhibition. These printed sources, more than any single medium, spread the news and influenced would-be gold seekers.
Bayard Taylor’s El Dorado, the best seller of the Gold Rush; Dame Shirley’s celebrated letters from Rich Bar which appeared in California’s first periodical, The Pioneer, and the Journal of the Hartford Union Mining Company, actually printed on board a California bound ship in 1849, serve as a solid foundation of early eyewitness accounts. An array of rare guidebooks, foreign language works, and printed pamphlets issued by mining companies supplement these seminal publications. The very first issue of the Panama Star, an American newspaper printed in Panama, records the importance of that narrow isthmus as a link between the United States and its new mineral-rich territory.
The gold discovery and its immediate aftermath took place when the visual means of mass communication was making great strides. Lithographs and wood engravings gave visual credence to the incredible news that poured out of California. Artists were not immune to gold fever and some real talent came to California first to hunt for gold, and then finding this to be hard and unproductive work, turned back to their God-given natural abilities. Charles Christian Nahl, Harrison Eastman, John David Borthwick, and George Holbrook Baker, to name just a few, produced memorable images that publishers even to this day reproduce over and over. The result of all of this made the Gold Rush one of the first important episodes in our history recorded visually and systematically by its participants. Consequently, pencil sketches, pictorial letter sheets, illustrations found in books and newspapers, and birds-eye views of cities and towns form an essential component of this collection.
One other form of visual documentation emerged, photography namely in the form of the daguerreotype. The Gold Rush represented the first important event in our nation’s past to be captured by photography. Those one-of-a-kind, silvery, mirror-like images held together in beautiful, protective leather cases provide a breathtaking, crystal clear view of life during that rambunctious era. Certainly a highlight of California As We Saw It are the exquisite open air daguerreotypes of mining operations near Georgetown and Nevada City attributed to J. B. Starkweather. Daguerreian portraits of men and women put a human face on that golden era.
Some Themes Explored
Several topics apart from the discovery and long journey to California and the diggings have been developed. The title of J. S. Holliday’s brilliant book, The World Rushed In, provided inspiration for some of this exhibit. Accounts and guidebooks published in England, France, Australia, and Germany are featured. Another section focuses on the experiences of women, African Americans, and Chinese. One remarkable manuscript consists of a bill of sale whereby a slave imported by his Southern master to hunt for gold buys his freedom for $1,000. Within a couple years after the discovery miners extracted gold from the earth by working in teams and then by forming companies. Turning rivers with dams, delivering water by flumes to wash away the hillsides in search of gold, and setting up stamp mills to crush the ore was not a simple, individual endeavor.
This mechanization of mining and the need to raise capital is documented by manuscripts and printed by-laws, articles of incorporation, mining claims, and bills of sale. A selection of beautifully engraved early stock certificates provides visual evidence of the financing needed to work the mines. The need to supply the mines gave rise to instant cities and mining camps. While San Francisco emerged as El Dorado’s most important port and city, Sacramento also experienced unbelievable growth. This exhibit contains a sampling of books, letters, and sketches documenting Sacramento’s transformation from the citadel of Captain Sutter’s New Helvetia empire to a vital port to the northern mines. Highlights include the first Sacramento directory by Horace Culver, a broadside proclamation concerning the formation of city government in 1849, and one of the earliest known sketches of its famed embarcadero by George Holbrook Baker. Not all was seriousness when it came to looking for gold. The gold mania spawned a series of satirical prints and books by the likes of Alfred Crowquill (Alfred Henry Forrester), Jeremiah Saddlebags, and Old Block (also known as Alonzo Delano). A centerpiece is a beautiful hand-colored lithograph entitled the “Independent Gold Hunter on His Way to California.” Crowned with a pot, the bespectacled gold hunter is loaded down with every conceivable appliance and weapon including a set of gold scales from which hangs a strong of sausage, dried fish, and a tea kettle. A rare series of hand-colored lithographs by two Cuban artists gives a light-hearted look at a group of miners who evidently had made their pile and enjoyed the fruits of their labor.
It is hoped that this compilation will provide a permanent record of a truly remarkable grouping of primary source material. As demonstrated by this exhibit, James Marshall’s discovery produced not only treasure in the form of yellow metal but also the foundation for the Library’s great California history collection.