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The Courageous Were Those Left Behind

A Conversation with Malcolm J. Rohrbough

HUMANITIES, January/February 1998 | Volume 19, Number 1

When editor Mary Lou Beatty talked recently with Malcolm J. Rohrbough, author of Days of Gold, the conversation turned to the implications of the Gold Rush for the rest of the nation.

Mary Lou Beatty: You call the Gold Rush the most significant event in the first half of the nineteenth century, and I immediately thought, "What about the Louisiana Purchase?"

Malcolm Rohrbough: Well, I said from the Louisiana Purchase to the firing on Fort Sumter in December of 1860. My half-century is fudged to 1803. I tried to do this in terms of movement of population, the numbers of people who were moved and the impact on families and individuals and communities across the country.

Q: The movement is startling. Before the discovery, San Francisco had eight hundred residents. Of course, they were not counting Native Americans in those days.

Rohrbough: Well, there weren't a lot of Native Americans in San Francisco. When you got out to the countryside around, there were.

Q: All of California had thirteen thousand native Californians and North Americans.

Rohrbough: I think thirteen to fourteen thousand is generally the number that's cited. H. H. Bancroft did a fairly exhaustive study and I think his numbers are pretty good.

Q: Then a year later, the migration is eighty thousand; by 1854, it's three hundred thousand, twenty times as many people.

Rohrbough: It's extraordinary.

Q: What did that do to California?

Rohrbough: It's what we might call, to use a modern term, instant Americanization. In terms of their Mexican heritage, California and New Mexico are quite similar--they both come out of the mission presidio experience. But California, because of the Gold Rush, is instantly Americanized. In New Mexico, it takes the better part of a hundred years.

Q: The timing seems so ironic. There's the discovery of gold on the American River, and nine days later there is the treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo. The Mexican government cedes California, unaware gold has been found.

Rohrbough: Well, of course, the Americans thought of this as providential: God, sitting up there, had organized things so that the gold would belong to the Americans, not to the Mexicans.

Q: That was all ordained.

Rohrbough: That was all ordained, and it fitted in very nicely to this whole idea of Manifest Destiny. We're going to expand, and providence is on our side.

Q: Now, what about the myth of the forty-niner-- independent, resourceful, entrepreneurial. Is the myth anywhere close to the reality?

Rohrbough: I suppose, like most myths, there's a certain basis in fact to it, and this is how it gets started. But even the forty-niners, I think, would have said that from the beginning, it was a collective enterprise. They went across the plains or they went to California on ships organized into groups, and when they got to California, they very quickly organized into groups to mine. So it is a collective experience from the very beginning. It does feature a few individuals wandering around with faithful burros and clanking mess pots, but not, I think, very many.

Q: Of the three hundred thousand--and this may be an impossible question--who went in there looking to make their fortunes, how many came out with a fortune or a comfortable living? Is there any way to know?

Rohrbough: No, no. Well, I'll generalize more than usual here. In 1848, a lot of people made money. In 1849, many people also made money, although there were many more miners by 1849. By 1850, the mines were getting very crowded. That's when Rodman Paul documents that the daily take from miners dropped from about twenty dollars a day to about twelve dollars. I think it's pretty clear that the people who made large sums of money were not those who mined. They were those who ran stores and businesses of various kinds. The people who made fortunes in the Gold Rush were those who got into real estate.

Q: Did anybody come out really, really rich?

Rohrbough: Oh, yes. Most of them were in San Francisco, but also people in Sacramento and Stockton. Robin Winks, a historian at Yale, wrote a biography of a man named Billings, who was a railroad president. When he was a kid, Billings was in San Francisco in the Gold Rush, working for a law firm, and the law firm became involved in real estate of various kinds. It's clear that these people made immense fortunes. I cite him in my book as an example of how people moved into San Francisco, into real estate, and they began building buildings in San Francisco.

Q: Who is the equivalent of Andrew Carnegie?

Rohrbough: The biggest name to emerge, I suppose, is Huntington, who became one of the big four on the Union Pacific Railroad. He started out as a storekeeper. I think it's clear that the people who kept stores and provided services like hotels and who ran gambling establishments in San Francisco made the money.

Q: There are also wonderful stories about the women who went into pie-baking. One of them made eighteen thousand dollars.

Rohrbough: Yes. Isn't that a great story?

Q: In the foreword you talk about there being something like four hundred land diaries.

Rohrbough: Yes, overland diaries--overland diaries from 1849 alone.

It's an interesting feature when you read these, the extent to which these people thought of themselves as participating in an important historical event. It's something that we don't think about going through our day-to-day routine, and they probably didn't think about it going through their day-to-day routine. But when they got set to go to California, they suddenly saw themselves as part of the nation's unfolding history, and they determined to keep a historical record. So they did, and we have this substantial number that survived.

On the other hand, most of the people who kept this record stopped it as soon as they got to California.

Q: Why? They were too busy?

Rohrbough: I think they were too busy. Both groups that went over land and those who went by sea had a certain leisure. The people who went over land, as I suggested, didn't have a lot of leisure because they had a lot of different chores to do. But I think they had time to sit and write. Once they got to California, they got caught up in what they saw as an immensely competitive business. And they didn't write. Also, I think, when they wrote, they wrote home rather than writing in journals and diaries.

Q: You call this the most written-about period, on an equivalent with the Civil War. And you also tell us a wonderful little anecdote about one of the miners telling the folks not to put it in the newspaper. Right?

Rohrbough: It's interesting to profile. There's this elaborate network--we would call it, I suppose, Web connection-- between the people who went and the communities they left behind. Both sides tend to gossip. The people at home tend to gossip about what's going on at home, and those who are in the gold fields tend to gossip about other people in the community who went to the gold fields and what they're doing. Maybe they're drinking too much, or maybe they're hanging out with loose women, or maybe they are engaged in unsavory practices. The one that was most often commented upon was that pillars of the Methodist Church would go into the business of selling liquor. It was enormously profitable.

So some of these people are very concerned about the idea that their gossip, which they think of as family directed, is going to get into the newspapers, because lots of people carried their relatives' letters down to the local paper and said, "Look what I've got. Print these."

Q: How long would it take a letter to get back to, say, Missouri?

Rohrbough: When you start off, you're talking three or four months. Within a few years, the United States Postal Service is pretty well organized, and I think then you're probably talking four or five weeks. The Postal Service organizes a letter service which runs across the isthmus.

Q: Was it frustrating for you as a scholar to discover these wonderful journals on the road, and then, boom, they get to the fields, and the information evaporates?

Rohrbough: Yes, it was frustrating. The other thing I found frustrating was that most of the people in the gold fields don't write about their personal feelings. They don't write about their families, they don't very much confide their frustrations, although I do feel that some of them confide frustrations to diaries that they don't to their families. To their families, they put on the front, "Everything's great out here in California. I'm making a lot of money. I just can't quite come home yet," whereas the reality was very different and they were very reluctant to fess up.

Q: The situation is poignant for that reason.

Rohrbough: It was poignant. The high expectations and the great public celebrations with which they launched this exercise in their hometowns. People were serenaded down to the docks, and then the great celebrations. The bands played when the ships left. The night before, the ministers preached to them, public officials got up and made statements. It was a remarkable kind of public outpouring, and none of this is associated with their return.

Q: I want to quote you back to yourself--where you talk about the Gold Rush as the American dream, and said it was "the ultimate example of economic democracy, anyone with a pick, pan, and shovel could participate, at least in the early years, regardless of wealth, social standing, education, or family name." It did have a profound impact, didn't it, especially on the roles of women and what they could do.

Rohrbough: In terms of the kind of enforced absence of men, it was rather like a war in which you have large numbers of men who are taken out of the community for substantial periods of time, and women step into these roles. For the most part, they step in and they do well, and I think they probably derived considerable satisfaction.

One of the frustrations I experienced was that I wanted to try to create some sort of case study in which I could identify what happened when the men came home, and what happened in the family, and what happened in the community when they came back and they wanted to return everything to the way it was, and how did that work out. And I couldn't find the information.

Q: That sounds like World War II movies.

Rohrbough: It does. I just couldn't find people. Even those who wrote going to California and wrote in California and who wrote on the way home from California, they stopped writing as soon as they got home. The adventure was over. What would have intrigued me was to know what happened in the couple of years after the adventure was over. How did these people adjust, if you like, to civilian life when they came back? How about relationships within the family? How did that work out? How did things work out in the community between those who'd succeeded and those who hadn't succeeded in the gold fields, from whom much was expected and not much was returned? I couldn't find that. I still have my eye open for it.

Q: You're still searching.

Rohrbough: I'm still searching.

Q: Were there any true heroes in this?

Rohrbough: Any true heroes? In the Gold Rush? You mean by modern heroic standards?

Q: I thought we'd get into a discussion of heroic standards. James Marshall finds a piece of gold, tells his boss, John Sutter. John Sutter had workers working on a sawmill.

Rohrbough: He was enlarging his fifty-thousand-acre empire in central California. Apparently it had been very expensive to bring in building materials, and so he thought he'd build his own sawmill. Marshall was working on a millrace for this sawmill, and he had turned on the millrace the previous day to see how it worked. And, of course, the millrace acted as a kind of washing agent the same way you wash gravel in a pan. When they turned it off, it left gold at the bottom of the millrace, and that's what Marshall saw.

Q: The story goes that when Sutter found out what had gone on, he wanted to keep the information concealed because he wanted to make and he also wanted to keep the laborers there to finish work building the mill.

Rohrbough: Yes. He didn't have any idea what was going to happen to him in the next year.

Q: He loses everything, even his land grants from Mexico. He can't get money, any sort of restitution from the U.S. Congress, so he winds up broke in Philadelphia, of all places.

Rohrbough: Yes, broke in Philadelphia. There is a French novelist named Blaze Cendrars who and wrote a novel in the 1920s called L'or, gold. It is a biography of Sutter, a historical re-creation. He starts with Sutter in Switzerland. He brings him across and he builds this great empire, and then gold is discovered and Sutter's whole world just disintegrates. Cendrars thought of this as one of the great American stories; of all of the stories that he could have written about and used as a basis for literary work, he used this. I read it with great interest. I didn't find it the great, compelling event that he did, but I understand how he could find this appealing.

Q: And the family Sutter left behind in Switzerland was just left in the footnotes of history. Right?

Rohrbough: They were exactly left in the footnotes.

But to offer an answer to your question, the heroes, I think, were the people who were left behind--the heroes and heroines. They were the people who were left behind essentially to pick up the pieces of the individuals who went. The individuals who went had great adventures, and even the ones who didn't make money returned with stories and the feeling that they had done something unique in their lives. It's something that we know from reading the accounts. They always remembered those years they were in California. And I suppose the more humdrum and routine their jobs when they came back, the more they remembered them.

Q: You still couldn't get at what might have been the real intimate legacy within the family.

Rohrbough: No, not within the families. You can see those played out in the correspondence that passes back and forth when people are in California. You can see the strains and tensions that develop. I think that this dimension of it is pretty clear, and I think I do a pretty reasonable job of unraveling it. But I could not find the kind of information I would like to have had about what happened when people returned.

Q: What is this curious phrase, "Seeing the elephant." It keeps coming up, and I have trouble with whatever this concept is.

Rohrbough: It's supposed to be adventure. "Seeing the elephant is meant to characterize something that happens to people that is so remarkably different from anything that they have had. When you see an elephant, you see something that is so completely different that it is outside any of your previous experience.

Q: So it doesn't mean really even finding gold.

Rohrbough: No, no. It's the experience. And people used to have a discussion in their diaries and their letters about when they had seen the elephant.

Q: How did that become common coinage?

Rohrbough: I don't know. John Phillip Reed, who is a historian and a lawyer--he's a professor of law at New York University--has written a book called Law for the Elephant, and it's subtitled Property and Social Behavior on the Overland Trail. I will quote a couple of sentences to you. "To see the elephant or seeing the elephant were common expressions during America's antebellum years. Although imprecisely defined, references to the elephant were generally understood, þWhen a man is disappointed in anything he undertakes,' one contemporary explained, þwhen he has seen enough, when he gets sick or tired of the job he may have set himself about, he has seen the elephant.' More often, to see the elephant meant to face a particularly severe ordeal to gain experience by undergoing hardship to learn the realities of the situation firsthand or to encounter the unbelievable. The expression was most frequently used when describing the Gold Rush in particular and overland emigrations in general. To cross the continent by the Overland Trail was þto see the elephant.'"

Q: So it's really the Overland Trail more than the gold.

Rohrbough: Yes, although people who went by sea, when they got to the gold camps, they couldn't be left out. Right?

Q: Is there any comparable modern expression?

Rohrbough: I don't know any. And I also don't know that the expression was used much after this time. I never see the expression in connection, for example, with other mineral rushes or with the Klondike gold fields of 1898.

Q: There was another term, Argonauts, used for the forty- niners. You write that they were more classically attuned in those days. But the word Argonauts has disappeared to a large extent.

Rohrbough: Absolutely, although it was an expression that was used very much then, and it was particularly used in late 1848 and 1849 by editors and public observers who thought of these people as heirs to Jason and his search. In other words, they thought of these people as heroic figures, not greedy figures. This is an important distinction that they wanted to make in this early period, late 1848.

Q: It was a patriotic manifestation of the Manifest Destiny.

Rohrbough: Yes, it was. And as such, it was not seen as greedy. In other words, these people were going as part of a great patriotic national upsurge. If they happened to make fortunes, so much the better, and they were well deserved.

Q: What were the consequences of the Gold Rush on slavery, on the Civil War? Statehood comes in 1850, and ten years later, the entire nation was on the brink of war.

Rohrbough: One of the things that occurs to me, to move through it in sequence, is that in late 1848, when the news of gold discovery in California makes the papers for the first time, this is a question that many Southerners ask, that they discuss in newspapers: Is it assumed that we can take slaves to California to dig gold? So Southerners immediately thought of the Gold Rush or news of the Gold Rush in connection with slavery. They didn't think just of gold and fortunes available. They thought of the issue of their legal right to take slaves to California. And, certainly, a lot of Southerners did take slaves. I found it difficult to track this down, although I've had two or three very interesting examples.

Q: Such as...

Rohrbough: Well, I talk about the group in North Carolina who take their slaves. One of the reasons that I found it so interesting was that there are letters from the slaves in the letter collections. But I only found a few of these cases, and I found them looking through the letter collections at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill.

Q: So life was being lived in its same patterns in terms of slavery, which is being moved to a new location.

Rohrbough: What happens to these slaves is very interesting. The slaves were enormously important economically in the gold fields, because when the masters didn't find any gold, they could hire the slaves out. The masters had an income even when they weren't finding gold.

The other thing it suggested is that when slaves dug gold, and they were successful, that the masters-- some of them, at least--made arrangements for them to keep a portion of what they found. It was a kind of bounty or bonus. They didn't have to turn over everything.

Q: Do you have any idea what the numbers were, though?

Rohrbough: I have no idea, and I haven't done yet a good analysis of the 1852 census. The 1852 California census is a very flawed census--not that they aren't all flawed. But, nonetheless, it might show something interesting along these lines.

Q: The subhead in your book is The California Gold Rush and the American Nation. What was the legacy to the nation? How are we different today?

Rohrbough: Well, the subtitle is a declaration that this not just a California event. It's always been treated as a California phenomenon with the focus on what happens when these people are in California. The subtitle was an attempt to convey the idea that this was a national event in its impact and influence on the individuals and families and communities that were left behind.

Q: It's a more interesting and complex event than I had thought from my earlier reading.

Rohrbough: It's very complex and it has all sorts of layers to it, and that's the challenge to unravel.

Q: We haven't gotten into some of the other issues such as law and order.

Rohrbough: Or the discrimination against the foreign miners, which begins very soon.

Q: Or the lynchings both in towns and in the gold fields.

Rohrbough: I don't do much with the vigilante groups in San Francisco. That, for me, is a dimension of San Francisco history.

Q: Well, they still strung up a few people out in the gold fields, too, didn't they?

Rohrbough: Yes, they did. But on the whole, I disagree with the idea that the gold fields were a particularly violent place. I think they became more violent as time went on and as competition in the gold fields increased. In 1848, 1849, even 1850 on the whole, they were a relatively safe place. That is, they were a safe place if you were an American. And then they were a safe place if you were English-speaking. If you were a foreign-speaking person in the gold fields, I think you were at some risk.

Q: Fatal risk?

Rohrbough: No, I don't think fatal risk. But you were at the risk of being run off your claims if you had good claims.

Q: The French come to mind. The French had good claims.

Rohrbough: The French had good claims, and the French did not go quietly into the night. They armed themselves and resisted, they appealed to their consul in San Francisco. They were outraged.

Q: How ironic. The French had helped us in the Revolutionary War seventy-five years before.

Rohrbough: We couldn't have won the Revolution without the French. The French provided the navy. And, believe me, this was not lost on the French at all. They have a long and well-developed sense of history, and they were not happy about it.

Q: How did they get to California in the first place? Mostly by ship? Or were they just edging over from Louisiana?

Rohrbough: It's an interesting story, and you're leading me into what I'm working on now. The French came to California in three different ways. They came as individuals buying passage on French ships, going from French ports to the gold fields. They joined societies that transported both people and goods. They intended to sell a lot of wine in California.

Q: You're kidding.

Rohrbough: No. They intended to do all of the things that the French were good at. The French loved the fact that the Americans owned the gold fields; there's a series of articles in which they say, "You know, the Americans love to spend money, and they will buy all of these goods and services we have, whereas the Spanish, they don't spend any money, and the Mexicans don't spend any money either. If they had the gold fields, we wouldn't profit at all." Many of the French who went over went into businesses. They became bakers, they became merchants of various kinds.

Q: You said they came in in three different ways. That's two. What's the third?

Rohrbough: The third is in many ways the most interesting. The prefect of police in Paris, with the assistance of various officials, organized a gigantic lottery called the Lottery of the Golden Ingots.

Q: Oh, this is to get rid of the criminals.

Rohrbough: That's right. The lottery, which was to sell seven million one-franc tickets, was to generate a profit of a million and a half francs, and the million and a half francs was to be used to send over five thousand undesirables on a one-way ticket. They were criminals, they were political agitators left over from the revolution of 1848, prostitutes, ne'er-do-wells of various kinds.

Q: It sounds like it's in the fine tradition of the settling of the United States and Australia.

Rohrbough: It is. I've been trying to track down in France a list of the thirty-eight hundred who came here. A man named Abraham Nassatere went over to Paris in the thirties and searched for it. He says somewhere in a footnote that the French wouldn't show the list to him because they argued that this was an item of national interest, or whatever the key phrase is that you use to keep people from seeing the documents. So I'm trying to track it down now. The whole archive system has been completely transformed since then and it's relatively easy to get access.

Q: Nobody really knows what these individual people did once they got here?

Rohrbough: No. What we know is that they brought these people into San Francisco harbor on seventeen chartered ships and they dumped them on the beach. There are stories of the French consul in San Francisco and his colleagues racing around San Francisco, renting tents. They set up a huge tent city to house these thirty-seven hundred or thirty-eight hundred.

Q: It's an incredible story.

Rohrbough: This is why this new project is so interesting. This past spring I was at the Camargo Foundation in Cassis, which is a small fishing village halfway between Marseilles and Toulouse. The Foundation supports scholars who are doing work on French projects, of which mine was chosen to be one.

What I need to do now is find out where the records of these people are. There were thirty thousand French who went to the gold fields.

Q: Thirty thousand?

Rohrbough: Yes, thirty thousand. They must have written home. They must have generated a lot of written work, and the question is, where is it? The problem is that French libraries do not collect manuscript letter collections the way our libraries collect them. French libraries are what we would call government documents. They collect official papers.

Q: The material you're looking for might have been thrown away because it didn't seem important?

Rohrbough: Well, it would be in the family archives, in the family attic or locked in the chest of drawers, or something like that. At the suggestion of some of my French colleagues, I'm going to try to work through the geneological societies. They say the French are even more interested in geneology than the Americans, if you can believe that.

Q: Well, I wish you luck on the new project. Thank you for taking the time to talk to us. This has been very interesting.

Malcolm Rohrbough is a professor of history at the University of Iowa. He received an NEH fellowship for research on an earlier book, Aspen: The History of a Silver-Mining Town, 1879-1893.