Skip to main content


“I Have Seen the Elephant”

By Anna Maria Gillis | HUMANITIES, January/February 1998 | Volume 19, Number 1

Even before they reached California's gold fields, the forty-niners in search of easy riches had partly "seen the elephant." The adventurers who survived the trip would see a lot more of it before they made a fortune or went bust.

In the nineteenth century, the phrase "I have seen the elephant" referred to the range of experiences, good and bad, in a person's life. "That expression came to have special meaning for Californians. To have 'seen the elephant' is to have gone through tough experiences and survived the worst life had to offer," says L. Thomas Frye, director of the California Sesquicentennial Project, which has developed a new exhibition to mark the anniversary of gold's discovery in the state.

"Gold Fever! The Lure and Legacy of the California Gold Rush" chronicles the travails and triumphs of the fortune hunters and the impact their arrival had on local Native Americans and Californios, the descendants of Spanish and Mexican settlers who had arrived generations before. It also describes how gold's discovery created a multicultural explosion, environmental degradation, speedy statehood, and unusually rapid economic development. An underlying exhibit theme is the notion that "California was a place you could go to reinvent yourself. Here you were free to fail and start over again as many times as you wanted," says Frye, who sees that attitude still present in today's Silicon Valley risk takers.

The exhibit debuts at the Oakland Museum of California on January 24, exactly 150 years after James Marshall scooped gold out of the American River while inspecting a millrace. In September 1998, "Gold Fever!" opens at the Autry Museum of Western Heritage in Los Angeles. In 1999 it goes to Sacramento.

Despite all attempts by Marshall's employer, Captain John Sutter, to keep the gold discovery a secret, newspapers, many of them in the exhibit, quickly spread the word that gold could be "collected at random and without trouble." Sam Brannan, an ambitious San Francisco newspaperman and entrepreneur, went so far as to print special editions of his California Star and deliver them to the Missouri frontier to draw people west. President James K. Polk confirmed the discovery in his 1848 State of the Union message to Congress. The president's words and the knowledge that taking the precious metal was completely unregulated in California were enough to trigger the greatest national mass migration in U.S. history and a global gold fever.

In the United States and elsewhere, volunteer associations formed to send groups of would-be miners to California. The members used their life savings, mortgaged their houses, sold everything they had in hopes of becoming wealthy. Often, banks and other financiers would back individuals and groups who migrated to California with no mining skills and plenty of optimism.

At the time gold was discovered in 1848, there were approximately 11,000 non-Native Americans living in California. Between the discovery and 1852, some 300,000 people, mostly young and male, traveled to California from all quarters.

"As a consequence of the gold rush, California developed a rich cultural diversity," says J.S. Holliday, chief historical consultant for the project. In 1848, there were three Chinese in California; in 1852, there were 20,000. From the south came Chileans, Peruvians, and Sonorans from Mexico. Australians and Europeans ventured forth too.

By 1853, there were an estimated 28,000 French in California. Many of those arrived courtesy of the French government which had run a campaign-- some of it is in the exhibit--to encourage emigration. In one scheme, "La Loterie des Lingots d'Or," the government sold chances on golden ingots to citizens and then used the proceeds to ship people to California. "France used this as a way to get rid of indigents and political undesirables. One reason the government sent women and children was they wanted to make sure the men had no incentive to return to France," says Frye.

Regardless of where the hopefuls came from, the months-long trip had its perils. A journey across the continent meant rough conditions and possible attack by Indians or by other emigrants. Those coming by sea from Europe and the eastern United States had to travel around stormy Cape Horn. A sea journey could be shortened by going overland through the jungles of the Isthmus of Panama, a region ripe with cholera and other diseases.

Arrival in San Francisco meant another set of hardships. Getting to the mining areas was difficult; there was no housing, disease was rampant, and food and gear prices were astronomically high. There were tales of people finding $800 of gold dust in a single pan or thousands in a few weeks, but most miners just encountered hard times. To survive, some left mining or worked for wages in other men's operations. The problem for many was they couldn't afford to return home, and any news of other people striking it rich would renew hope. "Many got rid of gold fever and came down with homesick," says Frye.

In the exhibit, letters and audiotapes made of correspondence highlight the hardship men faced. William Swain wrote to his family in Youngstown, New York, that "I have occupied my time in prospecting over the miserable mountains and find it hard work which subjects a man to great exposure. The fact is, California has a miserable climate for mining; five months rain, four months high water, and three months dry and good weather but very hot--almost too hot to work."

Saturday Evening in the Mines, an 1856 painting by Charles Christian Nahl shown in the exhibit, depicts a side of mining life that wives and families back home feared. Heavy drinking, gambling, and encounters with prostitutes were prominent events in communities that were as much as 98 percent male.

Family life was rare, and the shortage of women was so acute that when Californians wrote their state constitution, they allowed women to keep separately all the assets they brought to their marriages and any they acquired thereafter. This was revolutionary at a time when a woman's property often became her husband's upon marriage.

In addition to loneliness, "the letters give a sense of the violence and lawlessness and meanness of the time," says Frye. Hangings, whippings, and brandings were the punishments meted out under the vigilante justice system. "There was a cruel, ruthless efficiency in law and order. Miners didn't want to waste time," adds Holliday.

The miners often had little or no regard for the local Native Americans, who sometimes worked for the newcomers. "If the miners thought an Indian had killed a miner, they would hunt down any Indians they could find and even kill whole villages," says Frye.

The relations between Anglo-American forty-niners and Californios were complex. An earlier generation of Yankees--many of them traders who had sold goods in California when it still belonged to Mexico--had married into the old families. But the attitude on the part of many newcomers from the then United States was a sense of entitlement, a sense that it didn't matter how they treated the people they perceived as losing the Mexican War, says Frye.

Under Manifest Destiny, the idea that the United States was meant to spread from sea to sea, newcomers "believed that their behavior had a providential seal of approval. After all, God had hidden the gold from Spanish eyes," says Frye. In the years that followed, many Californios lost their vast landholdings in protracted legal fights, despite U.S. government promises to honor the grants that had been made to the Californios by Mexico.

Eager to make an easy fortune and then return victorious to wherever home was, most miners arrived with the notion that they would take what they could from the land and leave. But once they had made the easy finds, they turned to more expensive, labor-intensive, and environmentally degrading mining techniques. "They would literally displace rivers by building huge dams and then channeling the water down a course along the river. This allowed miners to get to the middle of rivers where they thought they might find gold," says Holliday. A tremendous number of trees were harvested to provide the lumber for this and other mining techniques.

In hard-rock mining, a technique that involved following seams of gold in rock, enormous stamp mills were used. This California invention, one of which is on display in the exhibit, worked like a giant mortar and pestle. After the pestles, or stamps, crushed the quartz streaked with gold, quicksilver and hot water were added to catch the bits of precious metal. The stamp mills worked round the clock, and Mark Twain reported that they could be heard at a distance of thirty miles, says Holliday. Museum visitors will have the opportunity to hear the racket made by the huge machines.

Hydraulic mining proved to be the most environmentally damaging way to find gold. Miners built huge reservoirs, then allowed water to flow at high pressure through nozzles, known as monitors. The force of the water was meant to loosen soil and stone so that they would reveal their hidden gold. But water coming at 16,000 gallons a minute inevitably sent millions of tons of clogging material into rivers and creeks. Towns had to build levees to deal with the aftermath, and river navigation became increasingly difficult.

Eventually, the farmers sued the miners and won a decision in 1884 that shut down most hydraulic operations. "The end of hydraulic mining caused California to reappraise its future," says Holliday. Agriculture usurped mining as the major industry.

Mining clearly changed the economy. By 1860, approximately $594 million in gold had been mined--more than $10 billion in today's dollars. Other mining riches were still to come.

Unlike other states that had to languish as territories for years before entering the Union, California's economic promise catapulted it to statehood in September 1850, less than two years after it had been won from Mexico. (The gold that had eluded Spain and Mexico was discovered just before the United States and Mexico signed their peace treaty on February 2, 1848.)

Money was to be made readily outside mining. Women made fortunes baking pies and running boarding houses. There were reports of men who acquired wealth only when they abandoned mining for farming. Apples sold for $1.50 each, a fee that would have been more than a day's wages for a farm laborer back home. An acre of onions could bring a farmer $2,100 and one crop of potatoes reportedly yielded $16,000. Californios were able to drive their cattle to mining areas and sell them for hundreds of dollars a head. "Wheat became gold," says Holliday. "In 1853, 550,000 tons of flour were imported. By 1855, Californians were growing all the wheat they needed, and by 1856, California was exporting it."

Private mail services, steam ship services from San Francisco to the mining regions, mule delivery of provisions, the making of canvas trousers by the likes of Levi Strauss, and countless other goods and services created more wealth. Even salvaging became highly lucrative. Ships were often abandoned upon arrival because crews ran off to mine. Salvagers picked them over for copper, canvas, and wood to sell as building supplies. Other ships were used as housing in a city where construction could not keep up with demand. "The miners were an immense and dependent consumer market," says Holliday.

San Francisco became a bustling commercial center. Because there was no manufacturing in California, most of what the miners wanted and needed had to be imported. Exhibit displays of a Chinese herbalist store and Mr. William Hoff's general store include goods the miners would have purchased in 1851. The goods in Hoff's store-- jars of olives, hard tack, imported butter in crocks, ale from Scotland--had been discovered in 1986 during archaeological excavations in streets not far from San Francisco's waterfront.

The store had been on a pier that burned during the Great Fire of 1851. (Devastating fire was a common occurrence in gold rush San Francisco. Walls of many buildings, including the fanciest gambling houses, were made of canvas.) Everything had tumbled into the bay, where the mud preserved it. This site and others were filled in as the city expanded, explains Frye. Frye hopes that exhibit visitors get a sense that the legacy of the gold rush is "literally beneath San Francisco's feet" and in California's entrepreneurial spirit.

"People came here free from the prying eyes of home. They could try anything they pleased to remake themselves," adds Holliday. "It was, and still is, a robust and rambunctious place."

Anna Maria Gillis is a freelance writer based in Bethesda, Maryland.

"Gold Fever" is supported by $551,820 in grants from the National Endowment for the Humanities.