In Our Time: The California Gold Rush

The California Gold Rush was sparked by the discovery of gold in a river in January 1848 and not only did it make some individuals rich but it also had a significant impact on the politics and economy of the USA and the world. Discussing it on In Our Time were Kathleen Burk (University College London), Jacqueline Fear-Segal (University of East Anglia) and Frank Cogliano (University of Edinburgh).

When gold was discovered in what would become the state of California the land it was discovered on was not actually under the control of the USA. War between the USA and Mexico ended in February 1848 with the signing of a treaty that had the Mexicans cede that part of the continent to the USA. I imagine once they knew what they’d signed away they weren’t best pleased. At the time the area was inhabited by around 150,000 Native Americans, down from a previous population of 300,000 due to diseases and other effects of the colonisation of the Americas by Europeans. There were also around 6,000 Mexicans and other assorted immigrants.

News of the discovery of gold was initially slow to spread, and didn’t get taken seriously by the outside world until late 1848. Thus the gold rush proper was in 1849 – and until I listened to this programme I hadn’t really put two & two together and realised that the song Oh My Darling Clementine refers to the gold rush (“In a cavern, in a canyon, Excavating for a mine, Dwelt a miner forty niner, And his daughter Clementine.”).

In 1849 the population of the area increased significantly – by 1850 there were 100,000 settlers who had been drawn there by the gold. Most of the new immigrants were young men looking to get rich. The region was not yet a state, and it had none of the apparatus of government – amongst other things no law enforcement nor even laws. One of the experts described it as like “a stag party, they came and trashed California”. Most came to mine gold and hopefully make their fortunes that way, but those who came to sell supplies (mining equipment & food alike) to the miners were the ones who were most likely to become rich. This second category included Leland Stanford, who founded Stanford University.

These new settlers came from all over the world. From all 21 states of the USA and from 25 other countries. Not just Europeans either, there were settlers from various South American countries and from China. The journey to the territory was an arduous one no matter where you were coming from, and particularly so from Europe or the East Coast of the USA. By land it took 5 months, and there are few places where it’s possible to cross the Sierra Nevada mountains. By sea – you could cross the Pacific from China, or sail round the bottom of South America, or cross the continent at Panama (by land, the canal is not there yet) – all of which options have their difficulties and dangers.

The scale of mining operations progressed quickly. At first the stereotypical image of the lone miner panning for gold in a river was pretty accurate, and it was possible for individuals to set up on their own and strike rich. But as time went on mining techniques became more intensive and required more capital to set up. No longer did a lone incomer have much of a chance of getting his lucky strike on his own. As it became more industrialised it also became more destructive. By this I mean they were doing things like diverting rivers and blowing up parts of the mountains in order to extract more gold. As well as this physical destruction of the environment there was also a lot of mercury used in the gold extraction processes – which ended up in the rivers of California.

California may’ve started out as a lawless place in 1849 but it became incorporated as a state of the USA very quickly. In 1852 they had got themselves organised and went to the Senate with their constitution already written and asked to be made a state. At this point they already had double the number of people necessary to be considered. This had an unforeseen knock-on effect – they were the 31st state and were a free state. At this point in the USA’s history tensions were rising between the North (free states) and the South (slave states) although it would be another few years before the Civil War broke out in 1861. To ease the tension states were being admitted in pairs, one slave and one free at a time. However California’s swift self-organisation side-stepped around that procedure and unbalanced the Senate. Utah and New Mexico were admitted as slave states to re-balance it but didn’t actually have a slave owning economy.

And in a reminder that the issues are never simple: despite being a free state California is actually one of the first to enact institutionally racist laws. One axis of this is the regulation specifically of Chinese immigration. Another is protection and governance laws concerning the Native American population. Despite the idealistic name these laws actually disenfranchised and dispossessed Native Americans. There was also official encouragement of the lynching of Chinese & Native Americans who “stepped out of line”.

Obviously the biggest effect of the gold rush was on the economy – not just of California and the USA but also globally. For instance one of the experts made a case that the gold rush was critical for the Industrial Revolution in the UK. If there had not been more people with more money to buy the goods that the newly mechanised UK industry was producing then it would not have happened so fast or so succesfully.

The gold rush also affected the culture of the USA. For instance the American Dream mythology began as a spiritual Puritan vision of the City on the Hill being a shining beacon of virtue for the rest of the world to look up to. But after the gold rush this changes to a more material idea – you don’t go to the USA (or to the West Coast) to live the best life you can, you go to get rich quick. California still occupies this sort of cultural space – you go to California to [find gold]/[be a film star]/[join a tech startup] (delete as appropriate). Hollywood and Silicon Valley are the descendants of the strike it lucky & get rich quick ethos of the gold rush.

Towards the end of the programme they talked a little about the role of women in this era of California’s history. The main point they brought out was that there weren’t many women, and so in some ways their social capital was higher than in other parts of the USA. The example used was that divorce was easier for a woman to initiate. I’d’ve liked it if they’d spent a bit more time on this – my notes that I’m writing this up from say that I thought they had more to say about the knock-on effects of this on modern US society.

In Our Time: Pocahontas

Pocahontas only lived for around 22 years, but her short life became an integral part of America’s national mythology. A lot of the things we “all know” about her are wrong, or misleading. Even the name we know her by wasn’t her real name – more of a nickname, meaning “naughty child” or something of that sort. The three experts who discussed what we actually know about her life on In Our Time were Susan Castillo (King’s College London), Tim Lockley (University of Warwick) and Jacqueline Fear-Segal (University of East Anglia).

Pocahontas first appears in the historical record around 1608, when she’s described as a girl of about 10. Although that age is just a guess by a contemporary given the rest of what is said at the time she’s certainly pre-pubescent (not acting nor dressed like an adult woman), and the experts agreed that a birth date of around 1595 seems plausible. She was the daughter of Powhatan, who was the primary leader of the Native American tribes living in the Tidewater area of Virginia. There were several sub-chiefs below him in status, and he was expanding his empire/area of influence. The society she grew up in was matrilineal, but the chief was always a man. So although she was daughter of the chief she wouldn’t convey the right to leadership herself or inherit any power. She was, however, Powhatan’s favourite child.

In 1607 the English made another attempt to establish a colony in North America. This was a government encouraged effort, but the English government weren’t particularly involved in funding any of the colonisation preferring instead to rely on private investors. North America had been pretty much ignored by the Spanish colonial forces because it didn’t have as readily available gold as South America. But the English were beginning to want their own overseas empire (to play with the big boys) and this was available real estate that might be able to be be made profitable. Roanoke, the first colony, had failed and Jamestown (this new effort) also ran into significant trouble. The experts on the programme were pretty scathing about this – they said that too many of the colonists were gentlemen who didn’t know what they were doing. So it wasn’t just the challenge of farming in an unfamiliar land, it was also the challenge of getting people who’d never farmed before to learn and work hard enough and do it quickly enough to feed the colony. The colonists had to be bailed out more than once by the local Native Americans (led by Powhatan) who provided food that got at least some of them through the harsh winters. In 1610 the remaining few colonists (about 60 out of the original 1000) were in the process of leaving to go home to England when 900 new colonists arrived and forced the original colonists to return to Jamestown to carry on.

Pocahontas is first mentioned by John Smith, who is one of the English colonists. In 1608 he has some sort of meeting with Powhatan (which results in help for the colony and relatively good relations between the peoples). In a letter about that event he mentions Pocahontas. And around that time (afterwards?) she and other children of the Native Americans would come to the English colony to play with the children there (hence the descriptions of her that suggest she’s pre-pubescent at the time). She is also the person who comes to bring the gifts of food from Powhatan (as someone who has status but isn’t threatening in any way, conveying the peaceful intentions of Powhatan at that time). Writing much later (in fact after Pocahontas’s death) Smith elaborates his story and this is where the legend of Pocahontas saving the life of an English colonist comes from. His later account says that he was going to be executed by Powhatan, but Pocahontas put herself between him and her father and persuaded Powhatan to let him go free. The experts were clear that this is most likely to be a later fabrication on Smith’s part because Pocahontas is already becoming mythologised. However if it is accurate, then it’s actually most likely that Smith misinterpreted a staged ritual scene as a reality and that possibly this was some sort of adoption ceremony. Nowhere in Smith’s accounts of his meeting(s) with Pocahontas does he suggest any sort of romantic relationship. At the time of their interaction she was still a child around 10-12 and he was 30 years old, so it seems pretty unlikely. This is a much later addition to the myth – to make it “a better story”.

Pocahontas then vanishes from the record again for a few years. On the programme* the experts said that she is thought to’ve married during this time – to a member of a nearby chiefdom mostly under her father’s control. On a visit to her husband’s people (in 1613 says wikipedia, I don’t remember if they said the date on the programme) Pocahontas was tricked into getting on an English boat at which point she was captured and brought back to Jamestown. During her time in captivity she was converted to Christianity. This is important because one of the rationales given by the English for why it was morally good to colonise North America was that they would then convert the natives to Protestant Christianity rather than let the Spanish convert everyone to Catholicism. This was a goal more talked about than done, unlike the Spanish empire there weren’t mass efforts to convert by the English, however Pocahontas was held up as an example of the “good” that could be done here. So that contributed to both her celebrity status when she visited England, and her later mythologisation.

*Wikipedia disagrees and thinks this first husband is likely apocryphal. I’m inclined to go with the experts on In Our Time over wikipedia but as I looked something up on wikipedia for this paragraph I noticed and thought I’d mention it.

Relations between Powhatan and Jamestown fairly obviously deteriorated into fighting after Pocahontas was captured. However peace was restored but Pocahontas didn’t return to her people, instead she remained in Jamestown where she married an Englishman named John Rolfe in 1614. Rolfe had been shipwrecked in the Bahamas on his way to Virginia, and his wife and child had died there. When he eventually made his way to Jamestown he brought with him a Bahaman strain of tobacco – which was easier to grow, and more to European tastes, than the native Virginian tobacco. So he played a prime role in the future profitability of the colony. In private letters he talks of his love for Pocahontas, but in more public letters he stresses that he is not overcome by lust instead he’s doing this for the good of the colony etc. On the programme they talked about him being a bit of a conflicted man – he was prone to overthinking things. However they agreed that he probably did love Pocahontas, just that in the very racist society of the England of the time (including the colony in Jamestown) it was an almost perverse thing to do to marry a Native American woman. Not just a heathen, but not even white. Bragg notes in his blog post on the Radio 4 blog that there were only three interracial marriages in Virginia in the 17th Century of which this was the first.

Relations between Powhatan and Jamestown definitely improved after this marriage. There’s some indication that Powhatan was trying to bring them into his empire as a sub-chiefdom like the others (and this started back with John Smith in 1608). They talked a bit on the programme about how one of the problems with relations between the two peoples was differing views on landownership – not just who owned it but completely different systems. This blew up again (after Pocahontas death) as the English colony expanded. The Native American view was that the land you were using was your land, but all of the towns they had were only semi-permanent. The normal process was that the tribe would settle somewhere and the women would farm and the men hunt in the surrounding forest – once the farmland was exhausted and needed to be left fallow the whole community would up sticks and move. But the English came along and started clearing forests or settling on land that wasn’t currently in use because they saw it was “empty” and “unowned” but the Native Americans saw it as not currently in use by anyone but that it would be in future. So the English were reducing the amount of land available for everyone, and later in the century began pushing the Native Americans off even the land they were using as relations between the peoples deteriorated further.

In 1616 John Rolfe and Pocahontas visited England. They didn’t talk much about Pocahontas’s personality on the programme (because we don’t know much) but they did stress that she is thought to’ve been a curious and intelligent woman. So this trip to England was in part because of her desire to know more about the world her husband came from. However it was also something of a diplomatic mission – she was treated as a foreign princess by the English, and her brother (who was involved in Powhatan’s administration) and his wife also accompanied them on the trip. So there was some degree of diplomacy going on and some degree of espionage. There’s an anecdote (possibly apocryphal) of her brother bringing a counting stick to count how many of these English there are … but before they even get to London he’s already thrown the stick away as there are too many to count. I think they said that all the people Powhatan ruled over totalled about 15,000 at the time so that’s quite a big difference between the two countries. Pocahontas and her husband were presented to King James at court as a part of their trip – Rolfe himself was too low status for this sort of treatment so it’s definitely her status that’s driving this. It’s interesting to wonder what would’ve happened if she’d lived – this feels like it’s shaping up to be an alliance of sorts between Powhatan and the English. If Pocahontas had lived long enough to mediate diplomatically between the two would it have lasted longer? But then again probably not, too much entrenched entitlement on the part of the English colonists I suspect.

Pocahontas and Rolfe were actually on their way home to Jamestown when Pocahontas fell ill. On March 10th 1617 there’s a record of a meeting between some English officials and Pocahontas where she’s not mentioned as being in ill health. But on the ship from England she becomes ill and the ship returns to Gravesend where she dies and is buried on March 21st. The experts on the programme preferred the theory that she caught something like dysentery – there’s no indication of a long decline so some sort of catastrophic illness seems most plausible. Later theories (particularly from modern descendants of Powhatan’s people) also include the idea that she was poisoned. But there doesn’t seem to be evidence that the English wanted her out of the way, and that seems to be as much a part of the myth as the romantic relationship with John Smith.