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Rush to Gold

Rush to Gold: The French and the California Gold Rush, 1848–1854

Malcolm J. Rohrbough
Copyright Date: 2013
Published by: Yale University Press
Pages: 352
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  • Book Info
    Rush to Gold
    Book Description:

    The California Gold Rush began in 1848 and incited many "wagons west." However, only half of the 300,000 gold seekers traveled by land. The other half traveled by sea. And it's the story of this second group that interests Malcolm Rohrbough in his authoritative new book,The Rush to Gold.He examines the California Gold Rush through the eyes of 30,000 French participants. In so doing, he offers a completely original analysis of an important-but previously neglected-chapter in the history of the Gold Rush, which occurred at a time of sweeping changes in France.

    Rohrbough is the author ofDays of Gold, which is generally accepted as the essential text on the subject. This new book comes out of his extended research in French archives. He is the first to provide an international focus to these pivotal events in mid-nineteenth-century America.The Rush to Goldis an important contribution to the fast-growing field of transnational American history.

    eISBN: 978-0-300-18218-7
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-xi)
  4. Author’s Notes
    (pp. xii-xiv)
  5. Introduction
    (pp. 1-4)

    On a Monday morning, January 24, 1848, James W. Marshall opened the mill race of John Sutter’s mill on the American River. When the water had cleared, Marshall saw flakes of mineral in the bed. He immediately identified these particles as gold, and later primitive tests confirmed his judgment. By this act, Marshall unleashed a series of events that would influence the history of California, the American nation, and peoples around the world, from Western Europe to China.

    In spite of Sutter’s determination to keep the gold discoveries secret, the news spread rapidly in ever-widening circles. In the summer and...

  6. Part One France

    • 1 France in 1848: Another World Turned Upside Down
      (pp. 7-20)

      The year 1848 was a momentous twelve months in the life of the French nation, bounded on the one side by the revolution that established the republic and on the other by the election by universal male suffrage of Louis Napoléon Bonaparte as its new president. This year and the events within it would define the outlines of the nation for the next twenty years.

      The context for these dramatic changes lay in the recent history of the French nation and its responses to major changes in this world. In 1815, France emerged from a quarter-century of revolution and war...

    • 2 News of California Gold Discoveries Spreads across France
      (pp. 21-36)

      In May 1848, Jacques Moerenhout, the French consul in Monterey, wrote to the minister of foreign affairs, “The most important new discovery, and [the one] which just now is causing the most excitement, is that of a gold placer, which is found on the plain of the Sacramento near New Helvetia. This deposit or placer, it is said, is more than twenty leagues in length and of a considerable width. The gold is found in flakes in a sort of loose alluvial soil. This deposit is as rich as the richest placers of Sonora, in Mexico.” Moerenhout, as a professional...

    • 3 The French Respond to the California Gold Discoveries: Adventure, New Beginnings, and Trade
      (pp. 37-54)

      For some individuals, the news of the California gold discoveries opened opportunities for a new chapter in their lives. One group sought relief from boredom, a sense that life moved forward in comfortable rhythms (appropriate to their comfortable station in life) but without any sense of urgency or adventure. Whatever their frustrations with this condition, California was the perfect remedy. No one, participant or observer, could fault someone for striking out to a new country—even one halfway around the world—in search of gold. And from all reports, the gold was readily available to anyone. This was not just...

    • 4 The Rise of the French California Companies
      (pp. 55-72)

      By the middle of January 1849, gold fever had spread across France. ThePrécurseur de l’Ouest, published at Angers, made reference to the outfitting of expeditions for the gold country: “The gold fever has crossed the Atlantic; the epidemic has won us over; two ships have left for California; a third is outfitted at Bordeaux for the same destination. Companies are organizing, on all sides, to effect the exploitation of the country, where the precious metal is in such abundance.”¹

      TheJournal des Débatsdescribed “the company,” a unit that would become so universal in the American approach to California,...

    • 5 The Rush to Gold: Obstacles, Preparations, and Departures
      (pp. 73-88)

      For the French people caught up in the frenzy for California, travel to this golden land was hedged in by many obstacles. The first and most obvious was distance. San Francisco harbor was some twelve thousand miles distant, depending on the port of embarkation in France. Most of the French Forty-Niners would make the voyage on chartered ships, whether as members of one of the California companies, in a group of friends, or as lone passengers. The largest number of French Argonauts went by way of Cape Horn. The duration of the voyage ranged from four to six months, with...

  7. Part Two California

    • 6 Voyages and Arrivals
      (pp. 91-109)

      The excitement of departures passed quickly astern, to be replaced by the routine of ship life. For some French Argonauts, the introduction to a long ocean voyage was seasickness. This condition passed, even with the most afflicted. What remained was the monotony of a long voyage, interspersed with occasional stormy weather. Five or six months was a long time to share cramped quarters with others, often strangers at the start of the voyage. Over the duration of the trip, most passengers (a mix of individuals, small groups, and members of California companies) invented various kinds of recreational activities, ranging from...

    • 7 In the Mines: Living and Working in a Masculine Community
      (pp. 110-126)

      Much of the West Coast of North America turned out to be a vast and varied landscape brought together under the single word “California.” It was an area larger than most European nations. With the discovery of gold in January 1848, attention focused on the land forms west of the sierra and the streams that drained the mountain ranges, for it was here that gold was found. The gold-bearing region would eventually stretch north and south for more than 150 miles. As the origins of the gold were the swift streams that drained the mountains, none of the many sites...

  8. Part Three France

    • 8 The Flowering of the New California Companies
      (pp. 129-142)

      In the summer of 1849, after the initial surge of interest, the energy in the California companies seemed to fade. Other issues intruded into French life. The dispatch of French troops to Italy to put down the revolution there and restore the Pope to his Vatican sanctuary dominated the news. At the same time, railroads increasingly entered into the future of every city worthy of the name, which meant plans for a line to Paris. Work on railroad lines moved forward, and railroad companies actively sought investment funds. There was a sense of recovery in the rural areas. In Lorraine,...

    • 9 The Lottery of the Golden Ingots
      (pp. 143-161)

      The magic words “gold” and “California” received fresh impetus with the explosion of new California companies in the first six months of 1850. The rolling barrage of ads for new companies kept the economic opportunities associated with this distant, exotic place before the public. To this mix was now added a dramatic new event that would become the most remarked on and written about, the single topic universally associated with France and the golden land of California. It was the Lottery of the Golden Ingots.

      The most famous lottery in French history had its origins in the plans of a...

    • 10 French Stories and French Images of California
      (pp. 162-174)

      News of the California gold discoveries trumpeted the improbable reports of ordinary citizens picking up gold nuggets off the ground. Such accounts lent themselves to doubt and scorn: doubt that such events could be true; scorn that people would give them serious credence. Not surprisingly, visual representations soon joined these verbal descriptions. The early months of 1849 produced an increasing number of such representations. Humor magazines, growing in number and shielded from censorship by the new press laws of the republic, were a center of visual images depicting the California gold discoveries and their impact in France.

      The assault on...

    • Illustrations
      (pp. None)
  9. Part Four California

    • 11 The French Trade, Mine, and Reflect
      (pp. 177-192)

      French immigration into California surged in the winter of 1849–1850. Ships that had departed from the French ports in the spring and summer had begun to arrive. The French consul, Patrice Dillon, documented this growth. At the close of 1849, he estimated the French population in California at ten thousand, and he wrote of their experiences in these terms: “Those of them who are well behaved—and I am happy to be able to say that they are the great majority—succeed perfectly.” Although the French would come to California over four years, most of them arrived in a...

    • 12 The French Argonauts Encounter the Americans
      (pp. 193-216)

      The most important early French observer in the California goldfields was the consul, Jacques Moerenhout. One of his first observations described the differences between the responses of the Americans and the Californians regarding the discovery of gold. That the Americans hurried toward the rumored goldfields and the Californians displayed little haste, he wrote, showed “the great difference that there is between the characters of the two races, the Anglo-American and the Spanish descendants of the continent.” He continued:

      The former [the Anglo-American], quick to decide, with almost nomadic habits, and dominated by a single passion, that of enriching himself, as...

    • 13 The Last French Argonauts
      (pp. 217-234)

      The exception to the general discrimination of Americans against foreign miners, especially the non-English-speaking ones, was a military unit sent by the French government to the California goldfields. It was an unlikely story, with its origins on the barricades of the “June Days” of 1848, when the reinforced military units of the government overpowered the uprising on the Paris streets. In executing this triumph, the government called upon a wide range of volunteers who came forward to assist in suppressing the uprising. The presence of these volunteers was especially significant because of the failure of elements of the regular army...

  10. Part Five France

    • 14 The French Argonauts Return to France: The Close of the California Adventure
      (pp. 237-252)

      The large numbers of French Argonauts who came to California in response to the gold discoveries reflected varied groups—members of several California companies and local companies; independent voyagers; veterans of the Garde Mobile; andlingotiers. Few of these remained in California. Indeed, after a wide range of experiences and mixed success and failure, most of them returned to France. From the moment of landing in San Francisco—whether transported by one of the California companies or independently—French gold seekers exhibited many variations in their responses to California and the gold camps. Some returned to France as soon as...

    • 15 The Long Echoes of the French “Rush to Gold” in California
      (pp. 253-268)

      The French came to California in surprisingly large numbers. They came to the goldfields; they settled in camps, in towns, and in the city of San Francisco. They were a significant presence in commercial life. They made important contributions in the emerging entertainment industry, especially music, theater, and prostitution. In the years that the French established themselves in the many different strands of life in California, the Golden State underwent astonishing changes. The population grew dramatically. The proportion of women and children increased, especially in the towns and the city of San Francisco. Although the mining counties remained heavily male,...

    • 16 The Balance Sheet
      (pp. 269-288)

      In 1848 on the eve of the gold discoveries in California, France was a nation of 35 million people. From among this national population, something on the order of 30,000 French citizens (as they were properly known after the Revolution of 1848) went to the California goldfields. Within the economy that developed to assist this emigration, a variety of individuals and companies benefited. These included ship captains, shipowners, and ship crews; purveyors of supplies for the voyages and in the goldfields; transportation facilities that moved the prospective Argonauts to the ports and then the docks; and hotels and boardinghouses along...

  11. Notes
    (pp. 289-324)
  12. Bibliography
    (pp. 325-334)
  13. Index
    (pp. 335-342)