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Mercury and the Making of California

Mercury and the Making of California: Mining, Landscape, and Race, 1840–1890

Copyright Date: 2013
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  • Book Info
    Mercury and the Making of California
    Book Description:

    Mercury and the Making of California, Andrew Johnston's multidisciplinary examination of the history and cultural landscapes of California's mercury-mining industry, raises mercury to its rightful place alongside gold and silver in the development of the American West. Gold and silver could not be refined without mercury; therefore, its production and use were vital to securing power and wealth in the West. The first industrialized mining in California, mercury mining had its own particular organization, structure, and built environments. These were formed within the Spanish Empire, subsequently transformed by British imperial ambitions, and eventually manipulated by American bankers and investors. In California mercury mining also depended on a workforce differentiated by race and ethnicity. The landscapes of work and camp and the relations among the many groups involved in the industry-Mexicans, Chileans, Spanish, English, Irish, Cornish, American, and Chinese-form a crucial chapter in the complex history of race and ethnicity in the American West. This pioneering study explicates the mutual structuring of the built environments of the mercury-mining industry and the emergence of California's ethnic communities. Combining rich documentary sources with a close examination of the existing physical landscape, Johnston explores both the detail of everyday work and life in the mines and the larger economic and social structures in which mercury mining was enmeshed, revealing the significance of mercury mining for Western history.

    eISBN: 978-1-60732-243-6
    Subjects: History, Technology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-xii)
  4. Introduction: California: The Quicksilver State
    (pp. 1-20)

    California is the Golden State, and has been linked with gold ever since the rush started in 1848. Gold colors our understanding of California and its history; there are elaborate myths of the gold rush emphasizing rugged individualism, democracy, manifest destiny, and cycles of boom and bust. This is the history of the California Dream, a history that excels at stories of innovation, change, dynamism, and reinvention. As a metaphor for California, gold conveys the image of prosperity, youth, and vigor. Being golden also implies opportunity and success, and California has provided opportunity for millions, as well as exploitable resources...

  5. 1 Imperialism and California’s Quicksilver
    (pp. 21-56)

    Years before gold was discovered at Sutter’s Mill, quicksilver was being produced at the New Almaden Mine in the hills a few miles to the south of Mission San Jose. The first mine in what was to become the state of California, New Almaden was recognized at the time for its potential value, and the mine was much discussed. Thomas Larkin, the U.S. consul at Monterey, wrote to Secretary of State James Buchanan regarding New Almaden on March 28, 1848, not long after American annexation of California and not long after accounts of the discovery of gold in the Sierra...

  6. 2 Money and Power in the California Mercury Landscape
    (pp. 57-92)

    The quicksilver industry in California was a capitalist one; capitalists used mercury to make money, and this money gave them power. Since the sixteenth century, mercury had been a tool used by states to control bullion production. Mercury was used by states as a means to achieve their mercantilist goals; mercury allowed them to accumulate bullion, and state mercury monopolies were crucial to these policies. In California, however, mercury was not a state-controlled political commodity in the same way. It was, instead, a financial commodity, although still used by capitalists to control bullion production. California quicksilver was worth the money...

  7. 3 A Geography of Mercury Mining in California
    (pp. 93-136)

    In June 1869, E. R. Sampson wrote to the president and directors of the Quicksilver Mining Company in New York concerning his recent visit to the New Idria Mine:

    I took one of the foremen from New Almaden with me and on inspection we agreed that we saw a good mine. The ore is more plentiful than ours, but not so good quality . . . They have an abundance of ore on hand and could work double the number of hands to advantage upon ore in sight, if they desired—they pay a less price per carga than we...

  8. 4 Race, Space, and Power at New Almaden
    (pp. 137-192)

    The New Almaden Mine was created to exploit the rich cinnabar deposits in the hills south of San Francisco Bay. Like any remote industrial site constructed for resource exploitation, the mine was composed of work landscapes and camp landscapes, and these were created through the struggles of various groups of people involved with the mine, each attempting to further their own interests.¹ These groups of people can be defined by many factors, including race, ethnicity, class, and gender. Although these factors were intertwined, close study of the mines and camps of New Almaden and other quicksilver mines in the nineteenth...

  9. 5 Race, Technology, and Work
    (pp. 193-214)

    “The Yard Gang,” a photograph from the early twentieth century, shows a group of thirteen men and a dog at the New Idria Mine in California (Figure 5.1).¹ Together these men—the reduction yard workers—sorted and crushed the ore coming from the mine, loaded the ore into quicksilver furnaces, and then bottled the resulting mercury for market.² The photograph is most interesting for its careful composition, which highlights the many different races and ethnicities of the men who worked “the yard” at the mine. Whoever owned the postcard recognized the photographer’s message, for on the back is handwritten: “Quite...

  10. 6 Race, Family, and Camp Life
    (pp. 215-244)

    Photographs showing a nineteenth-century California mercury mine community are rare. Figure 6.1, a photograph taken at the Great Western Mine in Lake County, California, shows members of that mine community in 1879.¹ This photo is of a type common to factories or company towns, in which workers, managers, and sometimes their families posed as a group in front of where they worked. Here members of the mine community pose on a hillside at the mine, with an ore chute to the right and the hillside denuded of vegetation, perhaps killed by mercury. Roughly 140 Chinese workers are grouped together in...

  11. Conclusion: The Legacy of the Quicksilver Landscapes of California
    (pp. 245-260)

    The In the early 1870s, with the breakdown of the quicksilver combinations, Thomas Bell, the inheritor of the Barron, Forbes & Co. mercury empire, saw his control of the industry disappearing. Although he still made significant wealth related to mercury during the quicksilver boom and bust of the 1870s, neither he nor anyone else ever controlled the industry to the same extent as before the boom; never again was mercury wealth to be so concentrated in so few hands and in a small number of mines. The racial and ethnic restructuring of the industry during the quicksilver boom was the...

  12. Bibliography
    (pp. 261-276)
  13. Index
    (pp. 277-284)