American Frontier and Western Issues: A Historiographical Review

By Roger L. Nichols | Go to book overview

7
Mining Frontiers

MARK WYMAN

The feverish enthusiasm with which Europeans searched for precious metals in the Americas does much to explain the topic's popularity among latter-day historians. For gold has a continuing attraction for mankind, whether on the necklace of a Carib or in the narrative of a Forty-Niner. Colonial charters for settlers along the East Coast revealed how much the Spaniards' success had whetted European appetites and imaginations: that of 1606 given by James I specified that the London and Plymouth companies were to turn over a fifth of the precious metals found and a fifteenth of the copper. There is no record that James I ever collected, and naysayers ever since have sought to cool this lust-- from John Smith scornfully telling Jamestown adventurers, who piled up goldappearing soil, that he was "not enamoured of their dirty skill to fraught such a drunken ship with so much gilded dirt," to Benjamin Franklin asserting flatly in 1790 that "gold and silver are not the produce of North America, which has no mines." In more recent times, these thoughts have been reincarnated as historians of the frontier lament the publication of "over dramatic 'pot-boilers'" on the gaudy aspects of Western mining.1

But however much the lust for gold may be denounced, there is ample evidence that the search for precious metals and their successful location have been among the major influences of history. The California gold rush, the single most important event in North American mining history, brought a major population shift to the continent while influencing political, economic, and social development in myriad ways still being measured. As a Norwegian immigrant wrote when he decided to move on from Brazil in the early 1850s, "the idea of California was always on my mind."2

Historians have caught the gold virus too, writing a prodigious number of books and articles about precious metals mining, the miners, and the communities that they built. At times, the historians' single-mindedness has been akin to that of colonial explorers who ignored less glittering metals to push on toward El

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