Going for the Gold: EYEWITNESSES TO THE CALIFORNIA GOLD RUSH

Article excerpt

"Made by largely forgotten or unidentified photographers, each surviving image is a vivid reminder of a time when the world was driven mad by tales of gold, but paused long enough to record the experience on plates of silver."

In January, 1848, when James Marshall stooped to examine the flakes of shiny metal that lay in the tailrace of his boss' sawmill in northern California, photography in America was less than 10 years old. In that brief decade, the daguerreotype, a mirror-like photograph on silver plates, had become relatively commonplace. By 1848, hundreds of men and women had become photographers, a profession which had not existed just a few years earlier, selling thousands of the new pictures to an eager public. For the first time, average citizens could afford portraits of themselves and their families.

The California Gold Rush was the first major event in history to be covered extensively by the new medium. Itinerant camera artists joined the thousands of gold-seekers embarking for the remote wilds of California, a dangerous journey of many months. Exploiting the natural desire of people thousands of miles from home to possess likenesses of family and loved ones, these pioneer photographers struck it rich more often than the gold-seekers themselves.

Even while the Gold Rush was happening, it was recognized as a historic event. The eyes of the world were focused on California, and those lucky enough to be there understood photography's unique power to record their participation in the great adventure. Forty-niners eagerly commissioned views of mining claims and boomtowns or sat for portraits in rough frontier clothing, bristling with weapons. "The daguerreotype establishments are overrun with fathers, brothers, cousins, all getting likenesses to leave to the family they are deserting," a New York newspaper reported.

The daguerreotypes shown with this article are from the traveling exhibition "Silver & Gold: Cased Images of the California Gold Rush," organized by the Oakland Museum of California in honor of the sesquicentennial of the first great rush for Western gold. The exhibition is the result of several years spent searching for rare daguerreotypes in collections across the country. Unlike later news events which methodically were photographed for deliberate purposes of documentation and reportage, these images were made for purely personal reasons. A forty-niner simply walked into a studio and commissioned a portrait or view. Once he returned home, these photographs, housed in ornate cases of leather, velvet, and brass, became family heirlooms whose value, if any, was seen as strictly nostalgic. …