Magazine article Humanities

The Gold Rush

Magazine article Humanities

The Gold Rush

Article excerpt

The letters speak eloquently across a distance of 150 years. Gold in California! Heading west, William Wilson writes his family in the flatland of Missouri: "Men who could build a rail-road to the moon perhaps could build one over these mountains, but I doubt it.... and it is said the worst is yet to come. But never mind. Gold lies ahead." Franklin Buck, newly arrived in Sacramento, is cocky: "Shaving is all the humbug. Nobody shaves. I am going to have my daguerreotype taken and sent home to show you how I have improved." Lucius Fairchild agonizes: "If God will forgive me and allow me to make a small pile this summer I never will trouble this country any more, but break for home. I get home often in my dreams .... " And a left-behind fiancee writes: "Forget the nuggets. I would rather see you than any lump in California."

A piece of gold half the size of a pea set off an extraordinary chapter in American history. Eighty thousand fortune seekers poured in from Oregon City, St. Louis, Sonora, and-as the news spread around the world-from Liverpool and LeHavre and Sydney. By 1854 there were three hundred thousand immigrants. California had gained statehood. San Francisco had ballooned from a town of eight hundred (not counting Native Americans) into a canvas metropolis of gambling palaces and lodging houses and brothels.

Fortunes shifted from the goldfields to other endeavors-to the supplying of horses and the manufacture of hydraulic equipment, the raising of cattle and growing of crops, the outfitting of steamships, the sewing of tents and building of houses. …

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