Spreading the Word: A History of Information in the California Gold Rush

By Richard T. Stillson | Go to book overview

INTRODUCTION

This study is about how Americans from the East who went overland to California for the gold rush in the years 1849 to 1851 obtained, assessed, and used information. The principal findings are that the forms and constraints of communications, the mechanisms of information dispersal, and the perceived credibility of the content strongly affected how information was assessed and used. These aspects of communications and information influenced goldrushers' behavior and thus the magnitude, sequence, and timing of events. Communications and information dispersal provide a new lens through which to view the gold rush. This study looks through that lens and explains certain events that otherwise are mysterious. In doing so it contributes to both gold rush history and the historical analysis of communications and information.


Why the Gold Rush? Why Information?

The gold rush provides a rich case study with which to examine many questions concerning U.S. social and cultural history. It was a founding event of California history and an important episode in the history of the West, including the occupation of the region by European Americans, Europeans, Latin Americans, and Chinese. It was disastrous to Native Americans. Hundreds of thousands of people left their homes and families throughout the world over about a five-year period to search out their “main chance,” and they found some $300 – $500 million in gold. These people were part of the largest internal migration in U.S. history. Many of the important effects of the gold rush on the country were due in large part to the magnitude and short time span of this migration. The scale depended on the rapid generation and dissemination of information concerning gold and how to travel west. Thus, information and the communications mechanisms through which it was disseminated are central to the study of the gold rush and, by extension, the study of nineteenth-century America more generally.

Potential goldrushers in December 1848, when news of California gold became widely believed, had a difficult information problem.1 The majority were from the East and what is now the Midwest and had little or no knowledge of the West, much less how to travel there. Goldrushers, who were predominantly men with some resources and, often, families, had a lot to lose if the gold was a chimera

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