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

By Richard T. Stillson | Go to book overview

CHAPTER ONE
Newspapers
Credibility and Information

The idea of going to California to mine gold occurred to many in December 1848, and information about the place and how to get there became prime commodities. Led by newspapers, the various print media were the first to make money off the gold rush, and they were quick off the mark. The story of the spread of news of the gold discoveries, which filtered through to eastern newspapers as early as August 1848, has been well told in gold rush histories.1 What has not been well described is how individual newspapers developed the story and made it credible; whether, and how, newspapers disseminated useful information for prospective goldrushers planning their trip; and whether gold rush news and information differed by type of newspaper or by region of the country. These are the questions addressed in this chapter.

The focus on newspapers as an information source extends the scholarship on information diffusion as well as being part of the larger history of journalism. Richard Brown in Knowledge Is Power concludes that by the mid-nineteenth century “it was the task of print, not word of mouth, to impart public information.”2 The increased reliance on print for information attenuated the importance of personal relationships between information providers and receivers that was important to creating credibility in the eighteenth century. Although newspapers were one of the two main printed sources of information (books were the other), newspaper histories do not usually consider information diffusion as a major function of mid-nineteenth-century newspapers.3 This case study of the gold rush shows that newspapers were a major source of information, but that the relationship between print and personal sources of information was complicated by the changing perception of the credibility of printed information as the goldrushers gained experience with the West.

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