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

By Richard T. Stillson | Go to book overview

Conclusion

One of the most fascinating aspects of history is that stories from the past can be retold many times, and each time new lessons can be learned and new aspects of the stories can be highlighted. The California gold rush is an excellent example. Except for the major wars, few events in American history have been retold as many times and for as many reasons as the gold rush. Gold rush stories have illustrated in a dramatic microcosm broad aspects of American history such as geographic and technical discoveries, the exploitation of natural resources, mass migration, repression of Native Americans and other ethnic groups, and the painful process of learning to live with diverse peoples. This history of the gold rush is similar; it is a series of tales of communications and in for mat ion dispersal in a situation in which good information was desperately needed but difficult to assess, and communications were restricted by technological, geographical, and institutional limitations.

This study fits into and contributes to both California gold rush history and the history and analysis of communications and information. With respect to the gold rush, communications and information dispersal were crucial elements explaining many goldrushers' decisions. The lemminglike throng of some ten thousand goldrushers on the Lassen Cutoff seems mysterious or irrational unless one considers the constraints on communications, the availability of information, and the difficulties of information assessment. The apparently irrational chasing of wild rumors in the gold fields while ignoring the information of printed sources is another example. Emphasizing the importance of communications constraints also helps explain the rapid and innovative growth of the express business in the gold fields.

With respect to the history and analysis of communications and information, this work is a case study demonstrating the importance of information assessment

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