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

By Huntzicker, William E. | Journalism History, Fall 2007 | Go to article overview

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


Huntzicker, William E., Journalism History


Stillson, Richard T. Spreading the Word: A History of Information in the California Gold Rush. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2006. 274 pp. $55.

Setting out to seek gold in the West required an enormous act of faith-or rather many acts of faith-to pack up everything you owned and set out into literally unknown and largely unmapped territory. Once en route, you would encounter many new decisions, including whether to change routes, where to purchase supplies, what supplies to purchase, and whether to use wagons or pack mules.

Richard T. Stillson, who has doctorates in history and economics, looks at "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 task that he sets upon is incredibly difficult given the challenge of finding sources, and his conclusions require more speculation than he seems willing to admit. Nonetheless, he provides a fascinating study that opens a new field for investigation and analysis in the history of both the American West and information dissemination.

Stillson acknowledges that his book is only the first step in systematic communication research on how people made decisions about their western trips. Information available to Easterners before making the trip came from newspapers, guidebooks, maps, published memoirs of previous travelers, and personal letters from people who had gone before. As more people went, more information became available when travelers sent letters home, some of which were published in newspapers. Even rumors contributed to the process.

The complexity of the decision-making process becomes apparent as one begins to see the inadequacies of the sources available to potential goldrushers. At the time of President James K. Polks mention of California gold in December 1848, the most credible sources about travel were government reports and memoirs, such as those by John C. Fremont. Newspapers and book publishers flaunted the credibility of their products on the basis of authority, such as government connections, or experience, such as having been to the places described. Some publications, however, were written by local authors who had never gone west but claimed to have interviewed people who had.

Imagine putting your life into the hands of one of these guidebook or map publishers. After deciding to go, you would have to choose whether to travel overland or by sea across the Isthmus of Panama or around the Horn. The sea routes may have been faster and more efficient, and they were recommended by some eastern newspapers. …

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