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California's storied Gold Rush triggered momentous changes not only for the state, but also for the nation and the world. The economic impact of that epoch-making event is the focus of the second volume of the California History Sesquicentennial Series. The chapter contributors offer a range of perspectives, including commentaries that reflect the new scholarship of environmental and resource history. Together, the essays and more than 90 illustrations show how the Gold Rush precipitated a veritable economic revolution whose effects continue to this day.
Among the topics given a fresh interpretation are the relationship between technology and society; the environmental impact from mining and the sudden increase in California's population; the influence of the Gold Rush on agriculture, manufacturing, banking, and transportation; and its impact on the peoples and economies of Latin America, Europe, and Asia. The popular image of the independent prospector is also examined anew, as is the role of different groups of industrial workers, including Chinese, Mexicans, and women.
The Gold Rush was a multiplier, an event that accelerated a chain of interrelated consequences that in turn accelerated economic growth. But it also touched a deep-seated nerve in the human psyche and unleashed economic forces, for good or ill, that transformed California forever into a Golden State.
Preface, Michael McCone and Richard J. Orsi
1. A Golden State: An
Introduction, James J. Rawls
2. Making Old Tools Work Better: Pragmatic Adaptation and
Innovation in Gold-Rush Technology, Ronald H. Limbaugh
3. Capitalism comes to the Diggings: From Goold-Rush Adventure to Corporate Enterprise, Maureen A. Jung
4. "We all live more like brutes than humans": abor and Capital in the Gold Rush, Daniel Cornford
5. Environmental Changes before and after the Gold Rush, Raymond F. Dasmann
6. "I am resolved not to interfere, but permit all to work freely": The Gold Rush and American Resource Law, Donald J. Pisani
7. Mother Lode for the West: California Mining Men and Methods, Duane A. Smith
8. Seeing the Elephant, Anthony Kirk
9. The Gold rush and the Beginnings of California Technology, David J. St. Clair
10. From hard Money to branch Banking: California Banking in teh Gold-Rush Economy, Larry Schweikart and Lynne Pierson Doti
11. "Prosperity of Everty Kind": Ranching and Farming during the Gold-Rush Era, Lawrence James Jelinek
12. The Golden Skein: California's Gold-Rush Transporation Network, A. C. W. Bethel
13. A Vertiable revolution: The Global Economic Significance of the California Gold rush, gerald D. Nash
Raymond F. Dasmann
The celebration of the Gold Rush has been an occasion for fun and games for many Californians-dressing up in pioneer costumes, marching in or cheering for parades, consuming alcohol, and other diversions. There is a nostalgia for an earlier time, one seemingly without the pressure of laws, rules, or community restrictions, when one could do as one pleased and, if lucky, suddenly become wealthy. Indeed, those who flocked to the gold fields were often betting their lives on "getting rich quick," and it is not surprising that a gambling hall was one of the first structures to be built in the new gold towns, usually in combination with a saloon and brothel.
In reading the accounts of those who were there in 1849 and later, most often one seeks in vain for descriptions of the countryside, the natural world, or the wild animal life. There was no obvious concern for the environment. Anything that stood in the way of the gold seeker was pushed aside or destroyed, whether a grizzly bear or a mountain. Ruthless exploitation with no thought for tomorrow was the basis for the way of life in gold-rush times.
The start of the GoldRush was obviously related to the 1848 discovery of gold in the gravels of the American River near Sutter's Fort in what is now the Sacramento metropolitan area. The heavy influx of people began in 1849, but when did it end? In terms of population movement, it has really never ended, since the tens of thousands who came in 1849 hardly compare to the half-million or more who arrived in each of some recent years. In terms of environmental damage, it has not ended at all.
It is tempting to blame the Gold Rush for starting the process of severe environmental damage in California, in what had previously been a place where nature thrived, little disturbed by humans. Unfortunately this simplistic view would not be correct. California in 1849 had already experienced serious environmental changes resulting from human activity. Extensive open-range livestock grazing introduced by
Powerful jets of water play across a scene of astounding environmental destruction at the Malakoff Diggings, Nevada County, in a picture by the famed California photographer Carleton Watkins. The big hydraulic-mining monitors began their work here in September 1870 with water carried by a system of ditches and flumes stretching forty-seven miles into the mountains and constructed at a cost of three-quarters of a million dollars. By the time operations ceased in the 1880s, the North Bloomfield Gravel Mining Company had carved out a canyon more than a mile long and six hundred feet deep in places. Courtesy California State Library.
Spaniards and Mexicans had resulted in modification of native grasslands, from a long-established and highly productive perennial bunchgrass community to one dominated by introduced (exotic) annual grasses of Mediterranean origin. Russian, Aleut, and American poachers had also hunted populations of sea otters and other marine mammals to near extinction. One could say there had been a cattle rush starting in the late eighteenth century with the coming of Spanish settlers and a fur rush starting in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century, well before the more well-known Gold Rush. Certainly the Gold Rush directly caused even more severe damage to streams, rivers, their watersheds, and flood plains, and undoubtedly it accelerated the damage to grasslands, wildlife, forests, and other natural communities. But the damaging processes were already in place and those states that experienced no Gold Rush, such as Oregon, were to experience similar changes, although at a slower rate.
Still there is little doubt that, in terms of natural balances, California before the Gold Rush was a more idyllic place than it was to be after that event. Perhaps the greatest indicator of the health of the environment was the abundance and diversity of wildlife, since wild animals do not thrive without a healthy habitat. The habitat for California wildlife was all of the forests and woodlands, prairies and marshlands, mountains and valleys, and rivers and seashores of the state.
In the pyramid of life that comprised the natural world of California there is little doubt that the large predators were at the top. For them to thrive, there must be an abundance of prey, and for these to thrive, there must be an abundance of the plant foods that sustain them. Thus if you see an area where the predators seem fat and happy, you can suspect that all is well with the total environment. In California when the Spanish settlers first arrived in 1769, there was certainly an abundance of what was then the top predator on land, the grizzly bear.
It would be wrong to say that the grizzly was a bad-tempered animal. At times it could be quite cheerful and content in its bearish way. But it was easily and unpredictably offended. Then, it would fly into a rage and might tear the offender apart. The Indians had deep respect for the large bears and usually managed to coexist with them peacefully. So, too, did James "Grizzly" Adams, a colorful and loquacious gold-rush era hunter who roamed the wild country of California with his two tamed grizzlies, raised from cubs and taught to tolerate humans. His accounts, although not always trustworthy, confirm the relative abundance of bears throughout California. Adams also reported on the presence of true wolves, along with the ever-abundant coyote. On one occasion he encountered a female jaguar, with a cub, in the Tehachapi Mountains.
All early accounts of conditions in California before European hunting began to seriously impinge on the wildlife and wild country indicate that California Indians and wild animals lived in relative harmony. It was not that Indians did not hunt. They did, and indeed depended on deer, elk, pronghorn, and other species for part of their food supply. But they did not kill for profit and had deep respect for the animals on which they depended. In consequence, animals that are now wild and wary, such as mountain lions and black bears, were then relatively tame and not quick to flee from human presence. A view of this relationship was provided by pioneer Hale Tharp, as told by Walter Fry and Toby Whyte:
There were about 2,000 Indians then living along the Kaweah River above where Lemon Cove now stands.... The Indians told me that I was the first white man that had ever come to their country. Few of them had ever seen a white man prior to my arrival.
There was an abundance of game. Deer were everywhere, with lots of bear along the rivers, and occasionally a grizzly bear. Lions, wolves, and foxes were plentiful.
During the summer of 1858, accompanied by two Indians, I made my first trip into the Giant Forest. When we arrived at Log Meadow there were a great many deer and a few bear in the meadow, and the animals paid little attention to us. The deer came around our camp, and some of the bears sat upright in order to get a good look at us. I shot a small buck for camp meat. The shot did not seem to frighten the other deer or any of the bears.
The famed hunter James Capen Adams and his pet grizzly Ben Franklin, as portrayed by Charles Nahl. Few Californians maintained Adams's complex and imaginative relationship with bears, preferring simply to slaughter them for food or sport. "The California Grizzly," remarked a writer for Hutchings' California Magazine in 1858, "is exceedingly ferocious, and powerful; and unless treated to a deadly bullet, it is a hard customer to manage in an encounter." From Theodore H. Hittell, The Adventures of James Capen Adams, Mountaineer and Grizzly Bear Hunter of California (1860). California Historical Society, FN-30962.
More striking was the testimony of a Chumash elder, Grandfather Semu Huaute, who refers to a wilderness north of Santa Barbara: "You know, daughter, before the Spaniards came to California, the bears and us used to gather berries together. The bears were real friendly. We got along real well. We could talk to each other, and we had a good understanding. When the Spaniards came, they found it pretty easy to shoot the bears. After that the bears wouldn't go berrying with us any more."
The Spaniards hunted bears and, although the grizzly population increased greatly in the countryside because of the new food supply-Spanish cattle-they succeeded in controlling the bears' numbers somewhat around the missions and pueblos. But it was the dispersion of people into the wild country in the gold-rush days, first as prospectors, then as miners, finally as settlers, that led to the massive depletion of wildlife. Of course the grizzly, who challenged people and often attacked, was one of the first to go. One indicative example was Humboldt County, where, according to the settlers, grizzlies were abnoxiously abundant. Early pioneer Calvin Kinman had counted forty grizzlies from one high hill in the Mattole country, but probably the last bear to live in the region was killed in 1868. In Santa Cruz County, grizzlies were also common until 1886, when the last one was reported dead. In the Sierra, they lasted longer, but the last grizzly seen, but not killed, was in Sequoia National Park in 1925.
The fate of the grizzly and other animals illustrates the Gold Rush's adverse effects on the land animals of California and their habitats. However, offshore the same depletion and near extermination of marine mammals occurred. There, the decimation began even before the advent of mining, without the influence of tens of thousands of gold seekers. Two aquatic animals-the sea otter and the beaver-were the targets of the fur rush beginning more than a century before the Gold Rush. The sea otter was abundant along the California coast, particularly around San Francisco and Monterey bays and the Channel Islands. Perhaps 300,000 or more swam in the offshore waters. Unfortunately for the otters, they had a dense, warm brown coat with a silvered frosting of guard hairs. This came to be regarded as highly desirable among fur wearers in Moscow, Peking (Beijing), and elsewhere among the world's elite.
The trouble started in 1740, when the Russian government sent Vitus Bering to explore the northern Pacific toward Alaska. In the Aleutian Islands, the native Aleuts brought him large numbers of otter skins, which on the return of his expedition proved to be highly popular in Russia and China, and by the late 1700s, Russian ships were hunting the animal along the California coast. The Spanish exploitation of sea otters, probably using Chumash hunters, began before 1785, when the first government regulations on the trade were issued. Between 1786 and 1790 alone, nearly 10,000 skins were exported from Mexico to Asia via the Manila galleons. The Russians, partly to improve their access to the fur trade, established bases at Fort Ross in 1812 and in the Farallon Islands, from which they went forth with their Aleut hunters to kill sea otters. One hunting party in San Francisco Bay in 1811 massacred 1,200 otters. The French also played a minor role; in 1786 the expedition of Jean-François de Galaup, Comte de La Pérouse obtained 1,000 skins, which they sold in China for $10,000. The price went up from $10 to $60 a skin by the 1790s. Americans became involved in the early 1800s and were still active by gold-rush times. The best known American hunter, George Nidever, was particularly busy in the Channel Islands and offshore in Baja California from 1834 to 1855. By gold-rush times the otters were becoming scarce, and prospecting held a greater allure for the hunters. Nevertheless, the otter population had been reduced to perhaps thirty-two survivors by the time it was given full protection in 1911.
It was not only sea otters that suffered from this marine carnage. The Alaska fur seal was greatly reduced; and the Guadalupe fur seal was pushed to near extinction and, along with the elephant seal, survived only on Guadalupe Island in Baja California. As I wrote in an earlier work,
Few people realize even today, with the current interest in whales, how many kinds of sea mammals occur in California waters. There are twenty-six species of cetaceans, the whales and dolphins, seven species of seals and sea lions, and one sea-going otter.... Just as great herds of elk and antelope [pronghorn] moved across the plains of the Central Valley, in pre-European days, so also did great herds of sea mammals travel above the plains of the continental shelf, moving up the slopes of the islands and occasionally down into the depths of the submarine canyons. The abundance and variety of these sea mammals were greater than those of their terrestrial counterparts.
The marine mammals under greatest hunting pressure were those that came upon the shore to rest or breed, but even the truly marine species did not escape. By the early 1800s, whaling ships from New England were in California waters chasing after right whales and sperm whales. Shore-based whaling started in 1851 and concentrated on gray and humpback whales. But all of the great whales were under attack, and with most, numbers were quickly reduced to the point of endangering the survival of the species.
The mammal that contributed more than its share to the fur rush was not a marine or coastal-waters species but an inhabitant of fresh water-the golden beaver. This large rodent reached its greatest abundance, not in the forests of the Sierra or the coast, but in the Central Valley and particularly the marshlands where the Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers came together to flow into the San Francisco Bay. Unlike its relatives of the Great Lakes forests and Rocky Mountains, the golden beaver did not usually build large dams or lodges that protruded above the water surfaces. Usually, beaver dens were dug into the river banks and the entrances were below the water line. Since beaver are mostly active at night, an abundance of beaver in a river may not be noticeable.
Beaver trappers reached California in 1826, when a party led by Peter Skene Ogden of the Hudson's Bay Company came south from Fort Vancouver in Canada in the same year that the American trappers Jedediah Smith and James O. Pattie led parties from their bases near the Great Salt Lake and Santa Fe. Skene and Smith were particularly successful and took thousands of beaver between 1826 and 1828. They were to be followed by enough others to greatly reduce beaver numbers before the Gold Rush, when most hunters gave up trapping in the search for what was hoped to be an easier source of wealth, but eventually other fur bearers suffered the beaver's fate.
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