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

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Overview


Spreading the Word examines the ways in which easterners who traveled West during the California gold rush of 1849–51 obtained, assessed, and used information. At the beginning of the gold rush the scarcity of information about westward travel posed serious problems for potential gold seekers in the East. Though most knew the trip was dangerous and that proper preparation could mean the difference between life and death, few had any practical knowledge of the vast deserts and mountains of the West or, for that matter, of how to mine gold.

Information was produced quickly as newspapers, publishers, and businessmen hastened to cash in on gold fever, but much of it was unreliable, contradictory, and changed frequently. Richard T. Stillson follows several gold rush companies across the country, gleaning from their letters and diaries a sense of how they obtained information and evaluated its constantly changing sources, how they attempted to learn where gold was, and what they wrote home, thus providing information to the next wave of gold seekers. As the companies gained experience, they reassessed knowledge and developed new modes of determining the credibility of new information.

By providing a historical context for assessing information and by viewing communication strategies as a core element of the gold rush itself, Stillson reveals a connection between media, myth, and reality in the formative years of the nation’s most volatile region.

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Editorial Reviews

Robert Phelps

"This is truly an important addition to the scholarship of the California Gold Rush. Unlike other accounts, Richard Stillson examines the Gold Rush from the beginning, analyzing the information systems utilized by the 49ers to make decisions as they moved west. Spreading the Word is a case study of information and communications mechanisms in the United States during the mid-nineteenth century, and as such is a new and vital contribution in American social, cultural, and even technological history."

—Robert Phelps, Associate Professor of History, California State University, East Bay

Journalism History

“[Stillson] 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 provides an appreciation, not only of the difficulties of obtaining and using information by the goldrushers but also of the challenges of reconstructing the experience.”—William E. Huntzicker, Journalism History

Journal of Arizona History

“[Spreading the Word] provides valuable insight regarding the spread of information and how individuals analyze and use information from various sources.”—Patricia A. Etter, Journal of Arizona History

— Patricia A. Etter

Utah Historical Quarterly

Spreading the Word is an interesting and important study for the gold rush, California, and media historians. It is a significant fresh look at what many may consider an over examined subject. Stillson’s research and methods are notable; his conclusions valid and logical. Most important are his contributions in showing how communication and technology, with its connection of media, myth, and reality, impacted society during the hazardous and exciting Gold Rush Era.”—John D. Barton, Utah Historical Quarterly

— John D. Barton

Kevin Starr

"Very valuable . . . the highest possible level of research, scholarly analysis, and . . . vivid and effective writing. Spreading the Word is a pioneering discussion of communications culture in the mid-nineteenth century."

—Kevin Starr, Professor of History at the University of Southern California and author of California: A History and Coast of Dreams

True West

“This unique analysis of information providers and users during the California Gold Rush is a smart read. Much of what Stillson discusses relates to concerns of the media in the present day, especially in terms of prospectors trying to determine if the established media is credible or if they should be relying on ‘local’ reports, referred to today as citizen journalism. Stillson’s book also includes useful appendixes to back up his intelligent, well-thought-out arguments. This book is a boon to the study of communications culture.”—Meghan Saar, True West
Western Historical Quarterly

“Scholars of the California gold rush, overland emigration, and communications history will find Spreading the Word an informative read. Stillson has found a new way of looking at the gold rush by focusing on ‘how Americans from the East who went overland . . . obtained, assessed, and used information.’ . . . . Spreading the Word is a pioneering work and an invitation to explore other facets of gold rush information history.”—Benjamin Madley, Western Historical Quarterly

 

— Benjamin Madley

Journal of American History

“Stillson undertook a difficult task to transform knowledge into a ‘commodity’ and then measure it. He promised a new perspective on the gold rush and provides it.”—Robert J. Chandler, Journal of American History

— Robert J. Chandler

American Historical Review

“Stillson does an especially impressive job of tracking particular companies of migrants and narrating their movements through the lens of the maps they consulted, the news they consumed, and the experts they encountered. The bibliography is eminently useful, the illustrations are striking, and the volume of materials Stillson has analyzed underscores the importance (if not the authority) of writing and print in the experience of gold seekers, who formed, as the author notes, a distinctively literature large-scale migration.”—David M. Henkin, American Historical Review

 

— David M. Henkin

American Journalism

“Stillson’s research is impressive. He covers a wide gamut of newspapers, handbills, guidebooks and government reports in addition to numerous letters and diaries of the people who made the trip. Perhaps the strongest aspect of his work is this thoroughness, discussing, in detail, each of the information sources used.”—American Journalism

Enterprise and Society

“Fascinating. . . . Stillson has provided both an impressive concept of information flows over time and geography and a new way of looking at the gold rush. . . . A product of extensive research, which shows the author’s excellent mining, so to speak, of an enormous swath of primary sources.”—Enterprise and Society
 
European Journal of Communication

“Richard Stillson has opened up a new vein in the historical excavation of the California gold rush. . . . Spreading the Word marshals its evidence with skill and provides a well-crafted account that contributes both to North American social history and to our historical understanding of changing forms of information and communication. It is equally valuable on both counts.”—European Journal of Communication

Journal of American History - Robert J. Chandler

“Stillson undertook a difficult task to transform knowledge into a ‘commodity’ and then measure it. He promised a new perspective on the gold rush and provides it.”—Robert J. Chandler, Journal of American History

Western Historical Quarterly - Benjamin Madley

“Scholars of the California gold rush, overland emigration, and communications history will find Spreading the Word an informative read. Stillson has found a new way of looking at the gold rush by focusing on ‘how Americans from the East who went overland . . . obtained, assessed, and used information.’ . . . . Spreading the Word is a pioneering work and an invitation to explore other facets of gold rush information history.”—Benjamin Madley, Western Historical Quarterly
 

American Historical Review - David M. Henkin

“Stillson does an especially impressive job of tracking particular companies of migrants and narrating their movements through the lens of the maps they consulted, the news they consumed, and the experts they encountered. The bibliography is eminently useful, the illustrations are striking, and the volume of materials Stillson has analyzed underscores the importance (if not the authority) of writing and print in the experience of gold seekers, who formed, as the author notes, a distinctively literature large-scale migration.”—David M. Henkin, American Historical Review
 

Utah Historical Quarterly - John D. Barton

Spreading the Word is an interesting and important study for the gold rush, California, and media historians. It is a significant fresh look at what many may consider an over examined subject. Stillson’s research and methods are notable; his conclusions valid and logical. Most important are his contributions in showing how communication and technology, with its connection of media, myth, and reality, impacted society during the hazardous and exciting Gold Rush Era.”—John D. Barton, Utah Historical Quarterly

Journal of Arizona History - Patricia A. Etter

“[Spreading the Word] provides valuable insight regarding the spread of information and how individuals analyze and use information from various sources.”—Patricia A. Etter, Journal of Arizona History

Kevin Starr

"Very valuable . . . the highest possible level of research, scholarly analysis, and . . . vivid and effective writing. Spreading the Word is a pioneering discussion of communications culture in the mid-nineteenth century."—Kevin Starr, Professor of History at the University of Southern California and author of California: A History and Coast of Dreams
Robert Phelps

"This is truly an important addition to the scholarship of the California Gold Rush. Unlike other accounts, Richard Stillson examines the Gold Rush from the beginning, analyzing the information systems utilized by the 49ers to make decisions as they moved west. Spreading the Word is a case study of information and communications mechanisms in the United States during the mid-nineteenth century, and as such is a new and vital contribution in American social, cultural, and even technological history."—Robert Phelps, Associate Professor of History, California State University, East Bay
True West

“This unique analysis of information providers and users during the California Gold Rush is a smart read. Much of what Stillson discusses relates to concerns of the media in the present day, especially in terms of prospectors trying to determine if the established media is credible or if they should be relying on ‘local’ reports, referred to today as citizen journalism. Stillson’s book also includes useful appendixes to back up his intelligent, well-thought-out arguments. This book is a boon to the study of communications culture.”

—Meghan Saar, True West

American Historical Review

“Stillson does an especially impressive job of tracking particular companies of migrants and narrating their movements through the lens of the maps they consulted, the news they consumed, and the experts they encountered. The bibliography is eminently useful, the illustrations are striking, and the volume of materials Stillson has analyzed underscores the importance (if not the authority) of writing and print in the experience of gold seekers, who formed, as the author notes, a distinctively literature large-scale migration.”

—David M. Henkin, American Historical Review

Journal of American History

“Stillson undertook a difficult task to transform knowledge into a ‘commodity’ and then measure it. He promised a new perspective on the gold rush and provides it.”

—Robert J. Chandler, Journal of American History

Western Historical Quarterly

“Scholars of the California gold rush, overland emigration, and communications history will find Spreading the Word an informative read. Stillson has found a new way of looking at the gold rush by focusing on ‘how Americans from the East who went overland . . . obtained, assessed, and used information.’ . . . . Spreading the Word is a pioneering work and an invitation to explore other facets of gold rush information history.”

—Benjamin Madley, Western Historical Quarterly

Journal of Arizona History

“[Spreading the Word] provides valuable insight regarding the spread of information and how individuals analyze and use information from various sources.”

—Patricia A. Etter, Journal of Arizona History

Journalism History

“[Stillson] 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 provides an appreciation, not only of the difficulties of obtaining and using information by the goldrushers but also of the challenges of reconstructing the experience.”

—William E. Huntzicker, Journalism History

American Journalism

“Stillson’s research is impressive. He covers a wide gamut of newspapers, handbills, guidebooks and government reports in addition to numerous letters and diaries of the people who made the trip. Perhaps the strongest aspect of his work is this thoroughness, discussing, in detail, each of the information sources used.”

Utah Historical Quarterly

Spreading the Word is an interesting and important study for the gold rush, California, and media historians. It is a significant fresh look at what many may consider an over examined subject. Stillson’s research and methods are notable; his conclusions valid and logical. Most important are his contributions in showing how communication and technology, with its connection of media, myth, and reality, impacted society during the hazardous and exciting Gold Rush Era.”

—John D. Barton, Utah Historical Quarterly

Enterprise and Society

“Fascinating. . . . Stillson has provided both an impressive concept of information flows over time and geography and a new way of looking at the gold rush. . . . A product of extensive research, which shows the author’s excellent mining, so to speak, of an enormous swath of primary sources.”

European Journal of Communication

“Richard Stillson has opened up a new vein in the historical excavation of the California gold rush. . . . Spreading the Word marshals its evidence with skill and provides a well-crafted account that contributes both to North American social history and to our historical understanding of changing forms of information and communication. It is equally valuable on both counts.”

True West - Meghan Saar

SPREADING THE WORD
RICHARD T. STILLSON, UNIVERSITY OF NEBRASKA PRESS, $55, HARDCOVER; 800-755-1105.

This unique analysis of information providers and users during the California Gold Rush is a smart read. Much of what Stillson discusses relates to concerns of the media in the present day, especially in terms of prospectors trying to determine if the established media is credible or if they should be relying on "local" reports, referred to today as citizen journalism. Stillson’s book also includes useful appendixes to back up his intelligent, well-thought-out arguments. This book is a boon to the study of communications culture.

Read More Show Less

Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780803243255
  • Publisher: University of Nebraska Press
  • Publication date: 12/28/2006
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Pages: 278
  • Product dimensions: 6.20 (w) x 9.10 (h) x 1.10 (d)

Meet the Author


Richard T. Stillson has PhDs in both economics and history and has published articles on the theory and history of information in financial markets. He teaches history at George Mason University.
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Read an Excerpt

Spreading the World

A History of Information in the California Gold Rush
By Richard T. Stillson

University of Nebraska Press

Copyright © 2006 University of Nebraska Press
All right reserved.




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 abouta 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. 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 or the trip a disaster. They had, however, some information. Many realized that speed was important and that, if they were to go, they had to make their plans and leave the East by March or at latest April 1849. The one thing that most knew was that the trip was dangerous and that how well one prepared could be a matter of life or death. They needed a great deal of information, and they needed it quickly as they attempted to make decisions about whether to go by land or sea, which route to take, what and where to purchase outfits and provisions, and what they needed to mine gold. Information on all these subjects was, in fact, produced quickly as newspaper editors, book publishers, and others tried to cash in on gold rush fever. The result was that much information was incredible, contradictory, and subject to frequent change. Credibility became a major issue for both goldrushers and their information providers. Also, the information available to goldrushers was different in different locations and, as the emigrants traveled, they frequently had to reassess what they thought they knew.

Many goldrushers realized the problem of inadequate and inaccurate information. They took with them multiple guidebooks and maps and hired guides who supposedly knew how to get to California. Even this was insufficient, so they purchased handwritten guidebooks and considered signs and advertisements along the trail, and importantly, they listened to rumors and the opinions of other goldrushers. After they got to California, they wrote letters home, many of which were published by newspapers in the East. These letters substantially changed the information available for the second year of the gold rush, in which there were even more emigrants to California than in 1849.

The drama and pageant of the gold rush have long been recognized by amateur historians and western history buffs. Within the past twenty-five years, academic historians have also begun to realize the complexity and importance of the event, and scholarly studies of it have multiplied. Viewing the gold rush through the informational problems of the travelers, however, and how these problems affected their decisions, has not been explored in detail in gold rush historiography or communications history.

Information and Credibility

It is fairly intuitive that good and widely dispersed information is important to effective markets, democratic politics, and a free and competitive society. There are aspects of information dispersal, however, that are less intuitive and need further thought and study. First, information is a scarce commodity that takes resources to generate and disseminate, and it is bought and sold in a market as other commodities; thus an analysis of the information marketplace is necessary for the study of information in an event like the gold rush. Second, information as a commodity is usually contained within its means of dissemination, or media, such as newspapers, books, radio, television, magazines, lectures, and education. Each of these media also sells other services such as news or entertainment. Conceptually, each of these services is a separate product; the fact that they are sold jointly means that the price of information alone is disguised. Third, information must be assessed and credible to be useful, and information assessment is also a scarce commodity that can be bought and sold; thus an analysis of the means of information assessment is necessary for the study of the information marketplace. These markets within markets and joint products and prices show that providing information and disbursing it is a complex activity. Possible problems with the information marketplace are well known to policymakers, and in the late twentieth century, many mechanisms were established by law, government regulators, private firms, and the press to improve information dissemination and assessment. For example, in the financial field the law requires formalized disclosure and publication of information and assessment of this information (external auditing). The information assessment market is also regulated, and standards of accounting certification provide information about the information providers and assessors. Further layers of information assessment are provided by financial regulators (the Securities and Exchange Commission) and the private sector (brokers, financial firms' research departments, and the financial press). Even with these safeguards, the information marketplace can break down with disastrous consequences as in the Enron and WorldCom scandals in 2001 and 2002.

Without any public or private mechanisms for information assessment, goldrushers had to decide how to judge the credibility of the news that proclaimed the gold finds, the guidebooks that gave advice on travel, the maps that showed the way, and the rumors that said almost anything. Providers of this information knew that establishing credibility was key to selling their product. In the case of guidebooks, if the marketing did not establish credibility, the book would not sell. In the case of newspapers, maintaining credibility was even more important because if the stories were too unbelievable the credibility of other news items might be affected and thus the future as well as current sales of the newspaper. No goldrusher wrote about what made one source of information more credible than any other, but newspaper editors, guidebook writers, and map publishers did write in their advertisements and introductions what they expected would make their publications credible.

In analyzing what made various kinds of information credible to goldrushers, I distinguish between what I call credibility criteria and credibility markers. Credibility criteria are factors that people use to assess information. In the case of the gold rush, these criteria were usually an information source such as a government authority or an expert. The concept of credibility criteria is broader than sources of credibility, however, in that it can encompass ways in which information is transmitted, such as print, handwritten documents, or speech. Credibility markers are ways in which credibility criteria are identified by information users. In the gold rush, this was usually some form of print, such as the name of a government agency on a report or on the legend of a map. Identifying credibility markers allowed someone to interpret the way information was presented in terms of perceptions of credibility. One of the themes of this study is how these credibility criteria and markers changed with the location, time, and the experience of the goldrushers.

This study of the informational problems of the goldrushers, and their solutions to them, begins with the information sources available to potential goldrushers in various parts of the United States in December 1848 through June 1849. Chapter 1 is about information available through newspapers, and chapter 2 is about guidebooks and maps. In these early months of the gold rush, the primary sources of credibility were printed documents, and the markers were references to government expeditions, maps, and military rank or political office. Printed documents were not equally available geographically. An analysis of bookseller catalogs shows that guidebooks written and produced in the West of the time (St. Louis, Cincinnati, Louisville, and Chicago) were not available in the East, although eastern guidebooks were available in the West. It was as if the market for information had a one-way valve, with books and information flowing east to west but not vice versa. This had important implications for goldrushers from the East because when they obtained new, different, and what they considered better, information as they traveled to the trailheads, their initial information sources lost credibility. They then reassessed not only the specific information in these sources but also the way they assessed it.

The study continues with a narrative that follows the activities of a selection of American goldrusher companies from a variety of locations in the East and the current Midwest. Chapter 3 takes the companies to the trailheads, and chapter 4 along the trail to California. A key finding of this part of the study is that as the emigrants traveled farther into unknown territory, their trust in printed material, mainly guidebooks and maps, declined; and the credibility of handwritten, oral, and unverified information increased. Sources of credibility changed from official information to local expertise. Ultimately, this change led thousands of travelers to choose an unwise route on which many died and most suffered greatly.

In spite of the hardships, most of the goldrushers reached California where the informational problems changed. Chapter 5 focuses on these problems and their solutions. There was almost no communications infrastructure in California in 1849 to 1851; in particular, the Post Office Department was inadequate and mistrusted. Express companies filled this communications gap. These companies ranged from individuals and small partnerships forming a "pack mule express" to international express companies providing transportation and banking services for miners sending packages and gold back home. The chapter describes each of these types of businesses as well as the cooperation and conflicts among the competing information-distribution services, both public and private. These descriptions show that the private endeavors, along with the Post Office, formed an unplanned network of communications and information dispersal.

Chapter 6 analyzes the content and influence of communications from California and the implications of these informational flows for the gold rush of 1850. Goldrushers' letters back East had a widespread influence. Private letters that were published in newspapers and books written by returnees provided important sources of public information. These sources of information were particularly credible because they came from people who had survived the trip and had firsthand experience in mining or merchandising in California. Personal experience trumped official credentials and local expertise as the most important source of credibility. Letters were also the primary method of communications for merchants and businessmen in California who had to order goods some eight to nine months in advance.

This study is a beginning to systematic research on communications and information problems in the California gold rush and, more generally, in the mid-nineteenth-century United States. It focuses on goldrushers from the eastern United States, who were almost entirely English-speaking white men. Focusing on this group is justified because miners from the East formed the large majority of goldrushers. Other groups, however, were also important and numerous, particularly miners from Mexico, South America, Europe, and China. Also, the non-English-speaking miners from other parts of the world had different and more difficult communications and information problems than did easterners because of language differences and greater distances from the gold fields.

The Californios, former Mexican citizens who lived in California in 1848, had different communications and informational problems: they did not have to hear about the gold finds through newspapers nine months after James Marshall's discovery, but misunderstandings due to differences in language and culture exacerbated racial repression and strongly impeded their ability to profit from the gold. Finally, various groups of Native Americans, those found living both near the trail and in California, suffered from communications and information problems in their attempts to cope with what was happening to their traditional lands and to deal with the massive influx of non-Indians. The repression and near extinction of many Indian groups, particularly in California, is one of the most tragic aspects of the gold rush.

Imagining the West in 1848

Before beginning the story of the goldrushers and their search for credible information, it will be useful to review the kind of information they had before they heard of California gold. Easterners did not learn of the gold finds with a blank slate in regard to the West. The context of their prior knowledge of the history, economics, and geography of the region is important to understanding their perceptions of the flood of information they began to receive about California in December 1848.

The potential goldrushers in late 1848 had a picture in their minds of the lands, mountain men, Indians, and Mexicans that inhabited the territory. Their views of the West were mostly obtained from print, particularly books including histories, government reports, novels, adventures, and travelogues. In Joseph Sabin's comprehensive catalog of antebellum books about America, there are several hundred books about the American West published between 1806, when the first books about the Lewis and Clark expedition came out, and 1848. Although there is little information from this time period about the size of print runs, many of these books were bestsellers as indicated by the large number of editions over many years. The impressions created by these books varied, but there were some consistent themes, including the vastness of the region, the majesty of the scenery, the exoticism and danger of the Indians, and the supposed laziness and wantonness of the Mexicans. Perhaps the most important theme in terms of influencing the goldrushers was that the trip west was possible for those with determination and the appropriate knowledge and preparation.

(Continues...)



Excerpted from Spreading the World by Richard T. Stillson Copyright © 2006 by University of Nebraska Press. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
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