The dark side of the 19th-century gold rush
They came in their thousands in search of one thing – gold. But the idea of striking it rich and the reality of life as a prospector were often two different things, writes Pat Kinsella, as he mines the dark side of the gold-rush era | Accompanies BBC series The Luminaries, premiering on Starz on 14 February
During the 19th century, the discovery of gold in far-flung corners of the world could literally put a place on the map. Overnight, anonymous stretches of America, Canada, South Africa, Australia and New Zealand became powerful vortexes, sucking in thousands of fortune hunters from around the globe in a frenzy of fossicking.
This itinerant rabble of gold rushers were an excitable and eclectic bunch, encompassing Cornish tin miners, Scottish crofters, Irish labourers, Chinese fishermen, Chilean farmers, Australian clerks, emancipated African-heritage slaves, Mexican soldiers, German blacksmiths, Italian aristocrats and American authors. They spoke many languages in an even greater variety of accents, but almost exclusively they were male. And they all had one thing on their mind: gold. Such a kaleidoscopic collection of humanity, suddenly converging on the very edge of nowhere, populating pop-up towns and cities with no infrastructure, accommodation or law enforcement, sounds like a recipe for disaster. And often it was.
No matter where in the world these stampeders rushed off to – California, Victoria, Otago, Witwatersrand, the Klondike – the story that unfolded once they arrived was always similar. Though a few got lucky and became rich, most saw their dreams die and their savings evaporate. Illness, destitution and death were common outcomes, and many of those who escaped such misfortunes never returned home, despite families and workplaces awaiting them, inflicting a hidden cost on communities worlds apart.
Reality very rarely met expectation, and the only distractions from digging dirt and sifting silt involved gambling, boozing, brawling and prostitution – the latter sometimes involving indentured labour. As hastily thrown-up towns rapidly boomed (and then often quickly went bust), crime and ethnic conflict erupted through the faultlines, accompanied by vigilantism and violence. Vulnerable indigenous communities were commonly displaced, and sometimes obliterated altogether.
Though a few got lucky and became rich, most saw their dreams die and their savings evaporate
This script played out multiple times across the globe throughout the 1800s, with a slightly different cast of very similar characters involved every time. But the biggest gold-rush drama of all – in terms of sheer numbers, and the weight of its cultural, physical and literary legacy – happened on the west coast of America, right in the middle of the century.
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In numbers: the goldrush
$36,000 – The amount Samuel Brannan allegedly made in nine weeks by selling picks, pans and shovels to gold rushers en route from San Francisco to the goldfields.
40 million ounces (113,398kg) – Weight of gold dug from the Homestake Mine in South Dakota between 1876 and 2002.
2,217 troy ounces 16 pennyweight (68.98kg) – Weight of the 'Welcome Nugget' found in 1858 at Bakery Hill, Ballarat in Australia by a group of 22 Cornish miners working at the mine of the Red Hill Mining Company.
3% – Proportion of the non-native female population of California's mining region in 1850 – approximately 800 women compared to 30,000 men.
$200 million – US dollar value of gold dug out of California's Sierra Nevada mountains between 1849 and 1852 – equivalent to around $5.5 billion today.
85.7g – Heaviest lump of gold discovered in Britain, located in July 2018 by an amateur prospector in a Scottish river. Prior to this, the largest nugget found in British waters was discovered in Cornwall in 1808 and weighed 59g.
California, here they come
On 24 January 1848, James Marshall, a carpenter working on a new sawmill in the small Californian settlement of Coloma, saw the morning sun glinting on something in the channel of water he was examining – part of the American River. He reached in and scooped up some of the shiny flecks of metal that had caught his eye. In his hands, Marshall was clutching a tiny amount of a substance that would transform the fortunes, and shape the future, of the American West. Gold.
Technically, Marshall was stood on Mexican land, but less than two weeks later, under the terms of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo that ended the Mexico-American War, California joined the US. Soon it was the most talked about location on the planet, and people were sailing oceans, traversing mountains and driving wagons across deserts to get there.
Marshall made nothing from his discovery – in fact, he and the sawmill owner, John Sutter (who had borrowed big time to finance his dream of building an agricultural empire) lost money and went bust, after workers deserted fields and factories to dig for gold. Other business folk, however, would soon seize the gilt-edged opportunity presented by the influx of wide-eyed, greenhorn prospectors who descended on California.
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The Trans-Alaskan Gopher Company came up with a brilliant business plan, offering shares for a dollar apiece in its venture, which promised to train gophers to dig tunnels in the Klondike goldfields. Gophering for gold, if you will...
American culture continues to celebrate the more spectacular rags-to-riches success stories that emerged from this era – the sassy smarts and big-picture thinking of entrepreneurs like Samuel Brannan, John Studebaker and Levi Strauss. But these men struck gold by supplying equipment to the fortune hunters and dreamers, not by digging dirt or scouring riverbanks themselves. And behind the lucky strikes and occasional flashes of life-changing glitter, amid the rubble of a million shattered dreams, lie a multitude of much grittier and grimy stories of crime, violence, prostitution, gambling, family breakdown, bankruptcy, poverty, pestilence and prejudice.
Positive results were achieved too, of course – including the development of railways and other infrastructure – but it’s the darker themes that are the common denominators across the gold-rush age. In the colony of Victoria, reactions to the arrival of Chinese prospectors laid the roots for the discriminatory ‘White Australia’ policy (which, between 1901 and 1958, effectively stopped all non-white immigration into the country), while in South Africa tensions and rivalry between the British colonial authorities and local Boer farmers over the goldfields led to a full-scale war.
Hard to be herd
The first thing aspirant prospectors had to survive was the journey to the goldfields. As word of a gold strike spread across the Americas and beyond during 1848, hundreds of hopefuls began travelling towards California. The initial trickle of what became a rush was led by Americans from Oregon, but soon thousands were flocking in from places like Mexico, Chile, Peru and the Sandwich Islands (Hawaii). Nicknamed ‘Argonauts’ after the golden-fleece chasing heroes of Greek mythology, around 6,000 people arrived that year. In his State of the Union address in December 1848, US President James Polk confirmed that large quantities of gold had been discovered in California, prompting a big dash west that emptied work places and homes across the rest of the country, and much further afield. Factories and shops lost workers, soldiers went AWOL, husbands deserted families. Part of the collateral damage of the gold-rush era was a rash of broken homes and destitute businesses far from the goldfields.
Thousands of hopefuls from the eastern states set off on a tough transcontinental odyssey in covered wagons, pulled by mules and oxen. They were soon joined by people from Asia, Europe and the Antipodes. By 1849, the real rush had begun, with incoming waves of ‘fortyniners’ breaking on the beaches. Around 90,000 arrived that year.
Did you know…?
The Klondike gold rush coincided with the great bicycle boom, and several people attempted to cycle to Dawson. There were also grand plans to fly paying prospectors to the remote goldfields in balloons – none of which really got off the ground.
But no easy route to the goldfields existed, even for those travelling across America along the California Trail. With deserts and the Rockies standing in their way, timing was crucial. The tragic story of the Donner party – a group of wagontrain settlers heading west who had become snowbound in the Sierra Nevada mountain range during the winter of 1846/47 – was infamous. Just 48 of the party’s 87 travellers made it out alive.
Others travelled up through Mexico, or took a ship – either on a full 17,000-mile route around the bottom of South America (which took between five and seven months) or to Panama’s east coast, before crossing the jungle-clad isthmus and boarding boats on the Pacific side.
The latter route was much quicker, but prohibitively expensive. Either way, dangers included fierce storms and serious illness due to overcrowding and poor diet. Once they’d landed, prospectors who had come by boat would have been severely disappointed to learn the goldfields were a further 150 miles inland, and that they had to negotiate another journey before they could start fossicking for their fortunes.
The drama of reaching remote regions is a common theme in the experience of gold chasers of the 1800s, and the ordeal faced by those heading to California pales in comparison to the challenge that faced stampeders who joined the last great rush of the century to the Klondike, in north-western Canada. After landing in Alaska, these fortune seekers had to hike the Chilkoot Trail over ice-clad mountains, then build boats to negotiate the mighty Yukon River, through deadly rapids, before reaching Dawson – where they could finally begin digging.
None of this deterred those with gold goggles on, though. Within six quick years, San Francisco was transformed from a small settlement with around 200 residents in 1846, to a ramshackle city teeming with more than 36,000 people in 1852. By 1855, the population had exceeded 300,000.
Boom and gloom
New arrivals to San Francisco lived in ad hoc accommodation, including on the decks of the 500 or so ships that had turned up laden with would-be prospectors and supplies, and then became stranded in the harbour when the crews deserted to try their luck in the goldfields. These abandoned boats housed shops, warehouses, pubs and even a jail.
Many migrants spent all their savings getting to the west coast, and arrived utterly destitute. The rush created enormous surges in demand for basic supplies, and prices soared. By the end of the century, having learned from events in California, Canadian authorities insisted prospectors bring a year’s worth of supplies before allowing them access from Alaska into the Klondike. But many of those arriving in San Francisco were woefully ill prepared.
Freezing winter conditions could be lethal for those living in shanty conditions and sleeping on cold, damp floors. Food was poor, scurvy was common from lack of fruit and vegetables, and sanitation was extremely basic, with most men seldom washing their bodies or clothes. Camps were rag-tag constructions made from wood and canvass, and fires were common.
In this male-dominated society, almost entirely devoid of traditional calming influences such as family and community, gambling, alcohol abuse and loneliness were also prevalent issues. Later, in the Yukon, one entrepreneurial prospector travelled with a barge-load of kittens that he sold to lonesome miners in Dawson for an ounce of gold apiece. Most men, however, sought solace and warmth elsewhere.
Love, lust and punishment
San Francisco’s so-called Barbary Coast area witnessed the shadier side of the Californian gold rush. Here, in the brothels, saloon bars and gaming houses that quickly took root in the rough dirt, plenty of prospectors frittered away their newfound fortunes. Prostitution became a huge industry. Initially, the working women came from Latin America, mostly Mexico, Nicaragua and Chile, and a rudimentary red light zone was established at the foot of San Francisco’s Telegraph Hill, in a tent city called Chiletown. Later, more women would arrive from farther afield, including a large number from France.
Among the Chinese community – largely comprised of men who’d left families intending to make a short, life-changing trip to California, but ended up staying much longer – the gender imbalance was especially stark. According to historian and author Judy Yung, in 1850 just seven of the 4,025 Chinese in San Francisco were women. There are reports of girls – often aged 14 or younger – being lured or kidnapped from the Chinese countryside and brought to St Louis Alley in San Francisco’s Chinatown, where they were effectively sold to prospectors as sex slaves, or put to work in brothels.
In the early days, the goldfields were rule-free places, full of testosterone and desperation, where infrastructure and policing were non-existent. Claims – parcels of land where prospectors asserted the right to extract gold – were staked on a first-come basis and disputes were resolved with violence. And along with all the hope-filled miners and desperate dreamers came the schemers: thieves, bandits, claim-jumpers, professional gamblers and scammers.
California didn’t become a state until September 1850, until which time there were literally no laws, and summary and violent vigilante justice was meted out to wrongdoers (and perceived wrongdoers) on the spot. Punishments ranged from flogging for minor crimes (petty theft and assault), right up to execution by hanging for more serious offences such as robbery and murder. Lynchings and mob justice were rife.
California didn’t become a state until September 1850, until which time there were literally no laws
As the situation evolved, so too did law and order. In crowded camps around productive claims, officers were often appointed to patrol mines and settle disputes. Commonly, claims were 10ft by 10ft, and limited to one per prospector. As the era wore on, however, and the number of miners continued to rise and, as the strike rate fell, things inevitably turned nasty.
Diversity and discrimination
The deluge of hungry humanity that flowed into San Francisco in search of gold from 1849 made California one of the most cosmopolitan and colourful places in the world – albeit probably one of the planet’s most male-dominated societies.
The ethnic mix included thousands of Chinese, Mexicans and people from Caribbean, Central and South American countries, including Brazil, Peru and Chile. Fortune-foragers travelled from as far away as New Zealand and South Africa.
Australia lost so many young, able-bodied men during this stampede to America’s west coast that it forced the colonial government to reverse its policy of suppressing news about gold strikes in its own backyard. Consequently, Australia’s fortunes and fate was quickly transformed by a series of gold rushes in New South Wales and Victoria, which happened shortly after that of California.
Ireland was still losing people as a result of the Great Famine, and those who could made their way to the west coast. From elsewhere in Europe, prospectors poured in from Italy, Prussia, Russia, France, Britain and Spain. Several hundred Turks and Filipinos arrived too, and among migrants from other states in American were an estimated 4,000 African-Americans.
Once the easy pickings had been harvested, however, white American prospectors began trying to force foreigners out of the picture so they could gather the remaining gold. Chinese and Latin American miners were sometimes attacked, and a foreign miners’ tax of $20 per month was introduced by the new California State Legislature.
The deluge of hungry humanity that flowed into San Francisco in search of gold from 1849 made California one of the most cosmopolitan places in the world
Anti-immigrant feeling ran rife but it was Native American communities who suffered the worst atrocities. Thousands died from diseases brought in on the international tide, as well as violent attacks from prospectors who regarded them as sub-human savages. California was a free state (one in which slavery was prohibited) but settlers were allowed to capture and use indigenous women and children as bonded workers.
As gold prospectors transitioned into settlers, and agriculture expanded to meet their ever-growing needs, conflict intensified. Attacks by tribes on encroaching miners and ranchers resulted in vengeance being wrought on whole villages, and some gold-rush era Californian communities offered bounties to vigilante groups for Native American scalps. California’s first governor, Peter Hardeman Burnett, called for the exclusion of all black people from the state, championed high taxation on foreign workers and openly advocated the wholesale extermination of the Native American population. By 1890, this latter objective had all-but been achieved, with the indigenous population decimated.
This was mirrored in Australian gold rushes, where the problems settlers were already causing the Aboriginal population in the form of introduced disease, conflict, alcohol abuse and the destruction of their homeland were massively amplified by the arrival of thousands of fortune hunters.
There is some evidence, though, that not all indigenous people were limited to being bystanders or victims, and some were able to exploit elements of the situation by selling possum-skin cloaks to freezing miners ill-prepared for winter conditions, working as trackers for prospectors and police, and even putting on Corroborees (shows of dancing and singing) for payment. Overwhelmingly, though, the discovery of gold and subsequent influx of prospectors into any area already populated spelt disaster for Native American communities and their culture. This was certainly the case for the Yukon’s Hän First Nation people, who were displaced by stampeders during the Klondike gold rush, and never recovered.
End of the rainbow
Although San Francisco continued to grow, the aspirations of small-time diggers in California had realistically evaporated by 1855, and larger mining companies were left to extract the remaining gold with better technology. The discovery of silver in Nevada in 1859 kept fortune hunters rolling into the bayside area – including authors such as Mark Twain and Bret Harte, who documented the era – but the stampede ultimately became a trickle.
The gold-rush era was far from over, however, and for the next half a century adventurers from the world over would continue to seek their fortunes in faraway places, amid the high hills, dusty deserts and remote rivers in Australia, Alaska, Siberia, Canada, New Zealand, the Transvaal... anywhere that offered a glint or hint of hidden treasure.
The BBC adaptation of Eleanor Catton’s 2013 Man Booker Prize-winning novel The Luminaries, set during the New Zealand Gold Rush of the 1860s, premieres on Starz from 14 February 2021.
Pat Kinsella specialises in adventure journalism as a writer, photographer and editor.