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Gold Fever! The Lure and Legacy of the California Gold Rush

Silver & Gold: Cased Images of the Gold Rush

Natives & Immigrants


JAMES MARSHALL'S DISCOVERY OF GOLD along the American River near Sacramento in January 1848 precipitated an influx of immigrants from all over the world to California in search of promised wealth. Rumors of gold began circulating soon after Marshall took his find to Captain John Sutter at Sutter's Fort, where the two confirmed, to the best of their knowledge, that the metal was indeed gold. Sutter tried to keep the discovery secret, but word soon traveled, carried by teamsters delivering goods to Coloma. Although announcements appeared in San Francisco newspapers by mid-March, it was not until 12 May, when Samuel Brannan - who operated a store at Sutter's Fort - arrived in San Francisco, a bag of gold dust in hand and shouting: "Gold! Gold! Gold! from the American River!" that workers abandoned their jobs to head for the Sierra foothills. Gold fever spread quickly, first to towns throughout California. Soon immigrants from Mexico and Chile, pioneers who had traveled west to Oregon, and local Native Americans were all prospecting along the streams traversing the Sierra Nevada. On the east coast of the United States the first reports were received with skepticism and a suspicion that the so-called discovery was a ruse to entice American settlers to isolated outposts in the Far West.

Less than two weeks after Marshall spotted gold in his millrace, Mexico transferred vast holdings in the Southwest, including all of California, to the United States by the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo. By the fall of 1848, official reports and samples of the gold submitted by California’s Governor reached Washington, D.C. With this evidence, President James K. Polk announced the discovery in his annual address to Congress, stimulating thousands of Americans to make plans to set out for California to seek their fortunes. Whether by sea (at first around Cape Horn, and later across the Isthmus of Panama) or overland (after spring snow melt and before winter storms made the Sierra impassible), the arduous journeys demanded considerable energy and expense. Most travel would take five or six months. Overland trips terminated at Sierra mining sites, and ships carrying gold seekers from the East Coast and Europe would arrive en masse in San Francisco harbor.

There is scant visual record of California from the period preceding the Gold Rush. With the arrival of the "Argonauts" – a name chosen to describe these immigrants suggests the mythic tale of Jason and aptly conveys the spirit that surrounded this mass migration even in its own time – came an outpouring of drawings, watercolors and ambitious oil paintings that documented and interpreted the Gold Rush locales, participants and activities. Unlike other immigrant settlements of the American West spearheaded by would-be farmers and ranchers who arrived with their families, the miners generally came without their families and were trained in the diverse occupations. Among them were artists and writers, merchants, machinists, shoemakers and silversmiths. The miners’ awareness that they were participating in a historical event, along with the exotic character of their undertaking, stimulated them to record both the everyday and the exceptional incidents they encountered. Enforced inactivity, when winter rains precluded mining, may have encouraged their artistic pursuits.

Although few paintings of Gold Rush subjects were produced by established artists of the day (with some notable exceptions), surviving examples by artists who traveled to California testify that several were skilled, some with the advantage of academic art training and others apparently self-taught. The results were often satisfying accomplishments of artistic merit, as well as compelling, firsthand documents of their remarkable ventures. In images ranging from casually rendered drawings of mining-camp scenes to large oil paintings of sweeping mountain vistas, panoramic cityscapes and formal portraits commissioned by wealthy patrons, artists such as William Smith Jewett, Charles Christian Nahl, A.D.O. Browere and others created a visual narrative of Gold Rush events.

Like other American art of this period, images of the Gold Rush were created almost exclusively by men of European descent who brought their perceptions and the technical conventions in which they were trained (generally in the American East of Western Europe) to their representation of these new subjects. Only a small percentage of the paintings, watercolors and drawings created during this remarkable time survive today. Fires that swept through early Sacramento and San Francisco (including the devastating blaze following the 1906 earthquake) destroyed many artworks; others were lost to various natural calamities or to carelessness. Gold Rush paintings are therefore rare and prized examples of a little known part of America’s artistic heritage that contributes significantly to our understanding both of American culture and its interpreters during the third quarter of the nineteenth century.

The art documents the rapidly changing events that had an ongoing impact on California. Even in the initial months of gold mining, conditions and technologies changed dramatically. We can date drawings and paintings with some certainty from depictions of mining tools or types of operations. Artists arrived in successive waves and made their way to the mines by various routes. When passage across Panama via the Chagres River gained popularity over the trip around the Horn, for instance, artists’ depictions of Panama’s verdant tropical landscape, developed from sketches, became abundant. Contrary to the perception that portraiture dominated early Gold Rush art, scenes of developing cities and mining sites, romantic landscapes and a growing taste for genre painting – depictions of everyday life – also figured prominently.

Much of the art created during that first decade following the historic discovery of gold in 1848 has itself become historically important as the beginnings of the visual arts tradition in California. Because the gold that served as impetus for their quest remained elusive for most of the artists, they soon reverted to the profession for which they trained. Many painters intended to reap their rewards quickly and return home, but the artists who chose to stay in the Golden State found fertile ground for future artistic exploration. The rapid influx of a prosperous, cosmopolitan population to such towns as Sacramento and San Francisco created new markets for art. The cultural scene that sprang up seemingly overnight laid the groundwork for the flourishing of Northern California’s arts community in the early 1870s.

By the 1870s and 1880s, when the dramatic events of the California Gold Rush began to take on mythic dimensions in the memories of many Forty-niners, the genre painters joined the novelists, playwrights, poets and songwriters of the day in their romantic re-creations of the days of gold. Nostalgic scenes of early San Francisco were commissioned to paint a fixed memory of the city as first seen by the Argonauts. Sentimental and moralistic genre scenes sometimes based upon narratives taken from literary sources, added a new layer of allegorical meaning to paintings that replaced a documentary quality evident in the early works.

During the 1880s local artists complained of a shift in artistic taste among San Francisco’s wealthy patrons toward a preference for European art. By this time the San Francisco Art Association’s School of Design, opened in 1874, was training the first generation of California-born artists. Typically, they would continue their art studies in Europe for a few years before returning to establish their own distinctive artistic legacy that by then, forty years later, owed little to the influence of the California Gold Rush beyond a healthy respect for the pioneer spirit.


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