In the language of economists, it served as a multiplier—an event that accelerated a chain of interrelated consequences, all of which accelerated economic growth. He also emphasizes the worldwide ramifications of the Gold Rush, tracing its impact on the peoples and economies of Latin America, Europe, the Pacific, and Asia. Nash's conclusion is far-sweeping: "In many ways, the California Gold Rush precipitated a veritable economic revolution in the state, the nation, and the world.
Production of precious metals affected price levels, labor, wages, capital investment, the expansion of business, finance, agriculture, service industries, and transportation. Nash also reminds us of the psychological and philosophical dimensions of the Gold Rush, for surely this epoch-making event "touched a deep-seated nerve in the human psyche.
As any American with a newly purchased computer can attest, rapid technological change is both inevitable and unpredictable in modern, urban-industrial societies. Patterns of rapid change seem inherently modernist and international at first glance, a twentieth-century by-product of economic competition, social upheavals, and the clash of arms around the globe.
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They also appear to be confined to the most economically advanced nations or regions, those having long passed the frontier or formative stage of development. This brief study of the Gold Rush provides a broader historical view of technological change. It looks at changing patterns of technology in one region on the fringes of Euro-American industrial civilization, initially isolated but rapidly internationalized and altered in ways neither predictable nor invariably progressive.
What it finds are similar forces at work, and similar consequences, whether in postmodernist California, years beyond its Argonaut heritage, or in frontier California during the s and s.
The legacy of the Gold Rush lives still in cities and industries that benefited from mining technology, and in the attitudes, lifestyles, and material culture of modern Californians. While historians traditionally have emphasized the cultural roots of technological change, recent trends in historiography indicate how profoundly the "new" history has been influenced by related disciplines, especially the fields of historical archaeology and geography.
Since the s, historians of the American frontier are inclined to view technological change and innovation as a product not only of cultural eclecticism and pragmatic adaptation, but also of the regions material environment. Dianne Newell's study of the Canadian frontier in Ontario, for example, found that innovative technology "was typically cast on a small scale, tailored to local sources of fuel, built from cheap materials available locally—notably wood—and.
Recognizing the importance of the physical setting as an influence on technological innovation, however, is not to endorse any theory of environmental determinism, a discredited idea among modern geographers as well as historians. Much closer to the mainstream scholarly view is Peter J. Hugill's cautious assertion that "environmental conditions influenced society's range of choices. The Gold Rush came at an optimal time for American technological development. For the first time in history, the Western world at mid-nineteenth century united science and technology in a revolutionary merger that provided a powerful stimulus for material growth.
These prospects for rapid technological change were not that apparent at mid-century, however. Before the late s, traditional European mining technology and equipment prevailed. That was soon to change. Britain prepared the way in the s by loosening its export barriers, making legal the exportation of machinery Americans had long been in the habit of smuggling into the States.
By licenses from the British could be acquired for "nearly everything except spinning and weaving machinery. By midcentury, California was in position to benefit from British policy changes as well as from its domestic "distresses.
Technology and culture go hand in hand, and California culture at mid-nineteenth century was predominately American, despite the cosmopolitan flavor of the mining camps after the great trek of Foreign immigration was large during the early statehood years, but historians have tended to exaggerate its size and impact. The foreign-born population never was in the majority. It peaked in at 39 percent, having climbed from 24 percent in By the census the foreign-born element had dropped to 37 percent, and it continued to decline thereafter.
With a two-thirds majority and an ethnocentric chip on their shoulders, Americans at midcentury imposed on California the mainstream values of a highly materialistic, expansionist, overly optimistic society. From the streets of Boston, Philadelphia, and New York, and from the farms and river cities of the trans-Appalachian heartlands, they ventured forth with a robust spirit of individualism and self-worth, an aggressive nationalism, a self-righteous defense of their religious and moral beliefs, and an abiding faith in their own political and social institutions.
Unlike the Australian gold rush, which came when Australia was still a colonial province with a pastoral elite in control and with no middle class, the California rush attracted. Americans who were experienced in developing and sustaining local government and social institutions.
Caught up in the heady spirit of Manifest Destiny and Jacksonian egalitarianism, Americans in the late s and early s brought to the Far West an "emotional dynamism" that was both progressive and materialistic. Their material ambitions reflected a common trait found in all Argonauts regardless of race, class, or national origin. Habakkuk's remark about Europeans applies equally well to other gold seekers: those who left for California had a personal desire to improve by "ensuring, through hard work, that they did in fact better themselves. The federal role in California mining was no less important than the power of democratic idealism.
For a half-century prior to the Gold Rush, expansionists and visionaries had postulated a continental empire, a land of small farmers and individual entrepreneurs, aided and abetted by government but left for individual or corporate development without federal intervention or control. This Jacksonian image of democratic capitalism had an important ally in Christian morality and ideology. Historian John F. Kasson found a vital midcentury linkage between religious values and technological progress. When Lyman Beecher, Presbyterian theologian and father of Harriet Beecher Stowe, said Christianity was important "in safeguarding American technology," his message brought a provocative response from the nation's most prominent Unitarian orator, Edward Everett.
He replied that "the converse was true. Technology stood as the great benefactor of the public good, and he who impeded the progress of modern inventions threatened all.
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Even government could not stand in the way of progress by the thousands of "expectant capitalists" who ventured west in search of fortune. Unlike Canadian or Australian mineral rushes, where government made an effort, not always successfully, to regulate the use of public resources, gold seekers in California had a free hand, helping themselves to land, timber, water, and minerals, with government aiding and abetting the privatization at public expense. Before , for instance, mining interests used thousands of acres of timber lands not legally open to settlement except under homestead and preemption laws.
Even those restrictions were ignored by early sawmill owners and miners, who openly cut any timber they wanted on federal lands. The massive scale and diffusion of placer deposits in the Sierra foothills gave California a distinctive advantage in nineteenth-century America's race for riches.
The Gold Rush Of California
No other region in North America offered such golden opportunities for so many ordinary people, people without specialized knowledge or skills. The California Gold Rush was both first and biggest in sheer numbers of people involved. It was also the. American gold seekers carried west a technology based on practical application and experience. Engineering as a profession was still in infancy at mid-nineteenth century; those who called themselves engineers were usually pragmatic, seat-of-the-pants technicians and mechanics with little formal education.
They stood in sharp contrast to engineers from Europe, especially continental Europe, which had an engineering legacy grounded in theoretical science and mathematics. Some Americans agreed. Ross Browne, a Californian and the nation's first commissioner of mining statistics, considered the lack of trained American mining engineers a national disgrace: "Our mines and mills are practically managed by foreign experts; we furnish the labor and mechanical ingenuity, but they furnish the scientific skill.
Both he and Browne called for a national school of engineering, but Congress responded instead with the land-grant college act, leaving the job of training technicians up to the states. Whatever the need, it was practical miners in the gold-rush era who responded to technological challenges by adapting existing machines and methods to local conditions. Before the massive scale of surface placer deposits gave practically anyone a chance to mine without the necessity of elaborate equipment or experience. Only after depleting the high-grade shallow gravels did California mining begin to develop more sophisticated technologies.
The 49ers and the California Gold Rush
But even then the change was more innovative than revolutionary. As Browne said in , "with all the genius and enterprise of the American people, no important discovery in the way of machinery for mining was made which had not been long in use in South America, Mexico, or Europe. Even former scoffers were impressed. Rossiter Raymond's Report noted with pride that European metallurgists were now coming to the United States to learn from Americans, rather than the other way around.
Technological innovation in gold-rush California, however, was not distinctively American. The notion that Yankees were more ingenious than people from other lands is an ethnocentric stereotype born out of the excessive nationalism of the. In truth, adapting common tools and methods to local conditions was standard procedure in frontier communities regardless of ethnic or cultural differences. In Canada, for example, frontier Ontario fashioned new techniques from old "whenever it was practical to do so. In California, those who were actively engaged in seeking gold used whatever tools and methods were at hand, regardless of origin.
To excavate and wash bedrock gravels, the first miners along the American River used ordinary picks and shovels, household butcher knives, tightly woven baskets made by native Americans, and frying pans. By the summer of Georgians, Hispanic Californians, and perhaps transplanted Europeans with placer experience, had introduced sheet-iron pans and wooden bateas bowls , wooden rockers cradles and riffle boxes, and dry-washing and winnowing techniques with blankets and hides.
When mercury "quicksilver" was available and cheap enough for low-budget operators, miners added it to sluice boxes to "amalgamate" finer gold particles, flour gold, or "dust" that tended to wash away. Amalgamation was another ancient process brought to Mexico by Spaniards in the sixteenth century and to California by both Mexican and Georgian miners.
A Golden State
In the Southern Mines, those south of the Mokelumne River, where the influence of Hispanic immigrant miners was stronger, the Spanish batea —a wooden bowl hollowed out of a single block—was at first widely used in the placer diggings, but it soon gave way to the flat-bottomed iron pan preferred by Americans.
A French traveler in watched Sonorans between the American and Cosumnes rivers using this technique to extract six or seven ounces of gold per day from dusty gravels. European and American placer techniques. They were particularly adept with the pan and rocker, continuing to rely on these portable tools long after they were abandoned by others.
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It was used extensively at Mormon's Bar near Coloma and in the ravines and gulches along the American River before the Chinese arrived. By the s, Chinese models were being manufactured in China and exported back to the United States for sale to new arrivals from the Celestial Kingdom. Thus, as Michael Ostrogorsky puts it, "ethnicity became secondary to technology in determining frontier lifeways, rather than the reverse. One ancient device distinctively Asian in design, however, saw widespread application and adaptation in the placer camps.