Five Fires – Race, Catastrophe and the Shaping of California by David Wyatt: Chapter Two, The Gold Rush: Men Without Women

five firesI’m enjoying this book far too much.  Every chapter so far has added several titles to my TBR list.  This could be a problem.  The other day I figured out how long it would take me to read all of the books in my TBR bookcase at the rate of two per week–two and one half years.

Many historians, especially those who focus on California, list the gold rush of 1849 as the second most important event in the formation of America after the Civil War.  It was the wealth, these historians argue, from the gold mines before, during and after the war that made it possible for the nation to finance the fighting and to survive its aftermat without suffering a devastating economic depression.  They make a good case, but that is not what Five Fires is about.

In this chapter David Wyatt looks at the writing California produced during the Gold Rush.  The Gold Rush produced a population explosion that was almost entirely male.  In 1848 some 400 people travelled overland to California, a mix of men, women and children.  The Donner-Reed Party, though they travelled to California the year before were fairly typical in their mix of men women and children.  However, in 1849 some 25,000 people, most of them young men, made the journey overland to California’s gold fields.  Add to this a large number of men who made the journey across the Isthmus of Panama, around Cape Horn, across the ocean from China, up from Mexico and you have a population explosion different from any the United States had ever seen before or sinceas enourmous numbers of men from an unheard of range of nationalities arrivied.  By the end of 1850 some 41,000 people had sailed into San Francisco Bay, but fewer than 800 of them were women.

This had a profound effect on life in California and on the literature it produced, but it’s arguable whether is was more or less profound than the effect racism had.  From the beginning, the “vigilante” groups formed to maintain order in California had a racist component.  For a time there were even competing vigilante groups made up of whites and men of Mexican descent, each ready to take revenge on the other whenever they thought it was needed.  Legally, if you were not white you did not stand much of a chance.  I’ve mentioned the story of Josefa before.  A Mexican woman, living in Downieville, she became the first woman executed in California after stabbing a white man she felt had insulted her.

Contrast this true story with Brete Harte’s fictional short story “The Luck of Roaring Camp.”  Harte, who later claimed he gave Mark Twain his first big break when he hired him to write for a California paper, was the voice of the Gold Rush as far as most of America was concerned.   Though he arrived too late  to work the gold fields, Harte’s stories about them remained widely popular well into the 1870’s.  “The Luck of Roaring Camp” was one of his most famous.

The Luck of Roaring Camp” is about the men who live in one of California’s many Gold Rush boom towns.  One night an un-named woman, a Mexican prostitute, dies in childbirth. The men of the town take the child, a boy whom they name The Luck, and decide to raise him as their own.  What follows is a somewhat satirical story in which the men take on the female roles necessary to raise a baby.  They believe that as long as The Luck lives then luck will run in their favor.  They do a pretty fair job of raising the child, too, until a terrible act of nature destroys everything.

Wyatt ends his analysis of “The Luck or Roaring Camp” as follows:

…Harte’s Gold Rush stories get at a profoundly disturbing truth: that the “sentimental,” a category traditionally associated with women, actually flourishes in their absence. Among writers who took up the subject of the Gold Rush, it was the men who romanticized it; the women, like Farnham and Clappe, saw less its color than its costs.  Like any other frontier, California was born out of a society of men. Whether most of them liked it that way or were lonely for women remains an open question…

Meantime, I have added Louise Clappe’s The Shirley Letters and Eliza Farnham’s California: In-doors and Out both eye-witness accounts by women who arrived in California at the time of the Gold Rush to my every growing reading list.

Darn you, David Wyatt.