Huntington Library, Art Collections and Botanical Gardens

Left: Library Building, Right: Virginia Scott Gallery, 1999, photos by John Hazeltine

San Marino, CA

(626) 405-2141


Land of Golden Dreams: California in the Gold Rush Decade, 1848-1858


"Boys I believe I have found a gold mine!" With these simple words, an obscure New Jersey carpenter and mechanic named James W. Marshall set in motion a global cascade of events that dramatically shaped the social and economic life of California and the American West.

The fevered transformation of Mexican Alta California into "El Dorado" comes to life in a remarkable collection of manuscripts, drawings and rare printed material in Land of Golden Dreams: California in the Gold Rush Decade, 1848-1858, on view at the Huntington Library in the Los Angeles-area suburb of San Marino from September 28, 1999, through September 10, 2000.

Showcased in four sections in the Library's Main Hall, the exhibition is part of California's sesquicentennial celebrations commemorating the discovery of gold at Sutter's Mill along the American River on January 24, 1848, the great rush to California in 1849, and California statehood in 1850.

"This exhibit depicts a saga that unfolded upon a broad stage spanning much of the world and involving a cast of hundreds of thousands," notes Peter J. Blodgett, Curator of Western Historical Manuscripts. Few individuals became household names, but they left behind a rich legacy of firsthand observations in diaries, letters, travel logs, newspaper stories, sermons and sketchbooks, drawn from the holdings of the Huntington Library, which possesses the finest collection in the United States relating to the gold rush. "As eyewitnesses to history, their writings and drawings chronicle the often conflicting aspirations of those caught up in the worldwide frenzy of the Gold Rush era. They were ordinary people in extraordinary times."

Along with the display of documents voicing personal reflections, the exhibit's military reports, political proclamations, labor contracts and business records of the period add to the visitor's understanding of the people and events that propelled California to statehood and sparked an influx of adventurers and capitalists.

The exhibition begins with news of the gold discovery spreading like wildfire across the land. United States Navy chaplain Walter Colton wrote in Three Years in California (1851) that by June 1848, "...The excitement produced was intense... all were off for the mines, some on horses, some on carts, and some on crutches, and one went on a litter. " By late 1848, with the arrival in Washington, D.C. of a tea chest filled with gold samples accompanying a report from Colonel Richard Mason, gold became a national obsession. (left: Daguerreotype of miners at diggings, 1850)

International trading vessels carried stories of riches and glory around the world. Captains' logs and newspapers stretching from British Hong Kong, to Chile and Peru and as far away as Australia, recount the promise of unimaginable wealth.


The Adventure Begins

For the publishing industry, 1848 -1850 were boom years. An explosion of guide books and newspaper accounts promoted the attributes of California. and advised on everything from what to pack for the journey to selecting successful gold finding machinery. With scissors and paste, literary entrepreneurs created brief pamphlets, weaving together passages from books like What l Saw in California (1848) by Edwin Bryant, and the letters of local leaders including Thomas Larkin and John Fremont. (left: Guidebook for English gold seekers headed for California, 1850)

But there were entrepreneurs in other fields, as well. Advertisements of the day show enterprising merchants offering an array of products and services from camp hampers to Spanish lessons and portable houses made of galvanized iron. "Outfitters" sprung up across the country and guides gathered groups to travel by ship and wagon to "El Dorado."

Some would-be miners booked ship passage taking four to five months around Cape Horn. Others opted to cross the Isthmus of Panama, while those not disposed to sea voyages made the trek entirely overland. The journeys are documented in memoirs and maps, in watercolor images of lush jungles and exotic birds in Panama, in diaries reviewing minstrel shows aboard ship, and in newspaper stories telling of courage and undaunted hope in the face of stampeding oxen teams and cholera outbreaks.

Days of '49 on

Diaries and letters home detail both the pleasures and drudgery of life in the mining camps and boomtowns. They speak of unfathomable natural beauty and adventure juxtaposed with debilitating hours of toil and hardship. They offer comparisons between the secure life left behind and the realities of a new world often characterized by loneliness and fear of failure.

A California lettersheet, "California Mining Illustrated," shows early mining techniques, and items on loan from Wells Fargo Bank, including a mining pan, Bowie knife, and pickaxes, are examples of basic mining tools. But mining dramatically changed from an individual endeavor to an increasingly mechanized operation throughout the decade. By 1854 a letter from a John Kinkade to his brother James makes reference to the changes and the plight of the independent miner being squeezed out by a system which converted them to wage laborers in mining companies.


California Transformed

California's unprecedented population boom, (from approximately 15,000 in the summer of 1848 to nearly 225,000 by 1852) impacted all of society. Sleepy villages were transformed overnight and restaurants, hardware, and dry goods stores shared the scene with saloons, gambling halls and brothels. Manuscripts, printed accounts, and engravings from 1849 through the early 1850s show that for some people, growing towns promised commerce and great opportunity. For others, they meant the decay of everything moral and righteous.

Railroad magnate Collis P. Huntington, describing Sacramento to his brother Solon (the father of library founder Henry Huntington), noted that "this place contains about ten thousand inhabitants and of that number there is probably about six hundred females and four-fifths of them are Harlots." Among the city's other attractions were "about forty gambling Houses" which, he observed with a good eye to the bottom line, "pay from one to eight thousand dollars per month rent."

In his book, El Dorado, Bayard Taylor characterizes life in California as a "dizzy vortex." Laws and social mores governing everything from land ownership to personal behavior struggled through a contentious evolution. As magnets for miners from every surrounding claim, towns became a remarkably cosmopolitan mix of men and women. While this had its good points, there was a dark side to the diversity of cultures being thrown together. Articles and letters throughout the decade tell the shameful stories of racial and social prejudice leading to acts of vigilante justice and lawlessness.

In addition to illustrating everyday life, the exhibition traces California's transformation from captured Mexican province to thirty-first state in the American Union, culminating with the Constitutional Convention of 1849 and admission to the United States in September 1850.


The Legacies of "El Dorado"

The impact of the Gold Rush on all aspects of American life -- political, social and economic -- cannot be underestimated. It provided the stimulus for developing faster overland mails and for expanded sea-borne commerce. It helped launch the West's mining bonanzas like the Comstock Lode with the technical know-how developed in the gold fields. It revolutionized communications and reshaped transportation.

Land of Golden Dreams: California in the Gold Rush Decade, 1848-1858 has been made possible through the generous support of Dr. and Mrs. Peter S. Bing, Mr. and Mrs. Charles T. Munger, Wells Fargo, Institute of Museum and Library Services/Library Services and Technology Act, Times Mirror Foundation, Mrs. Helen Smetz, Dorothy Clune Trask Murray Foundation, and The GenCorp Foundation-Aerojet.

Read more about the Huntington Library, Art Collections and Botanical Gardens in Resource Library Magazine.

Search for more articles and essays on American art in Resource Library. See America's Distinguished Artists for biographical information on historic artists.

This page was originally published in 1999 in Resource Library Magazine. Please see Resource Library's Overview section for more information.

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