Category Archives: Gold Rush

How gold rushes helped make the modern world



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JCF Johnson’s, Euchre in the bush, circa 1867, depicts a card game in a hut on the Victorian goldfields in the 1860s.
Oil on canvas mounted on board, 42.0 x 60.2 cm.
Courtesy of the Art Gallery of Ballarat

Benjamin Wilson Mountford, La Trobe University and Stephen Tuffnell, University of Oxford

This year is the 170th anniversary of one of the most significant events in world history: the discovery of gold at Sutter’s Mill in Coloma, California. On January 24, 1848, while inspecting a mill race for his employer John Sutter, James Marshall glimpsed something glimmering in the cold winter water. “Boys,” he announced, brandishing a nugget to his fellow workers, “I believe I have found a gold mine!”

Marshall had pulled the starting trigger on a global rush that set the world in motion. The impact was sudden – and dramatic. In 1848 California’s non-Indian population was around 14,000; it soared to almost 100,000 by the end of 1849, and to 300,000 by the end of 1853. Some of these people now stare back at us enigmatically through daguerreotypes and tintypes. From Mexico and the Hawaiian Islands; from South and Central America; from Australia and New Zealand; from Southeastern China; from Western and Eastern Europe, arrivals made their way to the golden state.

Looking back later, Mark Twain famously described those who rushed for gold as

a driving, vigorous restless population … an assemblage of two hundred thousand young men – not simpering, dainty, kid-gloved weaklings, but stalwart, muscular, dauntless young braves…

“The only population of the kind that the world has ever seen gathered together”, Twain reflected, it was “not likely that the world will ever see its like again”.

Arriving at Ballarat in 1895, Twain saw first-hand the incredible economic, political, and social legacies of the Australian gold rushes, which had begun in 1851 and triggered a second global scramble in pursuit of the precious yellow mineral.




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“The smaller discoveries made in the colony of New South Wales three months before,” he observed, “had already started emigrants towards Australia; they had been coming as a stream.” But with the discovery of Victoria’s fabulous gold reserves, which were literally Californian in scale, “they came as a flood”.

Between Sutter’s Mill in January 1848, and the Klondyke (in remote Northwestern Canada) in the late 1890s, the 19th century was regularly subject to such flooding. Across Australasia, Russia, North America, and Southern Africa, 19th century gold discoveries triggered great tidal waves of human, material, and financial movement. New goldfields were inundated by fresh arrivals from around the globe: miners and merchants, bankers and builders, engineers and entrepreneurs, farmers and fossickers, priests and prostitutes, saints and sinners.

A nugget believed to be the first piece of gold discovered in 1848 at Sutter’s Mill in California.
Smithsonian National Museum of American History

As the force of the initial wave began to recede, many drifted back to more settled lives in the lands from which they hailed. Others found themselves marooned, and so put down roots in the golden states. Others still, having managed to ride the momentum of the gold wave further inland, toiled on new mineral fields, new farm and pastoral lands, and built settlements, towns and cities. Others again, little attracted to the idea of settling, caught the backwash out across the ocean – and simply kept rushing.

From 1851, for instance, as the golden tide swept towards NSW and Victoria, some 10,000 fortune seekers left North America and bobbed around in the wash to be deposited in Britain’s Antipodean colonies alongside fellow diggers from all over the world.

Gold and global history

The discovery of the precious metal at Sutter’s Mill in January 1848 was a turning point in global history. The rush for gold redirected the technologies of communication and transportation and accelerated and expanded the reach of the American and British Empires.

Telegraph wires, steamships, and railroads followed in their wake; minor ports became major international metropolises for goods and migrants (such as Melbourne and San Francisco) and interior towns and camps became instant cities (think Johannesburg, Denver and Boise). This development was accompanied by accelerated mobility – of goods, people, credit – and anxieties over the erosion of middle class mores around respectability and domesticity.




Read more:
All that glitters: why our obsession with putting gold on food is nothing new


But gold’s new global connections also brought new forms of destruction and exclusion. The human, economic, and cultural waves that swept through the gold regions could be profoundly destructive to Indigenous and other settled communities, and to the natural environment upon which their material, cultural, and social lives depended. Many of the world’s environments are gold rush landscapes, violently transformed by excavation, piles of tailings, and the reconfiguration of rivers.

The Earth, at the End of The Diggings.
Courtesy, Ballaarat Mechanics’ Institute.

As early as 1849, Punch magazine depicted the spectacle of the earth being hollowed out by gold mining. In the “jaundice regions of California”, the great London journal satirised: “The crust of the earth is already nearly gone … those who wish to pick up the crumbs must proceed at once to California.” As a result, the world appeared to be tipping off its axis.

In the US and beyond, scholars, museum curators, and many family historians have shown us that despite the overwhelmingly male populations of the gold regions, we cannot understand their history as simply “pale and male”. Chinese miners alone constituted more than 25% of the world’s goldseekers, and they now jostle with white miners alongside women, Indigenous and other minority communities in our understanding of the rushes – just as they did on the diggings themselves.

Rushes in the present

The gold rushes are not mere historic footnotes – they continue to influence the world in which we live today. Short-term profits have yielded long-term loss. Gold rush pollution has been just as enduring as the gold rushes’ cultural legacy. Historic pollution has had long-range impacts that environmental agencies and businesses alike continue to grapple with.




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At the abandoned Berkley pit mine in Butte, Montana, the water is so saturated with heavy metals that copper can be extracted directly from it. Illegal mining in the Amazon is adding to the pressures on delicate ecosystems and fragile communities struggling to adapt to climate change.

The phenomenon of rushing is hardly alien to the modern world either – shale gas fracking is an industry of rushes. In the US, the industry has transformed Williston, North Dakota, a city of high rents, ad hoc urban development, and an overwhelmingly young male population – quintessential features of the gold rush city.




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Why increasing shale gas production won’t reduce greenhouse gas emissions


In September last year, the Wall Street Journal reported that a new gold rush was under way in Texas: for sand, the vital ingredient in the compound of chemicals and water that is blasted underground to open energy-bearing rock. A rush of community action against fracking’s contamination of groundwater has followed.

The world of the gold rushes, then, is not a distant era of interest only to historians. For better or worse, the rushes are a foundation of many of the patterns of economic, industrial, and environmental change central to our modern-day world of movement.

The ConversationBenjamin Mountford and Stephen Tuffnell’s forthcoming edited collection A Global History of Gold Rushes will be published by University of California Press in October 2018. A sample of their work can also be found in the forthcoming volume Pay Dirt! New Discoveries on the Victorian Goldfields (Ballarat Heritage Services, 2018).

Benjamin Wilson Mountford, David Myers Research Fellow in History, La Trobe University and Stephen Tuffnell, Associate Professor of Modern US History, University of Oxford

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

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Gold Rush Victoria was as wasteful as we are today



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Gold Rush garbage.
S.Hayes. Artefact is part of Heritage Victoria’s collection.

Sarah Hayes, La Trobe University

Australians are some of the biggest producers of waste in the world. Our wasteful ways and “throw away” culture are firmly entrenched. We have a hard time curbing our habits.

To understand why, we might turn our attention to the great social and economic transformation that occurred after the discovery of gold (by Europeans) in Victoria in 1851. Archaeological excavations across Melbourne have uncovered masses of rubbish dating back to the Gold Rush era of the 1850s and 1860s.

Artefacts recovered from sites within Melbourne show that the city’s Gold Rush era occupants were incredibly wasteful. You might think that 150 years ago, Victorians would have been thrifty and mended their belongings or sold them on secondhand. But the evidence suggests otherwise.

Working-class people living in Melbourne’s CBD were throwing out so much stuff that the weekly rubbish collections couldn’t manage all their trash. Residents were stockpiling rubbish under floorboards, in hidden corners of the backyard or digging holes specifically for it.

Cesspits (old-fashioned long drop toilets) were closed across the city in the early 1870s, leaving large empty holes in the ground. Residents took the opportunity to fill them with their surplus rubbish. Many of these rubbish dumps remain under current city buildings and have been found and recorded in cultural heritage management excavations.

Excavation of a cesspit in Little Lonsdale Street.
Green Heritage Compliance and Research

There were also larger rubbish dumps. At Viewbank homestead, on the outskirts of Melbourne, the tip was so big that archaeologists ran out of time to excavate it. Excavations at the Carlton Gardens have also uncovered a substantial amount of household rubbish dumped in the area by opportunistic city residents and night cart men.

Analysing the contents of all these rubbish dumps, it’s clear that people were discarding dinner sets and replacing them with more fashionable designs, buying and chucking out junk jewellery, and throwing out glass bottles in vast numbers in spite of industrial-scale local recycling operations. Sound familiar? They were even using “disposable” clay pipes, a Gold Rush era equivalent of our disposable coffee cups.

This plate was part of a large set discarded in the tip at Viewbank Homestead, likely because it was no longer in fashion.
S.Hayes. Artefact is part of Heritage Victoria’s collection.

Another surprising find was a rubbish pit dug in the backyard of a draper shop and filled with piles of seemingly perfectly good clothes and shoes. Perhaps they had gone out of fashion? Excess, it seems, is in Melbourne’s bones.

You are what you own

The discovery of gold brought a massive increase in population, new wealth, unprecedented access to a global network of consumer goods and great opportunities for social mobility. No one could be sure of your social background in the chaos of this rapid change. The old working, middle and upper class hierarchy became less relevant and it was possible to move up the social ladder.

How, then, did people communicate their status? Through stuff. Cultural capital refers to how people play the “culture game”: their accent, their clothes, their possessions, their manners, their interests. The argument goes that status is determined by the expression of cultural values and particular behaviours rather than wealth alone.

Dress Circle boxes Queens Theatre. Lucky Diggers in Melbourne 1853.
S.T.Gill. State Library of Victoria.

Everyday choices of consumer goods became powerful in carving out a new position and a better life in the new city. Your home, your furniture, your tableware, your drinking glasses, your clothes, all became vital markers of your place in society. You were no longer constrained by your situation of birth.

Melbourne society was reinvented and a new, much larger and more diverse middle class emerged. One that had a new system for determining status based largely on what they bought.

Why do we buy and why can’t we stop?

As a globalised world grapples with the problem of fast fashion, fast consumerism and a throw away culture, with massive landfills and climate change, the question of why we consume is more important than ever.

You might want to consume and waste less. But old habits die hard and it’s important to understand why we consume before we are able to make significant changes to our wasteful habits.

Social mobility might not have the currency that it did in the gold rush era, but we are still purchasing to communicate something. What we buy announces our position in the world and our values. Our possessions place us within one group and distance us from another just as they did in the Gold Rush era.

The ConversationAs the slow movement, anti-consumerism and concerns over sustainability gather pace, a new brand of cultural capital may emerge. A cheap polyester jumper and a disposable coffee cup may become a sign of inappropriate excess. A minimal wardrobe of ethically produced clothes and a reusable coffee cup could become the ultimate marker of status.

Sarah Hayes, Research Fellow in Archaeology and History, La Trobe University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.


Article & Photos: Australia’s Gold Rush Past


The link below is to an article with photos from 1872 that show an Australia in the midst of a gold rush.

For more visit:
http://www.heraldsun.com.au/news/google-street-view-1872-unveiled/story-e6frf7jo-1226583645452


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