The Gold Rushes of North America (1847-1900)

A Descriptive Bibliography

Modern Authorities. Donald Dale Jackson's carefully researched, subtly textured Gold Dust brings to life the men and women who made the earliest gold rush journeys. Kevin Starr's Americans and the California Dream 1850-1915 discusses masterfully how California, thrust into statehood after the Gold Rush of 1849, "would never lose a symbolic connection with an intensified pursuit of human happiness." Clyde A. Milner II traces the foundations of a culturally balanced western historiography in the anthology of essays he co-edited, Trails. Douglas Fetherling brings a global perspective to bear upon the waves of international mass migration in The Gold Crusades: A Social History of Gold Rushes.

Eyewitnesses. Contemporaneous accounts begin with Richard Henry Dana's classic depiction of California on the edge of the gold rush period in Two Years Before the Mast. Notable accounts of the gold fields predating the Forty-niners' arrival include the narratives of Walter Colton and James Carson, and those collected in Walker D. Wyman's California Emigrant Letters.

Primary sources that offer the unique individual perspectives of contemporaries include: Daniel B. Woods' Sixteen Months at the Gold Diggings, Bayard Taylor's classic Eldorado, the journals and drawings of J. Goldsborough Bruff, the letters of Louise Clappe and Mary Jane Megquier, and such biographies as James Peter Zollinger's Sutter, the Man and His Empire and Theresa Gay's life of California's first gold-finder, James W. Marshall. Rufus Porter, founder of the "Scientific American," and John Woodhouse Audubon, a naturalist like his father, left vivid accounts of the dreams and misadventures that made up their gold rush careers. Diaries in recent scholarly editions include: R. Hazard Wells' Magnificence and Misery: A Firsthand Account of the 1897 Klondike Gold Rush, and Across Canada to the Klondyke... 1900 by "Colonel Streamer," actually Harry Graham, a government official (and music composer).

The Gold Rushes in Popular Culture. The Anglo-American popular culture of the period is portrayed in Meade Minnigerode, The Fabulous Forties. 1840-1850, Carl Bode, American Popular Culture, 1840-1861, and R. A. Dwyer and R. E. Lingenfelter, Songs of the Gold Rush. Popular stereotypes of the gold rushes are found in the characters created by Bret Harte, Jack London and Robert Service; humor was the specialty of Alonzo Delano, G. H. Derby and Prentice Mulford; and Sutter was depicted as a tragic figure by the French poet Blaise Cendrars in his story Gold (first translated in 1982). As an unsuccessful prospector, Mark Twain wrote pseudonymous humor columns as well as travel narratives in Travels with Mister Brown and Following the Equator. Emerson and Thoreau delivered representative impressions of the California craze, from distant Concord.

Modern Historians of the West. Patricia Limerick redefines some fundamental terms of Western history in The Legacy of Conquest. The Native American experience during the gold rushes is presented by scholars including James J. Rawls and Albert L. Hurtado. The latter's Indian Survival on the California Frontier provides an especially notable regional and cultural study. Mexican and Chilean miners have been studied by scholars including Dale L. Morgan, James R. Scobie, Carl Meyer, Abraham P. Nasatir, and Leonard Pitt. The American West's Asian immigrants emerge in their own right in recent scholarship by Sucheng Chan (This Bittersweet Soil and Asians in California History) and Tricia Knoll (Becoming Americans), as well as in earlier articles by David Lindsey, Stephen Williams, and Doris Wright.

Women and the Gold Rushes. The roles, lives, and eyewitness accounts of women are the subjects of Lillian Schlissel's selection Women's Diaries of the Westward Journey, J. M. Faragher's Women and Men on the Overland Trail and JoAnn Levy's They Saw the Elephant. Women in the Comstock silver and gold rush are specifically treated in Marion S. Goldman's Gold Diggers and Silver Miners.

Social Histories. Daniel J. Boorstin's The Americans: The National Experience is an important study of the sense of community in the early mining camps, and later vigilantism, as well as a good discussion of the gold seekers as social transients. Recent social historians include David Dary (Entrepreneurs of the Old West) and Roger D. McGrath (Gunfighters, Highwaymen and Vigilantes, a careful scholarly analysis of violence and social order in communities in California and Nevada). Works of regional focus include Grant H. Smith's detailed History of the Comstock Lode and Pierre Berton's Klondike: The Last Great Gold Rush 1896-1899. The voyage of the SS "California" is told in histories by Victor Berthold, John Haskell, and J. E. Pomfret.

Other Aspects. The Civil War in the American West by the former editor of "American Heritage," Alvin M. Josephy, clarifies social and economic connections between the gold rushes and the Civil War as well as providing general historical context. Economic and technical background can be sought in Pierre Vilar's History of Gold and Money. Charles Mackay's early socioeconomic study Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds slightly predates the California strikes, which came to exemplify the type of mass behavior the Scottish historian sought to analyze.

Visual Material. Our Gold Rush web pages don't have pictures because of possible copyright conflicts, but there are plenty of illustrations of the major gold rushes.

Pictures of the Klondike. The gold rush most widely memorialized in pictures was that of the Klondike. The portrayals of E. A. Hegg are available in Ethel A. Becker's Klondike '98: "Hegg¹'s Album of the 1898 Alaska Gold Rush." A striking selection of photos by many individuals is Pierre Berton's The Klondike Quest: A Photographic Essay. Norm Bolotin has reconstructed the entire life cycle of Grand Forks, one of the largest boom towns in western Canada, with his publication of a decade of photography by Kinsey & Kinsey, including their portraits of the resourceful Belinda Mulroney, who built the town.

Pictures of the Comstock. The Comstock Lode and its population were also photographed extensively by such craftsmen as Timothy O¹Sullivan (who trained under Mathew Brady), Charles Waldack, and one of the West's most widely known landscape photographers, Carleton Watkins.

Pictures of the Forty-niners. Photographs exist even for the 1849 gold rush from bold individual portraits to candid studies in the field. Some of the era's studio-crafted photos and daguerreotypes typically conjured up the "California dream" by means of painted scenic backdrops and egregious props like nuggets the size of rocks.

Painters of the Gold Rushes. Complementing the period's camerawork, there is also a wealth of imaginative art in every period of the gold rushes, beginning perhaps with the popular artist William Mcllvaine, a Forty-niner who painted the diggings and published sixteen lithographs as early as 1850. The art reflects both the optimistic romanticism and the reality of the period. William Sidney Mount's picture of a back-East post office crowd reading "California news" includes an African-American patron, while Rufus Wright's "Card Players" shows three Anglos losing to a Chinese poker player. The colorful, sprawling paintings of Charles Christian Nahl, together with his satirical drawings, depict entire worlds of work and pleasure at the camps.

Freight companies, stagecoach stations, and subtle landscapes were painted by artists including a number of German émigrés like Carl William Hahn and Eugene Camerer. Many paintings and photographs of early San Francisco are available: Frank Marryat's colorful panoramas of the city's street life reveal a multicultural community in which Mexicans, Anglos and wide-hatted Asians jostle shoulder to shoulder. Pioneer photographer Eadweard Muybridge and the country's most popular painter of Western scenes, Albert Bierstadt, depicted the region's Native Americans in their landscapes.

Revisit the Major Gold Rushes:
Back to Part I and Student Permission
Back to Part II. California
Back to Part III. The Comstock
Back to Part IV. The Klondike

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Updated Jan 1 2009
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