Rushing for Gold: The Shiny Siren and the American Dream

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Inspired by the real-life Gold Rush of the late 1840s, Lerner and Loewe’s Paint Your Wagon explores the lives of prospectors who traveled thousands of miles and spent hundreds of dollars attempting to strike it rich. The would-be miners came from all over the world and all walks of life. The stories of gold lying on the ground just waiting to be picked up were irresistible, though of course not at all a reflection of what most prospectors actually experienced. Still the lure of instant wealth was enough to bring thousands of people to the new state of California, though very few found the wealth they thought they would and many returned home penniless and disillusioned.

The appeal of gold itself has been well documented through the ages. The ancient Greeks, the Egyptians and the Mayans are all examples of the cultures that used gold for money, for jewelry, for decoration and even for medicine. As metals go, the properties of gold are unique. It is stable and non-toxic, making it safe to handle and long-lasting, both ideal qualities for making coins. With its relatively low boiling point, it’s malleable, so it can be cast into an endless number of highly portable shapes. It’s rare, which increases its appeal. And then there is the color and sheen – undeniably alluring whether in the form of a stunning necklace or a stack of gold bricks.

But there is more to “gold fever” than just the appeal of the metal itself. “Gold fever” meant something very new for the American pioneers who headed to California. Thousands of immigrants had already make the trip to America looking for opportunities to remake their lives. The driving ethos behind that migration was that in America — thanks to freedom from religious, government and social oppression — hard work would be rewarded. But the California Gold Rush introduced a new concept to the American mythos – the idea of getting rich quick.

1516_Rushing for GoldAs H.W. Brands puts it in his book, The Age of Gold: The California Gold Rush and the New American Dream:

The old American Dream was the dream of the Puritans… of men and women content to accumulate their modest fortunes a little at a time, year by year by year. The new dream was of instant wealth, won in a twinkling by audacity and good luck. This golden dream… became a prominent part of the American psyche only after Sutter’s Mill.

The idea that wealth was simply there for the taking was an astonishing and powerful draw. The allure of instant wealth was helped along by what we now call “spin.” Newspaper stories of the day sold the idea with headlines like “Extraordinary inducements” and “Gold region inexhaustible!” Of course, as the saying goes, “If it sounds to good to be true, it probably is.” The reality the ‘49ers experienced was very different from the reports in the press. The journey West was long, the work was hard, the conditions were challenging and the “surface gold” (gold that could be easily panned or gathered off the ground) was cleaned out in the space of only two years after the Sutter’s Mill discovery.

The mining towns that initially sprang up around the gold fields were little more than tent cities with rough living conditions and frequent violence. Some of these settlements grew into true towns as enterprising merchants saw ways to make money by supplying the miners with whatever they wanted and needed – from groceries and clothing to liquor, gambling, and prostitutes. But when the gold ran out, so did the miners, and the small mining towns collapsed. Only larger cities like San Francisco (and later Seattle) were able to turn gold fever into sustainable infrastructure and lasting growth.

There were other contradictions to the fairy tale of instant wealth for every man. The idea that gold was there for the taking by anyone ambitious and ingenious enough to make the trek ran smack into the deep-seated prejudices of the day. The European and particularly the Asian immigrants and the Free Blacks who attempted to participate in the gold rush were met with hostility and violence. And the native people who had occupied the land prior to the discovery of gold were extricated in whatever way was most expedient, their lands stolen and their lives irreparably damaged.

Still the pull of the shiny metal was undeniable. In fact, the rush was on again when gold was discovered in 1896 on the Klondike River in northwest Canada near the Alaskan border. The stampede to the Yukon was on, and again thousands migrated in hopes of hitting a big strike, even though conditions were even more brutal than the trek to California had been. Seattle in particular benefited from this new rush to riches. Thanks to the Klondike discovery, Seattle transformed itself from a lumber town to the “Gateway to the Gold Fields,” attracting nearly 40,000 stampeders who outfitted themselves with provisions in Seattle before heading north. The city prospered even if most of the prospectors didn’t.

The appeal of the big windfall and instant reward continues to be a central theme in American culture. One only has to look at the boom-bust period of the early dotcoms to recognize a modern version of “gold fever” at work. It’s hard to see the risk when the golden promise is shining in your eyes.

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