California’s Defining Moment | Oakland Museum of California: Gold Rush

By Donna Tennant

Exactly 150 years after James Marshall discovered gold at Sutter’s Mill in Northern California, the Oakland Museum of California launches its contribution to a statewide, three-year-long commemoration of the Gold Rush. GOLD RUSH! California’s Untold Stories, which opens on January 24, encompasses three related exhibitions, a major symposium, and an ongoing lecture series.

With the discovery of gold (in present-day Coloma, 36 miles northeast of Sacramento) came an influx of ethnically diverse fortune-seekers, including hundreds of experienced Mexican and Chilean miners who taught Yankees everything from how to identify sites where gold was likely to be concentrated to how to wash the glittering dust from their gold pans.

Charles C. Nahl and August Wenderoth, Miners in the Sierra [c.1851], oil, 541⁄4 x 67., Southwest Art
Charles C. Nahl and August Wenderoth, Miners in the Sierra [c.1851], oil, 541⁄4 x 67.

By 1949, 100,000 forty-niners had arrived, including 8,000 Mexicans, 5,000 South Americans, and several thousand Europeans. By 1852 the population had swelled to 250,000 people. Violence, nationalistic squabbles, and lynchings proliferated as the idyllic landscape was overrun by quarreling interlopers.

Huge social and ethnographic shifts took place as entire native cultures were displaced by the newcomers. Prior to the discovery of gold, the ranchero society of California was arranged largely along racial lines. Indigenous Indians did most of the hard labor, overseen by mestizo settlers known as Californios who owned or managed the large ranchos. “The forty-niners treated the country as unowned, unexplored wilderness, free for the taking,” writes historian Beth Bagwell. Many Californios lost their land forever.

Gold Fever!, the largest of the Oakland Museum’s three exhibitions, immerses visitors in the sights and sounds of the Gold Rush era. As a result of new scholarly research, the exhibition reveals previously untold stories, debunks romantic myths, and examines the staggering effect of mining on California’s natural resources and the birth of the environmental conservation movement that followed. On display are more than 1,000 artifacts including gold nuggets and ingots, an array of 1850s goods, newspaper accounts, and even tableaux of miners’ lives.

Art of the Gold Rush, the art component of the project, is a selection of some 70 paintings and drawings from 1848 to the mid-1880s. Gold fever drew professional and amateur artists from around the world, many of whom came to prospect and later turned to painting.

Isaac Wallace Baker, Chinese Man [c1951], daguerreotype, 33⁄4 x 31⁄4., Southwest Art
Isaac Wallace Baker, Chinese Man [c1951], daguerreotype, 33⁄4 x 31⁄4.

There are paintings of San Francisco, portraits of California residents and prospectors, and depictions of life in the mining camps. Artists such as Charles Christian Nahl supported themselves by making lithographs and illustrations for newspapers and magazines. Paintings by A.D.O. Browere often reflect the loneliness of the miners. Other artists showcased in the exhibition include John Prendergast, August Wenderoth, William Smith Jewett, Isaac Wallace Baker, John Woodhouse Audubon, and Thomas A. Ayres. Works of art have been drawn primarily from the Oakland Museum, the Crocker Art Museum in Sacramento (which helped organize the show), the University of California at Berkeley, and the California Historical Society.

The project also has a photographic component, as the Gold Rush was one of the first events to be fully documented by photography—the medium was barely 10 years old at the time. Silver and Gold: Cased Images of the California Gold Rush is comprised of 150 daguerreotypes and ambrotypes of the Gold Rush populace. These photographs—called “cased images” because they were set in ornate cases of leather, velvet, and brass—include images of the miners with their sunburned faces, makeshift clothes, and rough houses. There are also shots of the busy port of San Francisco and its prominent citizens. Works by Frederick Coombs, W.H. Rulofson, Seth Louis Shaw, William Shew, Isaac Wallace Baker, and Robert H. Vance are included.

People have always traveled to California is search of wealth and opportunity, but for most of the forty-niners the state ultimately offered little more than hardship, disappointment, and loneliness. The real fortunes were eventually made in commerce as San Francisco quickly developed into a prominent industrial port city. Today the area still has one of the most ethnically diverse populations in the country, a distinction it owes in part to the forty-niners.

“The Gold Rush lured the world to California in a frenzy,” says project director Thomas Frye. “What happened to California and to the people who were thrown together here by this accident of fate is a remarkable story.”

Featured in “In the Museums” January 1998