Many historians have researched and written about the California Gold Rush, but Malcolm J. Rohrbough found fresh diggings for his new book, Rush to Gold: The French and the California Gold Rush, 1848–1854 (Yale University Press). Rohrbough, a professor emeritus of history at the University of Iowa who specializes in the American West, is no stranger to the subject, having written Days of Gold: The California Gold Rush and the American Nation (1997). And, yes, he does speak French. Rohrbough spoke with Wild West about French aspects of the gold rush from his home in Scituate, Massachusetts.
What drew you to write about the California Gold Rush?
I spent a year on leave at the Huntington Library, which has wonderful collections of Gold Rush materials. I gravitated to the collections and from there to Days of Gold.
And the French connections?
To my surprise the French were among the largest groups of non-English-speaking foreign miners. I say “surprise” because the French (unlike the Germans) did not emigrate to America in numbers in the 19th century. And unlike the Spanish-speaking Mexican peoples who came north, the French had a long voyage of six months around Cape Horn. So the trip for the French involved a big commitment and considerable expense.
What were the hardest aspects about researching French participation in the Gold Rush?
First, the language. The sources, where available, are in French, and you must be able to read them easily. Fortunately, I could do so. Second, the sources. The French tradition of collecting sources and making them available is much different than in the United States. Here we have great depositories of letters, diaries, memoirs, etc., in the form of state historical societies (e.g., Wisconsin, Massachusetts), university libraries (e.g., the Beinecke at Yale and the Bancroft at UC-Berkeley) and endowed research libraries (e.g., the Huntington in California and the Newbury in Chicago). Neither such collections nor such depositories exist in France. The French have a wonderful system of national libraries, but their holdings are largely official, what we would call government documents. There is no tradition in France of giving family papers to libraries. So the researcher has to piece together materials from a variety of other sources. My main sources were newspapers and magazines. Sometimes newspapers published letters from French Forty-Niners (to use the American term) offered to the editor by families in the towns. I was always delighted to find them.
Did events in France spur interest in the Gold Rush?
In February 1848 an uprising in the streets of Paris overthrew the monarchy and ushered in the Second French Republic. For the next four years the French struggled to come to terms with the enormous changes—political, economic and social—in French life. These upheavals in France exactly paralleled the discovery of gold, the spread of the news and the responses from around the world. So at a time of economic uncertainty, the opportunities associated with Gold Rush California seemed to offer a golden chance for French men and women at all levels of society. That some 30,000 French people responded showed the high level of attraction.
That attraction extended globally, yes?
From the beginning of the spread of the news, the Gold Rush was a national and then a world event. In 1848 came the first arrivals from Oregon, the Hawaiian Islands, Chile, Peru and, especially, Mexico. In 1849 the first large-scale emigration from the East Coast of North America (including Canada), Western Europe (England, Ireland, France, Germany). And in 1850 and 1851 Australia, New Zealand and, finally, China. These waves transformed San Francisco into the most cosmopolitan city in the world and the gold camps into communities united by origin and language.
There was initial skepticism?
Yes, deep skepticism as an event that was beyond reason and also too American. The French doubted the reports of American newspapers, which they found filled with “puff” (the favorite French word to describe American journalism). Others thought the rumors of gold a plot, hatched by the American government to people the vast empty spaces of the new continental empire, formally created by the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo. What persuaded them? President James K. Polk’s address to Congress of December 6, 1848, in which he confirmed the gold discoveries. The French believed the president and the unnamed officials in a way they did not believe newspaper editor.
And there was a lottery in France?
In order to deal with various domestic issues (economic hardship, political prisoners, dissipated fortunes of the upper classes), the French government sponsored a national lottery. With the title Lottery of the Golden Ingots, the government sought to capitalize on the enormous publicity generated by the California Gold Rush. The first prize (of 224) was a golden ingot worth 400,000 francs. The government sought to sell 7 million tickets for 1 franc each, placing the ticket within reach of even the poorest families. The estimated 2 million franc profit would be used to transport 5,000 deserving French citizens free to California on a one-way ticket. The lottery transfixed the French nation for six months, until, after many postponements, the drawing was held in November 1851. The government then transported some 4,000 French citizens. Some of these were political prisoners, others were poor and destitute who petitioned for passage. A third group were representatives of the bourgeoisie and lesser nobility. Eventually, 17 ships carried the lingotiers (as they were known) to a new life in California.
What kind of work did the French find in California?
They mined in the camps, with about the same rate of success as other groups. But they found economic opportunities in the city and towns of Gold Rush California. In San Francisco the French became associated with three important dimensions of urban life: food, especially restaurants and cafes; the theater, which the French came to dominate; and prostitution, where the French were described as the head of the profession.
Did most of the lingotiers remain in California or return to France?
They returned, most of them in 1851 and 1852. The reason, one French observer wrote: “The Frenchman ever regards himself as a traveler and not a sojourner; whatever be the position he may achieve, his eyes are incessantly fixed on France, the only country, in his eyes, where men can live and die happily.”
What’s your next project?
A study of Nantucket Island and the California Gold Rush.