ROARING CAMP by Susan Lee Johnson


The Social World of the California Gold Rush
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A dutiful, ponderous reconstruction of daily life in the California gold fields. Johnson (History/Univ. of Colorado) argues that the commonly held view of the gold rush leaves out many of its principal actors; derived in large part from the chummy, mud-spattered writings of Bret Harte, that view centers on Anglo-American miners while elbowing thousands of Eastern-European, South-American, African-American, Mexican, and Chinese workers into the background—to say nothing of the Native Americans on whose territory the gold rush took place. Johnson looks beyond Harte’s tales of camaraderie to depict the California gold camps as hotbeds of ethnic and cultural strife, battlegrounds on which Anglo- Americans not only sought their personal fortunes but asserted political dominion over the region, newly conquered from Mexico, a task that made them —anxious about issues of gender, of race and culture, and of class.— Their attempts to impose this control, Johnson suggests, were often misguided. A monthly $20 tax on foreign (that is, non-Anglo) miners, for instance, drove away much-needed cooks, haulers, and common laborers, and it was soon done away with. Johnson turns up useful correctives—for one, that most Chinese workers came to California freely, rather than as indentured laborers—and gives needed attention to the Miwok and other Indian peoples who often fell afoul of the gold seekers, sometimes because of simple cultural misunderstandings. The more interesting threads of her argument, however, are buried in a surfeit of incidental detail, and her narrative too often becomes a mere recitation of undigested facts, betraying its origins as a doctoral dissertation. Published a shade too late to join the flood of books commemorating the 150th anniversary of the gold rush, Johnson’s study makes a useful yet decidedly secondary reference for scholars and students of the period.

Pub Date: Jan. 1st, 2000
ISBN: 0-393-04812-8
Page count: 352pp
Publisher: Norton
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 15th, 2000