Gold Rush! California’s Untold Stories
Created and maintained by the Oakland Museum of California, Oakland, Ca.
Reviewed July 2001.
This most valuable Web site is an online version of four exhibitions created at the Oakland Museum in 1998 to mark the sesquicentenary of the California gold rushes— “Gold Fever!,” “Art of the Gold Rush,” “Silver and Gold,” and Harry Fonseca’s “The Discovery of Gold in California.”
The introduction, “Stories of the Lure and Legacy,” is a multimedia presentation—voices and changing still images—which explores the themes of “environment,” “peoples,” and “women.” Both critical and celebratory voices are heard. The environmental damage of the gold rush is said to be a precedent for later “gross manipulation and exploitation of natural resources”— “we have not escaped the forty-niner mentality.” The “Peoples of California” section notes the “prejudice and discrimination” several groups faced in gold rush times and the fact that the gold rush was a “disaster” for the California Indians, but it ends by affirming the rich diversity of contemporary California. Women, we are told, faced hardships on the journey out and in gold rush California, but they found they could do things they had never done before. California remains a land of opportunity and abundance, a place where people can reinvent themselves.
“Gold Fever!” contains the more detailed narrative and analytic material on the gold rush story, covering such topics as the journeys to gold rush California, the miners’ daily life, law and order, commerce, and entertainment. Each page has text and pictures, photos of objects from the exhibition. There are links at the bottom of many pages that extend the story outwards—to a Chinese camp, a Miwok mining site, a long tom. Audio narration is also available. At the top of many of the pages are links that provide, under the general heading “Natives and Immigrants,” alternative paths through the material, linking the references to African Americans, Californios/Latinos, Chinese, California Indians.
“Art of the Gold Rush” is a simpler part of the site but a valuable record of an excellent exhibition—there are captions identifying each work and a short introductory essay from the curators of the exhibition. “Silver and Gold” is an online version of an exhibition of daguerreotype images of gold rush California—these come with commentary that usefully contextualizes the images both historically and as photographs. Finally, a selection of Harry Fonseca’s 1997 series of paintings “The Discovery of Gold in California” is displayed with accessible and suggestive commentary: “Fonseca’s artwork enables us to deal with the painful legacy of the California Gold Rush in a thoughtful and embracing way.” Elsewhere on the site are a handful of QuickTime virtual reality photos that allow viewers to move around and zoom in and out of views of the exhibitions and some mining scenes. Curriculum materials and lesson plans suggest ways of using the site in classrooms.
This is an excellent site. It would have a great diversity of uses—in education (probably at school more than college level) and for Californians and others interested in their history. It is informed by current scholarship but not burdened by it. There are unresolved conflicts within the material presented—for me, most noticeably in the way the bleakness of the presentation of the impact of the gold rushes on the indigenous peoples of California shades so quickly into some of the more celebratory messages about the continuities in California history and the way the forty-niner spirit is still alive. But in that respect, I think, the site quite appropriately mirrors rather than resolves the tensions confronting contemporary scholarship on the gold rushes.
University of Melbourne