Roaring Camp: The Social World of the California Gold Rush

Susan Lee Johnson, Author, Johnson, Author W. W. Norton & Company $29.95 (352p) ISBN 978-0-393-04812-4
The California Gold Rush is commonly identified with the peculiarly American movement of Manifest Destiny, but as Johnson reveals in this informative study of the period, the Gold Rush was in fact one of the most cosmopolitan and multicultural events of the 19th century. Mexicans, French, Chinese, African-Americans, Chileans and Miwok Indians all panned for gold alongside their WASP counterparts in the foothills of the Sierra Nevadas. The collision of these cultures sometimes led to humorous misunderstandings (as when Chinese miners mirthfully watched a white colleague struggle to use chopsticks), but just as frequently it produced ugly crimes, like when Mexican prospector Joaquin Murrieta was assaulted and evicted from his mining claim by jealous whites. Complicating relations in the mines was the almost complete absence of women; Johnson shows how men of all races found themselves reassessing gender roles in ways that had everything to do with ethnicity and cultural hegemony. For example, Anglo miners tended to feminize Chinese and French men, who made their fortunes in laundry and cooking as often as in mining gold. Johnson skillfully investigates the ramifications of these social pressures, though at times she surrenders to the ivory tower habit of interpreting the interpretations, analyzing the discourse about events instead of the events themselves. Hers is an intensely academic brand of social history: readers will find phrases like ""homosocial,"" ""gendered meanings"" and ""constructions of race"" liberally sprinkled throughout the text. Underneath the jargon, however, is a valuable study of the complex, often troubled societies that contributed to one of America's great national mythologies. 15 photos, 1 map. (Jan.)
Reviewed on: 01/31/2000
Release date: 02/01/2000
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