The Gold Rush Romanticized

Courtesy Library of Congress, Rare Book and Special Collections Division. 

The discovery of gold in California came at a time when the United States government was searching for ways to assert its identity as a nation. Expansion was already happening at a breakneck pace, with canals from upstate New York to the Great Lakes region opening up the interior of the country to trade and settlement by whites. The Oregon question was resolved in 1848 when the Oregon Territory was legally recognized as a possession of the United States, solidifying the country’s reach into the Pacific Northwest. The Mexican-American War had ended in 1848 as well, with Mexico ceding most of California as well as Arizona, Nevada, New Mexico, and Colorado to the United States. Now a burgeoning nation with widespread territory holdings, the United States needed to settle these holdings with citizens to maintain its claims. How better to do that than with the promise of gold?

Advertisements from the period emphasize the idealistic purity of the country, portraying the west as a vast expanse of unclaimed land ripe for the taking. Readers are assured that life out west will be far easier than the drudgery of farm life on the crowded east coast—recently arrived immigrants will find gold ready to be plucked from the ground or the water, fertile land begging to be tilled and planted, and a temperate wilderness empty of human habitation and ready to be civilized by white Americans. Songs and art exhibits extolled the virtues of the west and those who journeyed out to tame it, conveniently ignoring the hardships immigrants would face and the indigenous peoples already occupying land that was supposedly freely available.