I think that the West is the most powerful reality in the history of this country. It's always had a power, a presence, an attraction that differentiated it from the rest of the United States. Whether the West was a place to be conquered, or the West as it is today, a place to be protected and nurtured. It is the regenerative force of America.
And he looks down where the soil has been dug and there's a sparkle, and there's a glint in the morning light, and he reaches down and he picks it up with his stubby dirty fingers, and the last thing in the world he might have expected, and here is this, this speck of the future, this tiny little shock that's going to reverberate right to today -- literally till now! He picks it up, and he says, you know, he says, 'My God!' And he yells out, he said, 'My God, I think I've found gold!'
The gold rush changed California, it changed the whole west, and it changed America's sense of itself because for the first time the United States of America, in the minds of the American people, fulfilled the dream of Jefferson, which was a continental nation from the Atlantic to the Pacific. No one thought about America stretching from Chesapeake Bay to San Francisco Bay until fathers and sons and uncles and brothers and fiances were out there.
The tremendous success of that summer of 1848 spread by way of letters and government reports. The President in his State of the Union speech announces that the astonishing news from Sacramento is true. So the news is coming not only from the President, but most of all from these people who are writing these vivid reports. A guy writes home and he says, he says, 'You remember Dickson? He used to work for Ebeneezer?' He says, 'He has dug enough gold to weigh down a mule.' Now, that means something to people. A mule.
He is a farmer. He lives a simple life. He's pretty well educated. He's read Shakespeare, he's read Wordsworth. His wife is a teacher. They have a very comfortable life. They don't have anything to complain about in eighteen forty-nine. This is a key point. They did not have anything that would cause them distress. His expectations were perfectly comfortable expectations of an average family, a farming family in America. The Gold Rush changed that. Suddenly he wanted more. Suddenly he wasn't satisfied.
The men who traveled to California in the Gold Rush years had a conscious sense of the need to organize. There are rules. For instance, no swearing -- literally! They have constitutions, they have these rules and orders: No swearing. No drinking. We will observe the Sabbath. Many a company broke up over the argument of whether or not to observe the Sabbath. 'How can we observe the Sabbath? Here it is the middle of June, we're already behind. These people are passing us on Sunday, they're rolling. How can we sit here?' So they have arguments about it, and companies split up over the moral question of whether to observe the Sabbath or not.
So at the point where you make the choice, there is this moment where scores of men stand around, and they debate and they argue and they discuss and they read little signs on the road. And a barrel, a big barrel, full of cards and full of information. You sift through it: 'Oh, George went this way, Sam went this way, Louie went that way. What am I going to do?' There's choices being made. And they stand around and they debate, and sometimes companies'd argue and they split, and there'd be fights, and We'll go this way and We'll go that way. So it was a life-and-death choice, everybody knew it to be that. Wasn't just some casual matter of saving a few hours, it might save your life.
About disagreements in which routes to take on the way to California
But when you get to the other side of the Sierra Nevada, you don't see the green of the Sacramento Valley, you see the desolation of the Pit River Valley. You see rocks and stunted growth, and mountain deserts. It's just, it's just a pain, it's a shock, it's a hit in the head, it hurts your heart to see what still lies ahead. And you haven't gone a short cut. What you've done is you've gone north, and you're at what's called Goose Lake. So instead of going west, you've gone north-northwest. Now you've got to go south.
About the route to California
What they had expected was the image that they had received in November, December of 1848, and the story of digging up gold, and all the people succeeding. They were stunned, shocked, dismayed. The realism that struck them above all else was there're so damn many miners. There were forty thousand miners in the mining camps and the mining regions of California by the fall of 1849.... These are people who've been coming... overland... as early as August. They've been coming by ships since December. They've been coming from Hawaii, from Oregon, from Chile, from Sonora. They've been pouring in. The world rushed into California.
You're working in freezing water up to your waist for hours at a time.You're reaching down, moving rocks, bringing in the rock and the gravel and working it all the time, with your hands, with the shovels. Moving always this debris, to get rid of the debris, to pull out the little tiny samples of your future, the little tiny pieces that are going to make everything possible for you. Going to buy you the means to get rid of your mortgage, that are going to make it possible to buy some more land in Iowa, in order to move, and then pack up and go to some new place. All of that is built into every effort you're making, every single day.
About gold mining
And they walk into these great big places, and there's excitement, and there's hope, and there's a sense of sin. 'Mother wouldn't want me to be here. What if Louise knew that I was here?' A lot of men, you know, would write home and talk about what was going on as if they hadn't seen it. I've been told what goes on in these gambling halls.
As mining became more difficult, as the claims became more difficult to find because there were more miners than there were workable claims, everyone competing and fighting for his smaller and smaller opportunity to strike it rich, you became, therefore... desirous of finding an excuse for your failure, or desirous of finding a way to get an advantage. Well one of the ways was to say, I'm an American; What are the Mexicans doing here? What are the Indians? We don't need the Indians, we can certainly get rid of them. What are the Chinese doing here? Those people shouldn't be here... This isn't their land, this is my land! This belongs to us!
They end up working the claims that are the least attractive, and yet they make a success in them, because they work harder, because they have a technique and a willingness to struggle longer. They're willing to work on the Sundays, they're willing to give up all play and concentrate. And so even when they've been driven out of the workable mines and they turn to the most, seemingly, desert-like places, barren places, they succeed, and this aggravates and angers the Americans even more.
On Chinese immigrants during the Gold Rush
Pride is a powerful force. The pride that kept so many men in California. They want to go home. But I can't go until I've got something to prove my success. They've been reading about success back home. I know, says the miner, how many people are failing. Failure is the most common fact of life in California. They don't know that. How can I go home a failure, when they expect me to come home a success? So they stay.