They came in their thousands in search of one thing – gold. But the idea of striking it rich and the reality of life as a prospector were often two different things, writes Pat Kinsella, as he mines the dark side of the gold-rush era | Accompanies Đài truyền hình BBC series The Luminaries, premiering on Starz on 14 February


During the 19th century, the discovery of gold in far-flung corners of the world could literally put a place on the maps. Overnight, anonymous stretches of America, Canadomain authority, South Africa, Australia and New Zealand became powerful vortexes, sucking in thousands of fortune hunters from around the globe in a frenzy of fossicking.

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This itinerant rabble of gold rushers were an excitable & eclectic bunch, encompassing Cornish tin miners, Scottish crofters, Irish labourers, Chinese fishermen, Chilean farmers, Australian clerks, emancipated African-heritage slaves, Mexican soldiers, German blacksmiths, Italian aristocrats and American authors. They spoke many languages in an even greater variety of accents, but almost exclusively they were male. And they all had one thing on their mind: gold. Such a kaleidoscopic collection of humanity, suddenly converging on the very edge of nowhere, populating pop-up towns and cities with no infrastructure, accommodation or law enforcement, sounds like a recipe for disaster. And often it was.

No matter where in the world these stampeders rushed off to lớn – California, Victoria, Otago, Witwatersrvà, the Klondike – the story that unfolded once they arrived was always similar. Though a few got lucky và became rich, most saw their dreams die và their savings evaporate. Illness, destitution and death were comtháng outcomes, & many of those who escaped such misfortunes never returned trang chủ, despite families and workplaces awaiting them, inflicting a hidden cost on communities worlds apart.

Reality very rarely met expectation, & the only distractions from digging dirt & sifting silt involved gambling, boozing, brawling & prostitution – the latter sometimes involving indentured labour. As hastily thrown-up towns rapidly boomed (& then often quickly went bust), crime & ethnic conflict erupted through the faultlines, accompanied by vigilantism và violence. Vulnerable indigenous communities were commonly displaced, and sometimes obliterated altogether.

This script played out multiple times across the globe throughout the 1800s, with a slightly different cast of very similar characters involved every time. But the biggest gold-rush drama of all – in terms of sheer numbers, và the weight of its cultural, physical và literary legacy – happened on the west coast of America, right in the middle of the century.

In numbers: the goldrush$36,000 – The amount Samuel Brannan allegedly made in nine weeks by selling picks, pans & shovels to lớn gold rushers en route from San Francisteo lớn the goldfields.

40 million ounces (113,398kg) – Weight of gold dug from the Homestake Mine in South Dakota between 1876 và 2002.

2,217 troy ounces 16 pennyweight (68.98kg) – Weight of the "Welcome Nugget" found in 1858 at Bakery Hill, Ballarat in Australia by a group of 22 Cornish miners working at the mine of the Red Hill Mining Company.

3% – Proportion of the non-native sầu female population of California"s mining region in 1850 – approximately 800 women compared to 30,000 men.

$200 million – US dollar value of gold dug out of California"s Sierra Nevadomain authority mountains between 1849 và 1852 – equivalent lớn around $5.5 billion today.

85.7g – Heaviest lump of gold discovered in Britain, located in July 2018 by an amateur prospector in a Scottish river. Prior khổng lồ this, the largest nugget found in British waters was discovered in Cornwall in 1808 và weighed 59g.

On 24 January 1848, James Marshall, a carpenter working on a new sawmill in the small Californian settlement of Coloma, saw the morning sun glinting on something in the channel of water he was examining – part of the American River. He reached in and scooped up some of the shiny flecks of metal that had caught his eye. In his hands, Marshall was clutching a tiny amount of a substance that would transform the fortunes, & shape the future, of the American West. Gold.


Californian authorities maintain the ghost town of Bodie in a state of ‘arrested decay’, with mining mills and detritus in open view. (Pholớn by Robert Alexander /Archive Photos/Getty Images)
Technically, Marshall was stood on Mexican l&, but less than two weeks later, under the terms of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo that ended the Mexico-American War, California joined the US. Soon it was the most talked about location on the planet, and people were sailing oceans, traversing mountains & driving wagons across deserts to lớn get there.

Marshall made nothing from his discovery – in fact, he and the sawmill owner, John Sutter (who had borrowed big time to finance his dream of building an agricultural empire) lost money và went bust, after workers deserted fields and factories lớn dig for gold. Other business folk, however, would soon seize the gilt-edged opportunity presented by the influx of wide-eyed, greenhorn prospectors who descended on California.

The Trans-Alaskan Gopher Company came up with a brilliant business plan, offering shares for a dollar apiece in its venture, which promised to train gophers khổng lồ dig tunnels in the Klondike goldfields. Gophering for gold, if you will...

American culture continues to celebrate the more spectacular rags-to-riches success stories that emerged from this era – the sassy smarts and big-picture thinking of entrepreneurs like Samuel Brannan, John Studebaker và Levi Strauss. But these men struông xã gold by supplying equipment lớn the fortune hunters and dreamers, not by digging dirt or scouring riverbanks themselves. And behind the lucky strikes and occasional flashes of life-changing glitter, amid the rubble of a million shattered dreams, lie a multitude of much grittier & grimy stories of crime, violence, prostitution, gambling, family breakdown, bankruptcy, poverty, pestilence and prejudice.

Positive results were achieved too, of course – including the development of railways and other infrastructure – but it’s the darker themes that are the comtháng denominators across the gold-rush age. In the colony of Victoria, reactions lớn the arrival of Chinese prospectors laid the roots for the discriminatory ‘White Australia’ policy (which, between 1901 and 1958, effectively stopped all non-trắng immigration inlớn the country), while in South Africa tensions and rivalry between the British colonial authorities và local Boer farmers over the goldfields led lớn a full-scale war.


Levi Strauss (most famous today for his jeans) made his fortune supplying miners in San Francisco. (Photo lớn by Fine Art Images/Heritage Images via Getty Images)
The first thing aspirant prospectors had to lớn survive sầu was the journey to the goldfields. As word of a gold strike spread across the Americas và beyond during 1848, hundreds of hopefuls began travelling towards California. The initial trickle of what became a rush was led by Americans from Oregon, but soon thousands were flocking in from places like Mexiteo, Chile, Peru and the Sandwich Islands (Hawaii). Nicknamed ‘Argonauts’ after the golden-fleece chasing heroes of Greek mythology, around 6,000 people arrived that year. In his State of the Union address in December 1848, US President James Polk confirmed that large quantities of gold had been discovered in California, prompting a big dash west that emptied work places và homes across the rest of the country, and much further afield. Factories & shops lost workers, soldiers went AWOL, husbands deserted families. Part of the collateral damage of the gold-rush era was a rash of broken homes and destitute businesses far from the goldfields.

Thousands of hopefuls from the eastern states set off on a tough transcontinental odyssey in covered wagons, pulled by mules và oxen. They were soon joined by people from Asia, Europe & the Antipodes. By 1849, the real rush had begun, with incoming waves of ‘fortyniners’ breaking on the beaches. Around 90,000 arrived that year.

Did you know…?The Klondike gold rush coincided with the great bicycle boom, and several people attempted to lớn cycle lớn Dawson. There were also grvà plans to fly paying prospectors to lớn the remote goldfields in balloons – none of which really got off the ground.

But no easy route to the goldfields existed, even for those travelling across America along the California Trail. With deserts & the Rockies standing in their way, timing was crucial. The tragic story of the Donner party – a group of wagontrain settlers heading west who had become snowbound in the Sierra Nevada mountain range during the winter of 1846/47 – was infamous. Just 48 of the party’s 87 travellers made it out alive sầu.


Most journeys lớn the goldfields were fraught with peril; for those hoping to reach the Klondike, that meant tackling the treacherous icescape of the Chilkoot Trail. (Image by Getty Images)
Others travelled up through Mexico, or took a ship – either on a full 17,000-mile route around the bottom of South America (which took between five and seven months) or to lớn Panama’s east coast, before crossing the jungle-clad isthmus & boarding boats on the Pacific side.

The latter route was much quicker, but prohibitively expensive. Either way, dangers included fierce storms & serious illness due khổng lồ overcrowding và poor diet. Once they’d landed, prospectors who had come by boat would have sầu been severely disappointed lớn learn the goldfields were a further 150 miles inl&, and that they had khổng lồ negotiate another journey before they could start fossicking for their fortunes.


At the height of the Klondike gold rush, Dawson City in Canadomain authority became a sprawling urban centre with a fully fledged high street. (Photo by Henry Guttmann Collection/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
The drama of reaching remote regions is a comtháng theme in the experience of gold chasers of the 1800s, & the orgiảm giá khuyến mãi faced by those heading to California pales in comparison lớn the challenge that faced stampeders who joined the last great rush of the century lớn the Klondike, in north-western Canada. After landing in Alaska, these fortune seekers had to lớn hike the Chilkoot Trail over ice-clad mountains, then build boats khổng lồ negotiate the mighty Yukon River, through deadly rapids, before reaching Dawson – where they could finally begin digging.

None of this deterred those with gold goggles on, though. Within six quichồng years, San Francisteo was transformed from a small settlement with around 200 residents in 1846, to a ramshackle city teeming with more than 36,000 people in 1852. By 1855, the population had exceeded 300,000.

Boom & gloom

New arrivals lớn San Francisteo lived in ad hoc accommodation, including on the decks of the 500 or so ships that had turned up laden with would-be prospectors và supplies, và then became stranded in the harbour when the crews deserted to lớn try their luông chồng in the goldfields. These abandoned boats housed shops, warehouses, pubs và even a jail.

Many migrants spent all their savings getting khổng lồ the west coast, và arrived utterly destitute. The rush created enormous surges in dem& for basic supplies, & prices soared. By the kết thúc of the century, having learned from events in California, Canadian authorities insisted prospectors bring a year’s worth of supplies before allowing them access from Alaska inkhổng lồ the Klondike. But many of those arriving in San Francisteo were woefully ill prepared.

San Francisteo harbour in 1851, by which time many of these boats would have sầu been transformed inkhổng lồ static shops, stores và living quarters. (Pholớn by GraphicaArtis/Getty Images)
Freezing winter conditions could be lethal for those living in shanty conditions và sleeping on cold, damp floors. Food was poor, scurvy was comtháng from lack of fruit & vegetables, & sanitation was extremely basic, with most men seldom washing their bodies or clothes. Camps were rag-tag constructions made from wood and canvass, and fires were comtháng.

In this male-dominated society, almost entirely devoid of traditional calming influences such as family and community, gambling, alcohol abuse and loneliness were also prevalent issues. Later, in the Yukon, one entrepreneurial prospector travelled with a barge-load of kittens that he sold lớn lonesome miners in Dawson for an ounce of gold apiece. Most men, however, sought solace and warmth elsewhere.

Love sầu, lust and punishment

San Francisco’s so-called Barbary Coast area witnessed the shadier side of the Californian gold rush. Here, in the brothels, saloon bars và gaming houses that quickly took root in the rough dirt, plenty of prospectors frittered away their newfound fortunes. Prostitution became a huge industry. Initially, the working women came from Latin America, mostly Mexiteo, Nicaragua & Chile, và a rudimentary red light zone was established at the foot of San Francisco’s Telegraph Hill, in a tent thành phố called Chiletown. Later, more women would arrive sầu from farther afield, including a large number from France.

Among the Chinese community – largely comprised of men who’d left families intending khổng lồ make a short, life-changing trip to lớn California, but ended up staying much longer – the gender imbalance was especially stark. According lớn historian & author Judy Yung, in 1850 just seven of the 4,025 Chinese in San Francisco were women. There are reports of girls – often aged 14 or younger – being lured or kidnapped from the Chinese countryside và brought lớn St Louis Alley in San Francisco’s Chinatown, where they were effectively sold to prospectors as sex slaves, or put to work in brothels.

Though gold hunters were predominantly male, they weren’t exclusively so: these women joined the hopeful horde that descended on the Klondike in Canada. (Image by Getty Images)
In the early days, the goldfields were rule-miễn phí places, full of testosterone và desperation, where infrastructure and policing were non-existent. Claims – parcels of l& where prospectors asserted the right lớn extract gold – were staked on a first-come basis & disputes were resolved with violence. And along with all the hope-filled miners và desperate dreamers came the schemers: thieves, bandits, claim-jumpers, professional gamblers and scammers.

California didn’t become a state until September 1850, until which time there were literally no laws, and summary và violent vigilante justice was meted out lớn wrongdoers (and perceived wrongdoers) on the spot. Punishments ranged from flogging for minor crimes (petty theft & assault), right up lớn execution by hanging for more serious offences such as robbery và murder. Lynchings and mob justice were rife.

California didn’t become a state until September 1850, until which time there were literally no laws

As the situation evolved, so too did law và order. In crowded camps around productive sầu claims, officers were often appointed to lớn patrol mines và settle disputes. Commonly, claims were 10ft by 10ft, và limited khổng lồ one per prospector. As the era wore on, however, and the number of miners continued to lớn rise &, as the strike rate fell, things inevitably turned nasty.

The deluge of hungry humanity that flowed inlớn San Francisco in search of gold from 1849 made California one of the most cosmopolitung and colourful places in the world – albeit probably one of the planet’s most male-dominated societies.

The ethnic phối included thousands of Chinese, Mexicans & people from Caribbean, Central và South American countries, including Brazil, Peru & Chile. Fortune-foragers travelled from as far away as New Zeal& & South Africa.

Australia lost so many young, able-bodied men during this stampede khổng lồ America’s west coast that it forced the colonial government to lớn reverse its policy of suppressing news about gold strikes in its own backyard. Consequently, Australia’s fortunes and fate was quickly transformed by a series of gold rushes in New South Wales and Victoria, which happened shortly after that of California.

At the height of the Klondike gold rush, Dawson City in Canadomain authority became a sprawling urban centre with a fully fledged high street. (Pholớn by Henry Guttmann Collection/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
Irelvà was still losing people as a result of the Great Famine, và those who could made their way lớn the west coast. From elsewhere in Europe, prospectors poured in from Italy, Prussia, Russia, France, Britain & Spain. Several hundred Turks và Filipinos arrived too, and among muốn migrants from other states in American were an estimated 4,000 African-Americans.

Once the easy pickings had been harvested, however, trắng American prospectors began trying lớn force foreigners out of the picture so they could gather the remaining gold. Chinese & Latin American miners were sometimes attacked, và a foreign miners’ tax of $trăng tròn per month was introduced by the new California State Legislature.

The deluge of hungry humanity that flowed inlớn San Francisco in search of gold from 1849 made California one of the most cosmopolitung places in the world

Anti-immigrant feeling ran rife but it was Native American communities who suffered the worst atrocities. Thousands died from diseases brought in on the international tide, as well as violent attacks from prospectors who regarded them as sub-human savages. California was a free state (one in which slavery was prohibited) but settlers were allowed khổng lồ capture & use indigenous women & children as bonded workers.

As gold prospectors transitioned inkhổng lồ settlers, & agriculture expanded khổng lồ meet their ever-growing needs, conflict intensified. Attacks by tribes on encroaching miners và ranchers resulted in vengeance being wrought on whole villages, và some gold-rush era Californian communities offered bounties lớn vigilante groups for Native sầu American scalps. California’s first governor, Peter Hardeman Burnett, called for the exclusion of all blaông xã people from the state, championed high taxation on foreign workers & openly advocated the wholesale extermination of the Native sầu American population. By 1890, this latter objective sầu had all-but been achieved, with the indigenous population decimated.

Five sầu Chilkat porters pose with a miner và two oxen on the Dyea Trail, c1897, on their way lớn the Klondike. (Pholớn by Library of Congress/Corbis/VCG via Getty Images)
This was mirrored in Australian gold rushes, where the problems settlers were already causing the Aboriginal population in the khung of introduced disease, conflict, alcohol abuse and the destruction of their homeland were massively amplified by the arrival of thousands of fortune hunters.

There is some evidence, though, that not all indigenous people were limited to lớn being bystanders or victims, và some were able lớn exploit elements of the situation by selling possum-skin cloaks to lớn freezing miners ill-prepared for winter conditions, working as trackers for prospectors và police, và even putting on Corroborees (shows of nhảy đầm & singing) for payment. Overwhelmingly, though, the discovery of gold & subsequent influx of prospectors into lớn any area already populated spelt disaster for Native American communities & their culture. This was certainly the case for the Yukon’s Hän First Nation people, who were displaced by stampeders during the Klondike gold rush, & never recovered.

End of the rainbow

Although San Francisco continued lớn grow, the aspirations of small-time diggers in California had realistically evaporated by 1855, and larger mining companies were left to lớn extract the remaining gold with better công nghệ. The discovery of silver in Nevada in 1859 kept fortune hunters rolling inkhổng lồ the bayside area – including authors such as Mark Twain & Bret Harte, who documented the era – but the stampede ultimately became a trickle.

The gold-rush era was far from over, however, và for the next half a century adventurers from the world over would continue khổng lồ seek their fortunes in faraway places, amid the high hills, dusty deserts & remote rivers in Australia, Alaska, Siberia, Canadomain authority, New Zealand, the Transvaal... anywhere that offered a glint or hint of hidden treasure.

The BBC adaptation of Eleanor Catton’s 2013 Man Booker Prize-winning novel The Luminaries, mix during the New Zealvà Gold Rush of the 1860s, premieres on Starz from 14 February 2021.

You can buy the novel on Amazon or Waterstones, & also read more of our recommendations for the best historical fiction.

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Pat Kinsella specialises in adventure journalism as a writer, photographer và editor.

This article first appeared in the May 20đôi mươi issue of Đài truyền hình BBC History Revealed Magazine

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