|Home| |Pre-American Settlement| |American Settlement--Civil War| |Late Nineteenth Century|
|Early Twentieth Century| |World War II and the Fifties| |Sixties--Present| |City Histories| |About|

¡§When the Okies left Oklahoma and moved to California, it raised the I

The Golden Melting pot                                            Jennie Lee


Susan Lee Johnson is currently a professor of history and Chicana/o and Latina/o Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Previously, she has taught at the University of Colorado at Boulder, the University of California, Los Angeles, and the University of Michigan. Johnson has received her B.A. from Carthage College, her M.A. from Arizona State University, and her Ph.D. from Yale University. The historian has also published articles on Western and women¡¦s history.



Susan Lee Johnson is currently a professor of history and Chicano and Latino Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Previously, she has taught at the University of Colorado at Boulder, the University of California, Los Angeles, and the University of Michigan. Johnson has received her B.A. from Carthage College, her M.A. from Arizona State University, and her Ph.D. from Yale University. The historian has also published articles on Western and women¡¦s history.

Jennie Lee is on the student officer board of Irvine High School¡¦s National Honor Society Club. She also plays tennis for her school¡¦s girls¡¦ varsity team. During her free time, Jennie enjoys reading, shopping, and watching both new and old-time movies.

The United States has always been thought of as the ¡§Melting Pot¡¨ of the world, but one of the nation¡¦s ¡§most multiracial, multiethnic, multinational events¡¨ is undoubtedly the California Gold Rush of 1849.1 With the discovery of gold, miners from all over the globe traveled to the ¡§diggings¡¨ where they sought their fortune. Susan Lee Johnson¡¦s book, Roaring Camp: The Social World of the California Gold Rush, shows how the encounters and exchanges between Anglo American, African American, Miwok Indian, Mexican, Chilean, French, and Chinese miners changed the history of California and the entire country. Johnson is ¡§concerned both with what happened in California after 1848 and with what the gold rush has come to mean.¡¨2 The unexpected confrontations left behind footprints of a legacy that continue to be remembered today. More so than the Northern Mines, the Southern Mines at the foot of the Sierra Nevada Mountains, near the San Joaquin River, came to encompass a uniquely diverse social community. The gold rush caused the miners in this region to question established social standards and gender roles in their efforts to create a new society out of chaos.

In the prologue, Johnson provides a captivating narrative of a legendary Mexican bandit named Joaquín Murrieta and his fate in the events of the gold rush. Through Murrieta¡¦s story of revenge against the white miners, the author presents the injustices Mexicans (and other foreigners) faced in the unfairly Anglo-dominated land. She allows for Murrieta¡¦s traditionally unheard voice to divulge the truth about prejudice in the mines.  The fate of Joaquín is still unknown, but he serves as a champion of justice for the underdogs. Lewis continues in Chapter One¡Xtitled ¡§On the Eve of Emigration¡¨¡Xwith background information about the various ethnic groups, especially ¡§the momentous local and global forces that worked together to bring sixty or seventy thousand immigrants in less than a decade.¡¨3 Whether it be the slave holder from Mississippi, the dutiful son from South China, or the prostitute from France, all of the immigrants¡¦ motives were the same: they sought wealth that their homeland could not provide. Johnson also claims how the sudden influx of people disturbed the native Miwok population in California. The gold rush forced the Miwoks to take refuge in the cold mountains, where the women had trouble giving successful births. With the newly built dams that waylaid the salmon, the Indians had to gradually supplement their customary ways of getting food with gold mining and increased horse raiding in order to purchase nourishment. Johnson delineates the rapid changes the natives faced in having to modify their habitat, their food sources, and their perception of the world.

Next in Chapter Two, Johnson elaborates on the chapter titled ¡§Domestic Life in the Diggings.¡¨ The author gives details on the ¡§what¡¨ and ¡§how¡¨ of the miners¡¦ daily shelter, food, and other basic necessities. She explains that many white miners paid non-Anglos, such as African American and Chinese men, to provide sewing, cooking, and laundry services. These ¡§novel divisions of labor could unsettle notions of womanliness as well as manliness¡¨ in the diggings, which they often did.4 Nevertheless, some Anglo men chose to perform their own domestic duties, and Johnson shows how these tasks proved a source of bonding between them as they relied on each other for help. In Chapter Three, ¡§Bulls, Bears, and Dancing Boys,¡¨ the author presents the miners¡¦ many forms of leisure. From Mexican fandango houses to French saloons, the men enjoyed the freedom to have fun without their wives. Johnson reveals how the miners, especially the Anglo Americans, feared they would be tempted to sin beyond forgiveness. Moreover, she elucidates upon the fact that popular gambling games and bull-and-bear fights incited tension among the different mining groups. Every aspect of the mines involved racial conflict because the Anglo American men strived to secure ¡§dominant positions in the emerging social order.¡¨5

Johnson goes on in Chapter Four, ¡§Mining Gold and Making War,¡¨ to explain the series of mining-related racial ¡§wars¡¨ that occurred in the Southern Mines. After discoursing upon the Chilean War, the ¡§French Revolution,¡¨ and the Mariposa War, she expects readers to see the unfortunate pattern of the gold rush confrontations: although they were numerically superior, the non-Anglos ¡§found that U.S. whites were backed by an anti-Indian, antiforeign, and antiblack state government.¡¨6 The white men combated the other social groups more than just physically; they also fought economically and ideologically. More and more, the emerging group of middle-class Anglo Americans tried to take control. Furthermore, in Chapter Five the author tells of the ¡§Dreams that Died.¡¨ She illustrates how other than those few who were able to scream ¡§Eureka!,¡¨ most miners had their hopes crushed. Foreign miners faced heavy discriminatory taxes of twenty dollars a month until those were eventually lowered and ultimately abolished. Additionally, Johnson describes how local water companies¡Xrun by white men¡Xvictimized their fellow Anglo peers by charging unreasonable prices. These capitalistic entrepreneurs greatly engendered hate from the poor individual miners who were at a loss when business created monopolies in mining-related areas. She makes it clear that many men had to return home with nothing but regret.

Johnson¡¦s final chapter, ¡§The Last Fandango,¡¨ is about the end of the male-dominated gold rush community. The author expands upon the notion that ¡§only when women joined [the] men in California did a middle class begin to take root.¡¨7 Advocating the elimination of gaming tables, brothels, and dancing halls called fandangos, these Anglo women were the push for reform that allowed for the creation of a ¡§proper society.¡¨ The Anglo men did not consider that the foreign women possessed the same maternal sense as their female acquaintances had back home. Then again, Johnson creates a melancholy tone that suggests that when their wives finally came, the men missed the initial gold rush setting, and no longer wished for female companionship. Finally, in the epilogue called ¡§Telling Tales,¡¨ Johnson ends with how Americans on the East Coast reacted to the stories of the gold rush. Crime pamphlets circulated wild stories about the mines, warning people of possible social dangers. Johnson demonstrates that often times ¡§vigilance committees were more concerned with punishing wrongs done to Anglo Americans than wrongs done by them, especially¡Kto non-Anglo Americans.¡¨8 According to her, the popular stories were largely fictionalized tales by white men. These reports are in part responsible for current misconceptions about the ethical status of various cultures.

Johnson¡¦s Roaring Camp serves as a book of truth about the gold rush. In her writing Johnson hopes to both ¡§interrogate¡¨ and ¡§dismantle¡¨ the Anglo-version stories of the gold rush, and ¡§offer instead a pastiche of tales¡¨ that analyzes ¡§the conquest of history.¡¨9 She offers new insight as to the social aspects of the Gold Rush, as to how the miners and other workers interacted with and influenced one another. Recounting narratives of the non-Anglo populations, Johnson tries to have their involvement remembered accurately. The book provides many perspectives to the multi-faceted events of the Gold Rush. The author asserts that the history of the gold rush is inadequate without the full coverage of ¡§minor¡¨ groups left out in the shadow of the overpowering whites. As in the Chilean War of the winter of 1849, accounts by Anglo men do not explicitly state that they antagonized Chileans in an effort to exclude the foreigners because of their unfree-labor practices. The stories by white miners make the Chileans the villains who started the hostile conflict. In reality, the Chilean War was a ¡§Chilean Massacre¡¨ that resulted in the deaths of many innocent Chilean miners who were simply first in the winter camping spot coveted by the whites. Making an ethical argument that everyone needs to be equally presented, she depicts how the different cultures socially intertwined.

As a Caucasian woman who was educated in the United States, Johnson grew up reading textbooks with a one-sided perspective. Like many other students, she learned that the gold rush was ¡§an episode in a larger story about westward expansion, Manifest Destiny, and the inevitable march of civilization.¡¨10 In Roaring Camp, the author claims that textbook recollections are not the full story and that there is obviously more. She wants to know how the gold rush ¡§has been construed more and more narrowly over time until it has come to connote merely fast fortune.¡¨11 Johnson is a part of the New Left school of historiography, and her writing reveals her modest liberalism. New Leftists believe history has always been defined by struggle between different economic and racial classes; they think history should be seen through the masses, including all economic classes and ethnic groups. Accordingly, Johnson stresses the need for the gold rush to be remembered as a heterosocial event. She sympathizes with the non-Anglo men and women who suffered under the domination of the whites by utilizing an especially compassionate tone in her writing. Johnson¡¦s book genuinely strives to capture the essence of the diversity of the gold rush. Sharing the stories of mistreated foreign (and native) peoples, the author implies that the gold rush was another outlet of ethnocentrism and human cruelty in American history.

In her book review of Roaring Camp, Elizabeth Jameson of the University of Calgary praises Johnson¡¦s writing. She applauds Johnson for using individuals¡¦ ¡§fragmented accounts¡Kin triumphal nationalistic narratives to explore the construction of memory and history.¡¨12 Jameson enjoys hearing the various voices in the mines, from the Chilean Vicente Pérez Rosales to the Chinese Fou Sin. Throughout the entire review Jameson has only good things to say about the book; she commends its level of scholarly research, but also its imaginative ability to knit multiple narratives into one history. Likewise in her book review, Anne Hyde of Colorado College celebrates Roaring Camp¡¦s success in ¡§achiev[ing] a ¡¥gold standard¡¦ by making something as familiar as the gold rush uncomfortably new.¡¨13 The changing concepts of race, gender, and class during the gold rush interest Hyde, and she admits that Johnson has a skill in effectively describing them. However, the reviewer points to one fault of Roaring Camp: Johnson ¡§occasionally overreach[es] [her] evidence¡¨ in trying to ¡§recreate the ¡¥perverse paradise¡¦ of California in 1849.¡¨14 Sometimes, even though multiple narratives explain one event, Johnson only expands on those that support her argument in favor of the non-Anglo voices. She too eagerly accepts the injustices minorities claim to have suffered from whites to prove she is listening to their sides of the story.  Hyde believes that at times Johnson goes too far without enough facts to defend the minorities. 

Jameson and Hyde¡¦s overall support of Roaring Camp can easily be believed. With its numerous narratives of gold rush individuals, the book presents history in a relatively entertaining manner; the writing is somewhat lyrical and vivid with imagery. Johnson effectively accomplishes her purpose of exposing alternate accounts of gold rush events. Despite Hyde¡¦s claim that Johnson sometimes assumes without enough proof, Johnson¡¦s argument still proves strong. The author knows that the non-Anglo populations were vulnerable back then and continue to be now. Relying on the power of memory, she perfectly utilizes many small stories into one collective story of the previously unheard. The significance of Roaring Camp does in fact ¡§[extend] far beyond the richly particular social world of the Southern Mines.¡¨15 Johnson¡¦s bigger picture behind her history of the gold rush social world relates to this ability to divulge the important unknown. Her point that it is necessary to embrace all viewpoints is relevant to all subjects of history.

During the gold rush, California came to reflect the eastern United States. The new ¡§societies¡¨ created from mining towns were influenced by eastern middle-class values. Anglo men in the diggings found that they could not establish any sense of order without the presence of their female counterparts. Once the Anglo women came, the men settled down and had families, aiding in the growth of towns. In California, the same wave of industrialism set in as it did in the East: buildings and businesses soon sprang up like weeds. The Southern Mines were tied ¡§ever more tightly to the political and economic capitals of Anglo America in the East.¡¨16 Communities accepted and ostracized people on all levels based on their East Coast-related political and economic affiliations. From local government officials to water company employees, people had to follow the social loyalty and alliance codes in order to fit in with the crowd. In addition, the eastern women who located to the West brought with them their social reformist ideas. They came advocating temperance, abolition, and women¡¦s rights. When they tried to close down the fandangos, saloons, and brothels, they hosted community balls and parties as a substitute form of leisure. The persevering ladies eventually met with complete success, ridding the towns of blatant ¡§sinning,¡¨ and now California somewhat mirrors the East.

In spite of these similarities, California was unique in its development as a state resulting from an event as significant as the gold rush. No other state experienced the social ordeals of the gold rush, which occurred soon after the 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo ceded the Mexican territory of California to the United States. The gold rush forced different ethnic crowds to confront each other in both conflict and cooperation. What is more, the members of the predominantly male immigrant population were obliged to undertake unfamiliar feminine jobs that many of them were uncomfortable with. They experimented with domestic chores that they once took for granted in being completed by the women. Similarly, women in California broke out of their orthodox gender roles when French, Mexican, and Chilean women who worked in places of leisure ¡§constituted a newly sexualized, racialized, and commercialized group of womanhood.¡¨17 The females no longer remained in the stereotypical, weak position because they did not have to depend on financial support from the men. In light of the gold rush, Johnson views California as the first and only state to have been established on such a socially diverse foundation. California¡¦s social community is the predecessor of future multi-ethnic societies in the other U.S. states. Looking upon California¡¦s history, citizens nationwide can consider the origins of the country¡¦s rich spectrum of races.

The gold rush was more than a field day for numerous miners who dreamed to ¡§strike it rich.¡¨ It was a social opportunity, a mixing bowl that allowed for an unprecedented combination of ethnic groups to interrelate. Roaring Camp is truly a provocative and enlightening book that changes one¡¦s preconceived thoughts about the gold rush. With her book as an example, Johnson insists that it is the responsibility of historians to offer a voice to those whose histories need to be remembered. She leads a new generation of historians who give revisionist views of America¡¦s past. Also, the author urges her readers to take action. She wants them to share with people today that we must ¡§recognize that we live in an era of concentrated human diversity and congealed human inequity not wholly unlike that faced by gold seekers a hundred and fifty years ago.¡¨18 Having spread her message, Johnson contains hope for the future. Now the public needs to heed her advice to avoid repeating the same mistakes of history. The sooner we accept diversity, the sooner we can progress into a more unified society.


1. Johnson, Susan L. Roaring Camp: The Social World of the California Gold Rush. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2000 12.

2. Johnson, Susan L. 26.

3. Johnson, Susan L. 59.

4. Johnson, Susan L. 119.

5. Johnson, Susan L. 185.

6. Johnson, Susan L. 187.

7. Johnson, Susan L. 280.

8. Johnson, Susan L. 321.

9. Johnson, Susan L. 11.

10. Johnson, Susan L. 25.

11. Johnson, Susan L. 26.

12. Jameson, Elizabeth. The Journal of American History 88 (2001): 202-203.

13. Hyde, Anne. The American Historical Review 106 (2001): 1354-1355.

14. Hyde, Anne 1355.

15. Jameson, Elizabeth 203.

16. Johnson, Susan L. 242.

17. Johnson, Susan L. 150.

18. Johnson, Susan L. 344.