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

The Effects of industry on ecology                  Anu Murthy


Andrew C. Isenberg is a professor of history at Temple University. He is also the author of The Destruction of the Bison: An Environmental History and is a former fellow of the Huntington Library and the Shelby Cullom Davis Center for Historical Studies.



The Californian environment has been altered by settlers many times to meet the needs of technological advances. The 1849 gold rush, however, has had one of the most significant influences on California’s ecology. Before the 1850s many Native American tribes cultivated its diverse terrain, and California remained virtually free of industry and technology. The gold rush changed all of this. With the discovery of gold and the end of the Mexican War, came the American desire to control an environment “composed on numerous and complex interconnections”1. New mining practices themselves caused the creation of many other industries, such as commercial agriculture, hunting, fishing, railroads, and lumber. Bonanza farms—large ranches dependent on industry—progressed and quickly replaced older agricultural methods. Trying to quicken the development of natural resources, industrialists attempted to compensate for the high costs of capital and labor. Their goal of conquering California’s distinct ecology had various effects on the environment. Andrew C. Isenberg’s Mining California: An Ecological History explores these consequences and analyzes the gradual industrialization of California.

Chapter 1 of this book deals with the effects of hydraulic mining on the environment. The few years after the discovery of gold, settlers used laborious techniques to unearth this valuable metal. Some of these procedures included panning, makeshift dams, and simply digging. Before hydraulic mining, rivers posed a threat to industry. In the spring, high waters prevented people from scouring gravel. In the summer, streams receded and miners could not divert the water as they pleased. Dams often collapsed and manmade reservoirs were generally unreliable. Therefore, industry’s failure to control waterways made the economy run on credit. Banks closed and currency depended on gold or foreign coins. Hydraulic mining, a system that uses pressured water to wash hillsides, trap gold, and rinse away soil and gravel, allowed miners to take charge of waterways. One of its major consequences was the steady decline of independent prospectors. For investors, hydraulic mining was beneficial in two ways. It greatly “reduced the high costs of labor in the gold country.”2 Due to the deterioration of independent prospectors, gold country was employed by wage laborers. Secondly, “the hydraulic system extended a measure of human control over the dynamic hydrology of the California gold country.”3 The unpredictable weather often made investors hesitant to commit money to mining until the invention of hydraulic mining. However, miners soon learned to extend their hegemony over waterways and, consequently, attracted investors to offset the costs of labor and capital. Hydraulic mining also had negative effects on the environment. The flushed debris from washed soil and gravel polluted the waterways that led straight into the San Francisco Bay. The debris destroyed the spawning grounds of salmon and other food options; much of the mercury used in hydraulic mines also found its way into rivers. This toxin poisoned available water for humans, livestock, and fish. The California legislature—not yet organized due to the 1846 Mexican War—did nothing to counteract the destruction of the environment. In fact, legislation protected industry’s right to discard wastes in public waterways. By the 1850s, courts gave prospectors the privilege to enter public lands settled by farmers. Judges regarded courts as merely “a social tool that could promote change.”4 The machinery of hydraulic mining promoted other industries. A simple nozzle at the end of each canvas hose, called a moniter, resulted in an expanded iron industry. Capable of shooting water at great speeds, moniters were kept running day and night. The increased demand for this improved nozzle helped the iron industry profit. Although hydraulic mining did inflate other commercial areas, its effects on the environment were highly destructive.

The capital of California underwent many alterations because of the gold rush. Isenberg describes these alterations in Chapter 2. Before gold discovery, Sacramento contained many villages, but no cities. Substantial settlements were based on the coast, but few metropolises existed on the interior. Most coastal towns “served as ports and way stations for hunters who preyed on aquatic mammals.”5 Major cities were located at the confluence of major rivers; in fact, cities operated more like joint-stock companies than actual residential areas. Merchants and speculators acted as investors and looked to expand their company commercially. Municipal governments, made up of these investors, formed their board of directors. As cities started to need better transportation, steam powered vessels and railroads developed, and citizens became more dependent on steam. Because of this reliance, the lumber industry also expanded. This growth, however, destroyed Sacramento’s dense forests and had other damaging effects on the environment. With the attraction of merchandise and capital came the rise of disease. Between 1849 and 1850, a cholera epidemic swept Sacramento. City governments were hesitant to give resources to the poor and those without property. The influx of diseased citizens resulted in a dirty and crowded area. Like hydraulic mining, rapid urbanization had mostly negative effects on Sacramento.

Isenberg describes the effects of gold discovery on the lumber industry in Chapter 3. Lumber was mainly used for fuel and construction. It attracted many independent prospectors who looked for employment after the expansion of hydraulics. Swept away by the excitement of a new and rising lumber industry, loggers, like many other people, shifted the burden of labor cost and capital on the environment. Logging techniques quickly depleted forests and overwhelmed the market. During the mid nineteenth century, federal legislation hoped to spur the economy by shifting public land into private ownership. In 1878, “the federal government accelerated the privatization of forest lands with the passage of the Timber and Stone Act…which opened forests on the public domain to sale for a small fee.”6 Steam power and railroads exposed remote parts of redwood forests. The rise of technology forced loggers to cut more trees to balance the amount of money spent on machine investment. Like other industries, the lumber industry took its toll on the environment. The timber in redwood belts started to decline and grasses and shrubs crowded emerging trees out of the area. Deforestation created more river sediment which in turn caused a sharp drop in migrating fish. The lack of canopy triggered solar radiation and water temperatures to rise. The expansion of the lumber industry did help the economy but as a consequence of this development, the environment suffered.

As Isenberg starts the second half with the decline of Californios, he shifts his study to industry’s influence on farming. Californios, who were married to Mexican elites, often owned large ranches on the coast that were ideal to produce beef. Intermarriage encouraged families to cooperate in business. Californios gained immense commercial power from the demand for beef. However, in the 1860s, Californio dominance receded. Three main reasons caused this decline. First, Californios were unable to adapt after the Mexican War. Newcomers, such as Anglo-Americans had superior economic vigor and ignored the property rights of Californios. Second, conquests of their property reduced Mexican-Americans to segregated wage laborers. The rise of Anglo-Americans “destroyed the large estate owners of southern California and led to the…proletarianization of Mexican-Americans.”7 Third and most important, southern California’s environment was drought prone. Rancheros refused to adapt to an intensive stockraising system, where farmers cultivated hay and constructed fences. Instead they clung to an extensive stockraising system, where the herds were let over large areas. This technique left rancheros dependent on grasslands for their livestock’s health. Many Californios were land rich and cash poor as the beef market slumped. They were able to sustain by selling cattle hides and tallow to Britain and the United States. They also compensated for the lack of labor by hiring Native Americans. However, intensive stockraising made rancheros vulnerable to well-financed competitors. By the 1850s, the decline in the beef market led to overgrazing. Ranchers could not sell their livestock; buyers were not inclined to trust southern California wool either. In the 1860s, cowboys, more cooperative with financers than ranchers were, replaced Californios. Their settlements also failed due to the 1863 drought and the 1864 grasshopper infestation.

The fifth and last section of this book deals with enclosure of Native American lands. In 1864, the Modoc tribe assented to cede their California lands and live on a reservation in Oregon. Some Modocs stayed and worked on ranches but ranchero opposition forced the Californian Army to drive remaining Modocs out of California. This particular tribe was not ignort of the Americans. They were “highly acculturated to Euroamerican mores… [and] they enjoyed good relations with the townspeople.”8 However, the discovery of gold and ranch extensions pushed the Modocs farther away from their homeland. Many tribes shifted into the wage labor market. Native American women were often forced to become domestic servants or prostitutes. The rise in prostitution prompted widespread sexually transmitted diseases, which in turn caused a decline in Modoc population. Before the influx of Euroamerican settlers, the Modoc tribe dominated the plateau. They relied on the diversity of resources and planned their lives around the seasons. By the 1840s, however, Euroamericans began to inhabit Oregon territory, thereby disrupting the Modoc trade patters. The gold rush and its new technologies proved to be serious blow to the Modoc tribe’s sustenance strategies. In 1873, the Modoc War ended and Euroamerican settlers gained control of the lands. They overpowered most of the Native Americans and concluded the enclosure of the plateau.

Isenberg’s thesis states that nineteenth-century industrialism in California is based mainly on the struggle to control the environment. Through his examples of how “industrialism ultimately affected every part of California’s environments,” Isenberg implies that settlers’ desire for ecological power damaged the environment as well as the settlers’ lives.9 In each chapter he begins with a description of a way in which industry expanded during the years of the gold rush. Isenberg then transitions into a subtle disparagement of industrialism’s pernicious effect on California’s rich environment. For example, Isenberg portrays the discovery of hydrology. He explains how dominance over waterways was helpful to settlers, but he never lingers for long on its benefits. Even though hydraulic mining seems like an efficient technique, Isenberg focuses most of chapter on the negative effects of hydrology on the environment. In the last section, Isenberg connects racial discrimination of Native Americans with environmental destruction. Isenberg’s thesis covers various areas of California during the gold rush years, yet these subjects are all tied together by a common message: American settlers’ fight for industrialism harmed the environment.

Andrew C. Isenberg is a history professor who has written copious books on America’s environmental history. Possibly influenced by the popular discussion of global warming and modern day environmental problems, Isenberg’s book shows how technology has detrimental effects on the Californian ecology. Isenberg assumes that environmental predicaments still trouble American society today. His description of past attempts to conquer nature serve as a warning to the modern world that damage to the environment is the same thing as damage to the society. Isenberg hopes that modern society can learn from early settlers who “repeatedly discovered that their alterations of nature were not without consequence…Euroamericans reinscribed the political ecology of California upon the landscape of the West.”10 Isenberg, being a history professor and an environmentalist, knows the severe outcomes of ecological destruction. Isenberg wants readers to avoid history’s mistakes and not try to overpower nature. Published in 2005, Isenberg’s book falls into Neo-Conservative historiography. Characteristic of this category, Isenberg views the effects of the gold rush objectively. Little of his personal opinions are present and there is no ideology. In light of recent importance given to the planet’s ecology, Isenberg retells history so that Americans today will realize the devastating effects of environmental pollution.

Peter Coates, an environmental history professor, reviewed Isenberg’s book in the Journal of American History. Largely in praise of this work, Coates remains impressed by Isenberg’s sole focus on Californian history. He complains that “new western [history] tend[s] to marginalize the state”11, thereby stressing that Isenberg’s focus is necessary for a complete understanding of western ecology. He compares and contrasts this work to other historians’ pieces, implying that Isenberg’s research on the subject is accountable. Coates also specifically comments on Isenberg’s use of the Modoc tribe. Impressed by Isenberg’s insight, Coates commends the way the author employs Native American relationships to show how enclosure also affected the environment. Coates expresses his approval of Isenberg’s thesis, stating that this book is a “welcome addition to the growing number of studies on the environmental history of mining in the American West.”12 Coates moves on to applaud Isenberg’s literary style.

Isenberg’s work is extremely informative and well-written. He explains sophisticated parts of California’s history in comprehendible language. Connecting each section of his book to convey a common message, Isenberg does more than simply relate stories of this state’s past. He delves deeper in his studies and carefully investigates the many causes of California’s environmental deterioration. The fact that Isenberg can bond various subjects, ranging from hydrology to Native American relations, into one piece and intertwine their implications is truly impressive. Isenberg’s constant reference to various historians, such as J. Willard Hurst13, a legal historian, and Leonard Pitt14, who specializes in Californio history, reflects his deep knowledge in the area of environmental history. The references also serve as a change for the reader; instead of an avalanche of his own opinions, Isenberg offers diverse points of view and analyzes the effects of California’s industrialization.

California’s rate of industrialization was heavily dependant on eastern United States. Before the days of hydraulic mining, independent prospectors struggled to attract investors from the rest of United States and Europe. They worried that “investors were wary of committing capital to California placer mining until the industry had tamed the volatile environment.”24 Because of the high costs of labor and capital, placer miners lacked investments and had no means to contract more efficient machines. The Industrial Revolution in the East and Midwest gradually seeped through the country and finally reached California. Because of the Industrial Revolution, California started to conquer the environment, thereby gaining the trust of outside investors. The Mexican War also had a profound effect on California. The Californios had long dominated southern California but the influx of Euroamerican settlers terminated this supremacy. After the Mexican War, Americans from the East and Midwest completely ignored the Californios’ property and squatted on their estates. The rancheros refusal to adapt to these changes caused the end of their agrarian lifestyle and paved the way for industry.

Although California was influenced by happenings in the East, its events were also distinctive from the rest of the country. Unlike the East that had distinctive regions of industry or agriculture, California contained both simultaneously. The diverse environment of mountains, deserts, forests, and coastal areas allowed California to try its success in ranches and then industry. Another difference was individuals’ reaction to the ecology. Americans in the East took whatever the surroundings offered, thereby creating opposite cultures centered in the North and in the South. On the other hand, Euroamericans who settled in California looked to conquer the land and alter it according to their needs.

The 1849 gold rush changed California drastically. Initially a territory of Mexican- American cattle ranches, California evolved into a populous state that saw the replacement of agriculture with industry. Isenberg’s novel reveals the ecological effects that technology had on the once diverse Californian environment. Although an industrial revolution seemed like the correct event for a growing area, Isenberg shows how industry had a reverse effect. New advancements not only proved to be dangerous to the environment, but their effects on the environment hurt settlers also.  Euroamericans’ battle against the environment ended as settlers realized that they must also “set the terms for the preservation of the natural environment.”15 This lesson that Californians learned is the message that Isenberg wishes to convey. Control of the environment does not necessarily lead to success; the environment should be respected and used to aid society.


1. Isenberg, Andrew C. Mining California: An Ecological History. New York: Hill and Wang, 2005 15.

2. Isenberg, Andrew C. 24.

3. Isenberg, Andrew C. 24.

4. Isenberg, Andrew C. 33.

5. Isenberg, Andrew C. 54.

6. Isenberg, Andrew C. 81.

7. Isenberg, Andrew C. 107.

8. Isenberg, Andrew C. 134.

9. Isenberg, Andrew C. 21.

10. Isenberg, Andrew C. 177-178.

11. Coates, Peter. "Mining California: An Ecological History." Environmental History 11(2006): 629-630.

12. Coates, Peter 630.

13. Isenberg, Andrew C. 34.

14. Isenberg, Andrew C. 104.

15. Isenberg, Andrew C. 177.