Wednesday, May 26, 2010

5a California's Frontiers

This week, we are reading about California's frontiers in mines and cities.


To think about mining in ways that gets beyond simplistic stereotypes, I find it useful to think through some of the main categories of American Studies analysis introduced in post 1: race, gender, and class.

You might not know it from popular-culture representations of the Gold Rush, but California's gold-diggers included Mexicans, Chileans, Chinese, Miwok Indians, various Europeans, and Anglo-Americans -- each of whom brought important mining techniques from their homelands. The Anglo-Americans were newer residents of California than the Mexicans or the Miwoks, but those newcomer Anglos, with astounding arrogance, leveled a heavy "Foreign Miner's Tax," on the Mexicans who were older residents. That racist tax meant that whites profited from mining far more easily than non-whites, leading to an intersection between race and class.

While biology usually makes us female or male, culture makes us feminine or masculine. By “feminine” or “masculine” I mean the whole array of habits and norms that get associated with female-ness or male-ness, and those norms change over time and are also often disputed. Sex is biological, but gender is cultural.

In her terrific work, "Domestic Life in the Diggings," Susan Lee Johnson points out that the Miwoks and Mexicans tended to arrive at the gold-diggings with whole families and an established gender division of labor. Miwok women gathered acorns, Miwok men hunted for meat, and they enjoyed a decent diet. Anglo men, on the other hand, arrived with almost no Anglo women. This presented a problem: who would do the cooking, cleaning, and laundry? Many Anglo miners solved this problem by living in groups of 3-5 men, taking turns each week when one of those men would do the "women's" work. I feel as if that should become the plot of a tv sitcom, but it's not just a quirky piece of history: it reveals much about nineteenth-century gender roles. Male gold-miners found "women's" work so odious that no one did it for more than a week at a time. They did this "women's work" so poorly that many of them suffered from scurvy, a painful vitamin deficiency which left them exhausted, covered in sores, bleeding from their gums, and eventually losing their teeth. Scurvy happens when anyone does not eat enough fresh food.

Johnson notes that some French and Swiss gold-miners did plant lettuce. It's a simple, quick crop to grow and an easy cure for scurvy. None of the Anglos had thought of doing that, though, because lettuce-planting was considered women's work. Instead of bending their ideas of masculinity, they let their teeth fall out. The French and Swiss, apparently, had more open ideas of masculinity, so they avoided scurvy. I find this fascinating.

Male miners also fed themselves by buying tortillas and tamales from entrepeneurial Mexican women. Remember that detail the next time someone says, "There were no women on the frontier" or the next time someone says, "Traditional women were housewives." Frontier women were, actually, often, businesswomen: running farms, ranches, brothels, restaurants, boarding-houses, laundries, groceries, midwifery practices, textile businesses, and more. Mexican businesswomen sold tamales to the goldminers. Businesswomen and businessmen were actually some of the most successful people in the Gold Rush. It was more consistently profitable to sell shovels to gold-diggers than to actually dig for gold.

This leads us to the next area of analysis, class.


After only a few years, almost any gold that an individual could pick up had been picked up. After 1854, it took huge amounts of capital to afford the advanced equipment for deep mining. Individuals ceased making gold-rush profits after 1854, when corporations took over, as discussed in blog 11.

Very little of that gets into the popular memory of the Gold Rush, but, to me, it's important to remember the corporate side of the gold rush. It's important to remember it all, because ideas about race, gender, and class overlap. The racialized Foreign Miner's Tax kept non-whites poor. Whites also justified their oppression of non-whites by pointing to what they saw as "uncivilized" gender roles: they thought Indian women worked too hard, and they thought this justified imposing white culture on Indians. Asian men found an economic niche -- after being violently persecuted out of most other jobs -- by performing work that had been seen as feminine: cooking and laundering, making a living in a harsh environment while also gaining a reputation as effeminate.

Susan Lee Johnson concludes that the Gold Rush's racial mixing and gender-boundary-crossing can provide us with “a useable past,” perhaps offering models of more flexible gender roles today. As Blake Allmendinger write in Over the Edge: Remapping the American West, “Today, although the West may be settled, its meanings and boundaries remain unfixed and unsealed,” affecting issues from gender roles to immigration to environmentalism. Re-examining our past, truly looking at the cultural boundary-crossing of our history, means that, to Allmendiner, “Imagining the West is a transgressive act” (6).

That last quote is the key, but you need to think it out for yourself: what is transgressive about the chapters you are reading this week?


In addition to reading about California mines, chapter 13 also introduces the idea of California cities. Some students consider this week's readings and conclude that the frontier progressed to cities and diversity, but that actually misses the point: cities were there first and diversity was there all along. In fact, there was more mixing on the earlier frontier than later.

It was Richard Wade who first had this insight: "Towns were the spearheads of the frontier." Think about that for a moment. How does it change your image of the west to imagine cities like San Francisco instead of the open range of the Marlboro Man? How does that inside overturn Turner?

In a reading I used to assign this week, Barbara Berglund calls cities "cultural frontiers." She analyzes the fluidity of race and class in 1840s San Francisco, gradually replaced by stricter hierarchies as San Francisco became American by becoming more racist. Berglund writes:

"As one of America's first truly multiracial cities, San Francisco bequeaths a mixed legacy .... It requires acknowledging America's imperial past as well as its democratic past, its social conformity as well as rugged individualism, its hierarchy as well as egalitarianism...." (Berglund, 224-225)
"My hope is that taking a journey back into an exploration of the stories generated on San Francisco's nineteenth-century cultural frontiers will spur greater mindfulness about the power of twenty-first-century cultural frontiers that continue to shape the meanings we make about the human diversity that surrounds us" (Berglund, xiii).
Think about this: do those ideas apply to the chapters you are reading in Hine and Faragher? Do those ideas help explain what is transgressive about truly understanding the urban frontiers and mining frontiers of California?

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