Turning points in history - the gold rush
On 24 January 1848, mill worker James Marshall glimpsed something glimmering in the cold winter water at Sutter’s Mill in California. “Boys,” he announced, brandishing a nugget to his fellow workers, “I believe I have found a gold mine!”
This first glittering discovery set in motion one of the most significant events in world history, which created a lasting global impact that we still feel – and see – today. Dr Benjamin Mountford, senior lecturer in history at ACU and co-editor of A Global History of Gold Rushes, explains why this era is more than a forgotten footnote from the past.
Many of us were first taught about Australia’s gold rush in primary school and haven’t thought much about it since. Why is it still relevant?
“For a long time, the gold rush appeared to many historians to be about as dry and dusty as a goldfield in the 19th century – there was a sense that there wasn’t a huge amount more to learn.
For the most part, academic history, like our lessons at school, focused on how the gold rushes made us as a nation – how they gave us democracy, ideas about mateship, and how they made new cities and towns appear like magic out of the bush. More recently, historians have begun going back to the goldfields to dig up new perspectives – of Indigenous Australians, women and children, and of the many Chinese people who migrated here seeking their fortune.
My particular interest is in understanding how gold rushes contributed to the history of globalisation. One of the big questions we face today is how to make sense of this increasingly interconnected, globalised world we live in – and one of the best places to look for the beginnings of that world is in the great gold rushes of the 19th century.”
What kind of changes did the gold rush bring about?
“More gold was discovered between 1848 and the end of the 19th century than in the previous 3,000 years. Gold fever redirected the technologies of communication and transportation and accelerated and expanded the reach of the American and British empires. Telegraph wires, steamships, and railroads followed in the wake of gold discoveries. Minor ports became major international metropolises (such as Melbourne and San Francisco) for goods and migrants, and interior towns and camps became instant cities (such as Johannesburg in South Africa and Denver in the US).
But just as gold rushes could encourage great energy and productivity, they could also be incredibly destructive. Gold rushes devastated the natural environment, created great confusion and disorder, and adversely affected Indigenous and other communities whose lands the miners invaded.”
Did many Americans leave California when our own gold rush started a few years later?
“Many people travelled to California first to try their luck before rolling the dice again and pushing on to Australia. A similar thing then happened here: when miners didn’t have any luck in New South Wales or Victoria, they moved on to British Columbia in Canada, New Zealand or other parts of Australia in search of their great eureka moment. Australia alone had 28 gold rushes up until 1900.”
You make it sound like the gold rush is about luck and good fortune. Was it all a game of chance?
“Gold rushing, at least in the early stages, was about having a bet – staking everything on the idea that you were going to get lucky. We found many accounts of people tossing up where to go next; wondering where they were going to strike it rich. As time went on, however, mining became an increasingly specialised and professional enterprise, employing far more advanced techniques and expertise. But that romantic idea of the lonely gold miner, toiling away with their pick and pan, who might get lucky has endured nonetheless.” People came to Australia for our gold rushes from all over the world.
Is this how we became a multicultural country?
“I’m uncomfortable using the term ‘multicultural’ for this era as it tends to have more modern connotations, but they certainly created a melting pot. Although the majority of faces on the goldfields were white, diverse communities were certainly present. In 1859, for example, approximately one in five men on the Victorian goldfields was from China. In recent years, we’ve learnt a huge amount about Chinese Australians in this period and their contribution to Australian history. However, their migration here to mine for gold also gave birth to an anti-Chinese sentiment that led to our country’s first race-based migration restrictions. This later coalesced into the White Australia policy.”
How were Aboriginal people impacted by the gold rush?
“For a long time, Aboriginal communities were missing from gold rush histories. Research in recent years, however, has begun to correct the record and recover the various roles Indigenous Australians played during the rush for gold.
Once Aboriginal people realised these newcomers were after that yellow metal, which they knew where to find but didn’t place the same monetary value on, they became involved in the gold rushes in numerous ways, particularly as guides, and they began trading with the miners as well. A handful of Indigenous Australians even appear to have gone off to the California gold rush.
At the same time though, on both sides of the Pacific, the human, economic, and cultural waves that swept through gold regions could be profoundly destructive to Indigenous communities. As the historian David Goodman has pointed out, if you want to engineer an invasion, what better way to do it than to have a gold rush? The influx of thousands of often heavily armed young men, crazy with gold fever, storming into the countryside and tearing up the earth made life almost impossible for many Indigenous communities in California, as well as in Australia. In the Victorian goldfields it has been estimated that about one metre of top soil was removed by the miners. The soil was turned over, animals were hunted and waterways were polluted and diverted – all devastating the land. Today, the Dja Dja Wurrung community still refer to the goldfields as ‘upside down country’.”
You write that gold rushes are not restricted to our history books. What does a modern gold rush look like?
“The world of gold rushes is not a distant era of interest only to historians. For better or worse, the rushes are a foundation of many patterns of economic, industrial, and environmental changes that are central to our modern-day world of movement. Many Australian cities, towns, and regional areas still bear features inherited from the gold rush era – and base their identities around them.
The mining boom that kicked off in Western Australia earlier this century was like a gold rush. It led to this great generation of wealth, it grew the population of WA dramatically, it moved a larger proportion of the population to the northern part of the state, and it transformed Perth (where house prices and salaries soared). And, of course, it eventually fell back to earth as booms always do. In the US, shale gas fracking is an industry of rushes and has transformed cities like Willeston in North Dakota. It’s now a city of high rents, ad hoc urban development, and an overwhelmingly young male population – quintessential features of a gold rush city. In September last year, the Wall Street Journal reported that a new gold rush was underway in Texas for sand.
So, what we’re rushing for might have changed but the sentiment and fever often feels the same.”
Dr Benjamin Mountford is a senior lecturer in history at ACU. He co-edited the book A Global History of Gold Rushes with Associate Professor Stephen Tuffnell.