"Domestic" Life in the Diggings:
The Southern Mines in the California Gold Rush
Susan Lee Johnson
In 1853, Helen Nye wrote from California to her mother in Massachusetts: "I have heard of Miners at some diggins subsisting for days on Acorns of which we have a very fine kind in this Country." Nye was a white woman whose husband was a merchant at Don Pedro's Bar, in the area known during the Gold Rush as the Southern Mines. She explained to her mother how newcomers learned to make use of the oak tree's bounty by watching native people during their autumn harvest. In general, though, Gold Rush immigrants saw the food that Indians most valued as something to be eaten only in dire circumstances. As Charles Davis explained to his daughter in Massachusetts, while acorns, grass, and wild oats abounded in the Sierra Nevada foothills, these were suitable only for "Wild Indians and Wild Animals." Davis's disdain for native sustenance suggests that cooking and eating became sites of contestation in the diggings. In fact, this was the case all over the gold region, given the relative absence of women there. But it was especially true in the Southern Mines, which was both the homeland of Miwok Indians and the destination for a majority of non-Anglo American immigrants to Gold Rush California, including Mexicans, Chileans, French, Chinese, and some African Americans. In the Southern Mines, culinary practices fit into a larger constellation of activities that signaled for many a world of confusion—men mending trousers and caring for the sick, Anglos dining on acorns and frijoles. As Edmund Booth complained to his wife back in Iowa, "Cal. is a world upside down—nothing like home comforts and home joys."
To understand why California seemed like a world standing on its head, one must ponder the multiple meanings of such everyday practices as eating acorns, digging gold, and inhabiting a race or a gender. Even in so short a time as the Gold Rush years and even in so small a place as the Southern
Mines, meanings proliferated, evolved, collided. While native people there lived in communities with roughly equal numbers of women and men, among immigrant peoples skewed sex ratios meant drastically altered divisions of labor in which men took on tasks that their womenfolk would have performed back home. Analyzing how men parceled out such work and how they thought about what they were doing tells us much about the content of gender in the Gold Rush. Crucial too are the meanings of the domestic and personal service work that the small number of non-native women did in California, and the perceptions native and immigrant peoples held of one another's ways of manufacturing material life.
Skewed sex ratios in the diggings were accompanied by an extraordinary demographic diversity: people came to California from all over the world, producing and reproducing ideas about color, culture, and nation that, on U.S. soil, often coalesced into conversations about race. Race, like gender, is a set of changing ideas about human difference and hierarchy, and a relation in which those ideas are put into practice. In a time and place like Gold Rush California, its meanings pulsed through everyday life like an erratic heartbeat. For instance, the way that certain tasks, such as cooking or laundry, came to be associated with certain non-Anglo men demonstrates how constructions of race could be mapped onto constructions of gender in the diggings.
Indeed, in the boom years of the Gold Rush, relations of class were often obscured or even subsumed by the day-to-day salience of gender and race. This was in part because the means of getting gold during the initial boom was by "placer" (surface, individualized) mining rather than "quartz" (underground, industrialized) mining. Placer mining required almost no capital and did not necessarily entail a hierarchy among workers—claims could be staked for free, the necessary tools were simple and easily built or acquired, and the work could be done (though it was not always done) by a small group of people who rotated tasks. Later, entrepreneurs developed "hydraulic" mining, a more capital-intensive means of exploiting surface deposits, whereby men shot powerful streams of water against hills assumed rich in "deep gravels." When hydraulic and quartz mining took hold, they were accompanied by an elaboration of class hierarchies. Class relations followed a different course in areas—like much of the Southern Mines—where insufficient water and underground deposits thwarted development of hydraulic and quartz mining. In such areas, class-making was often signaled by the growth of local water companies, whereby capitalists bought up rights to scarce water and then sold use of the water to placer miners who needed it to wash gold-bearing dirt. But all of these developments—water monopolies and hydraulic and quartz operations—came about as the initial boom, which was predicated on rich surface diggings, began to give way to a bust. In the early years of the Gold Rush—roughly 1848 to 1853—class contests and sol-
idarities often had as much to do with immigrants' memories of class in their homelands as with actual social relations structured through divisions of labor in the mines. Gold Rush California was an unusual time and place.
This, though, is not news; historians have long noted the social peculiarities of the Gold Rush. Indeed, while not all histories of the event and its context have been self-consciously social histories, all have attended to key social dimensions of the demographic cataclysm that followed the 1848 discovery of gold in the Sierra Nevada foothills. Most have noted that "society" in the diggings was, first, mostly male and, second, significantly multiracial and multiethnic. These two demographic realities, along with the initial absence of state power in the foothills, the social implications of that absence, and the suspension of some class distinctions, are among the most oft-mentioned aspects of Gold Rush California. Yet with one exception—an important new cultural history that compares arguments about the meanings of gold in both American California and Australian Victoria—twentieth-century scholarship has stressed questions of social structure over those of social meaning. Newer work, then, must build on these earlier accounts, employing interrelated modes of analysis developed in ethnic studies, feminist studies, and cultural studies. That is, to the concern with demography we must add a concern for the content of social categories such as gender or race.
In this essay, I explore some social meanings and cultural consequences of two of the peculiarities that have interested Gold Rush historians—that is, the relative absence of women and the overwhelming presence of polyglot peoples. I do so by concentrating on what might be thought of as "domestic" life in the diggings—and especially on practices relating to cooking, serving, and eating meals. Not everyone in the Southern Mines dug gold, but everyone did perform, or relied on others to perform, life-sustaining and life-enhancing tasks such as procuring provisions and preparing food. Since few could reproduce the divisions of labor that made performance of these tasks seem more or less predictable and culturally coherent back home, Gold Rush participants devised new ways to provide for their needs and wants. But all the while they wondered about what it meant that Anglo American men were down on their knees scrubbing their shirts in a stream, that Mexican women were making money hand over fist selling tortillas in the gold town of Sonora, or that French men seemed so good at creating homey cabins in the diggings.
Distinguishing between two kinds of work—domestic and personal service work, on the one hand, and work in the mines, on the other—may seem to reify categories of labor. In making such distinctions, one invokes the discursive division between home and the workplace that accompanied the growth of industrial capitalism in the nineteenth century. One also echoes more recent Marxist-feminist delineations of productive and reproductive
labor, which have placed "reproductive" chores (often women's work) on a par with those "productive" chores (often men's work) assumed to constitute true economic activity.
But impulses similar to those that split home life off from labor in the nineteenth century—impulses scrutinized by twentieth-century feminists—also led most Gold Rush participants to view mining as qualitatively different from and more important than their other daily tasks. This makes intuitive sense, since immigrants traveled hundreds or thousands of miles to dig gold or to profit from those who did. Yet performing this privileged economic activity required that miners pay attention to the exigencies of everyday life. Then, too, for one group in the Southern Mines—Miwok Indians—gold digging rarely became the most important, community-defining kind of labor performed. So the dichotomy drawn here between mining labor and domestic and personal service work is at once heuristic and grounded in some, but not all, relevant historical circumstances.
In the end, though, the distinction serves another purpose. During the 1980s, historians learned to use poststructuralist analyses of language that show how binary oppositions work—oppositions such as the one between productive and reproductive labor. In the productive/reproductive labor distinction, for example, the leading term (productive or "breadwinning" work) takes primacy, while its partner (reproductive or "domestic" work) is weaker or derivative. This hierarchical relation mirrors some social relations of dominance and subordination based on gender, and also on race. So foregrounding "reproductive" or "domestic" labor in a history of a mining area, where mining labor might be assumed to take precedence, is itself a gesture toward unsettling that hierarchical relation. I begin, then, not in the mines, but in the canvas dwellings of Gold Rush participants.
Though most immigrants lived in such homes, the word "tent" actually described a wide variety of structures. Some people lived in cramped quarters, such as the Chinese men Scottish traveler J. D. Borthwick saw, who were organized "in a perfect village of small tents." But when miners stayed still for any length of time, they built more elaborate shelters. For instance, though Belgian miner Jean-Nicolas Perlot and his French companions lived at first in a small tent and a brush hut, within a year they constructed a sturdy log cabin covered with a canvas roof. In such cabins, immigrants built bedsteads and fireplaces, though some men remembered how improvised chimneys forced smoke inside instead of drawing it out. Heavy rain in the foothills could impair the draft of even a well-built fireplace, and Welsh-born Angus McIsaac noted in his diary that men living with such irritants often compared their smoky cabins to scolding wives or leaky ships.
McIsaac's observation suggests how readily Gold Rush participants saw in their material world metaphoric possibilities, how easily the frustrations of camp life took on gendered meanings. McIsaac himself thought a smoky
home was "ill compared" to a scolding spouse or a leaky vessel, noting, "were I compelled to take charge of either, I would on all [occasions] choose the former." While McIsaac considered a woman the most pleasing ward, he took for granted the gender hierarchy his words implied. Meanwhile, he and his neighbors took charge of their more immediate surroundings by christening their cabins with names that suggested, even celebrated, the absence of sharp-tongued spouses: Loafers' Retreat, Temperance Hole, and Jackass Tent. Like the white miners who called their camp Whooping-boys Hollow, McIsaac and friends took a certain pleasure in the canvas-covered world-without-women they created.
Not all shelters in the Southern Mines bespoke the ambivalent bachelorhood of men like McIsaac. Among immigrant peoples, more Mexican men than others came to California with their womenfolk. So some Mexican communities in the diggings celebrated different social possibilities than did Whooping-boys Hollow. One observer of such communities was William Perkins, a Canadian merchant in the town of Sonora, which was founded in 1848 by miners from the state of the same name in northern Mexico. Perkins was rhapsodic in his descriptions of Mexican camp life there:
I had never seen a more beautiful, a wilder or more romantic spot. The Camp . . . was literally embowered in the trees. The habitations were constructed of canvas, cotton cloth, or of upright unhewn sticks with green branches and leaves and vines interwoven, and decorated with gaudy hangings of silks, fancy cottons, flags, brilliant goods of every description; the many-tinted Mexican zarape, the rich manga, with its gold embroidery, Chinese scarves and shawls of the most costly quality.
For Perkins, the scene recalled "descriptions we have read of the brilliant bazaars of oriental countries." Whatever the orientalizing eyes of Perkins saw, there is no reason to doubt that Mexicans did indeed decorate their dwellings with bright flags and fabrics and serapes. Perkins noted that it was Mexican men who built the houses, and who, "leaving their wives and children in charge," went off during the week to dig gold. However few and far between, then, even in Gold Rush California there were eye-catching, welltended worlds-without-men.
For the most part, though, miners fended for themselves. Once they built cabins or pitched tents, inhabitants had to organize domestic labor such that all stayed well-fed and healthy. The most common type of household in the boom years of the Gold Rush was that of two to five men who constituted an economic unit: they worked together in placer claims held in common, alternating tasks and placing the gold in a fund from which they purchased provisions. This generalization holds for most white men, both North American and European, and most free African Americans during the Gold Rush. It may hold for many Mexican and Chilean and perhaps some Chinese men
as well. But for those North Americans, Latin Americans, and Chinese who went to California under conditions of slavery, debt peonage, or contract labor, other domestic arrangements probably obtained. And whenever women were present in the camps or whenever men lived in or near towns with boardinghouses and restaurants, daily subsistence was a different matter.
All Gold Rush households, save those of Miwoks, relied on tenuous market relations to supply most of their basic needs. Out in the camps, men traded in gold dust for supplies at the nearest store, generally a tent or cabin a fair hike from home stocked with freight hauled overland from the supply town of Stockton, in the San Joaquin Valley. Beef, pork, beans, flour, potatoes, and coffee ranked high on miners' lists of items purchased. In flush times they might also be able to buy onions, dried apples, or a head of cabbage, though fresh fruits and vegetables were the hardest items to find.
Limited foodstuffs spelled monotonous meals for most, but also encouraged people to exchange cooking techniques. Men from Europe and the U.S., for example, sometimes adopted Mexican practices. Perlot and his companions, en route to the mines in 1851 and low on provisions, met up with a party of Mexicans who were eating what looked to Perlot like turnips dipped in salt and pepper, fresh tortillas, and hearty beefsteaks cooked over an open flame. The Mexican men gave Perlot some raw meat, and he returned with it to his own party, proclaiming, "Messieurs . . . in this country, this is how beefsteak is cooked." Howard Gardiner, from Long Island, was less enthusiastic about the Mexican meals he learned to prepare during lean times, such as those based around pinole, recalling that he and his partners lived "more like pigs than human beings." Just as Gold Rush shelters took on gendered meanings, so too could Gold Rush food become racialized in its procurement, preparation, or consumption.
Among Latin Americans, men might try to appeal to one another's tastes, especially when commercial interests were at stake. Vicente Pérez Rosales, a small-time Chilean patrón who went to California with his brothers and five laborers, learned in mid-1849 that non-Anglos were being driven from the mines. So he turned his attention to trade, setting up a store filled with Chilean cheese and beef jerky, toasted flour, dried peaches, candied preserves, and barrels of brandy. All items sold well except the jerky, which was full of what looked like moth holes. So the Chilean merchants laid the jerky out in the sun and coated it with hot lard to fill up the apertures. Then they piled it up in a pyramid shape and doused it with Chilean hot sauce. The pungent smell caught the attention of some Mexicans, and so the traders told the customers that it was the kind of jerky "served to the aristocracy in Santiago." Pérez Rosales recalled, "We lied like experienced merchants who assure a trusting female customer that they are losing money on an item, and would not sell it at such a low price to anyone but her." Here and elsewhere Pérez Rosales turned Mexican unfamiliarity with Chilean food-
stuffs to his advantage, playing on envy of aristocratic privilege and, in his own mind, making women of Mexican men, thereby underscoring Chilean manliness. Such interethnic episodes, which were charged with taken-forgranted notions of gender and tinged with class meanings, must have occurred frequently in the Southern Mines.
Most immigrants, like these Mexican customers, preferred to purchase their provisions. But during the first few winters of the Gold Rush, floods and treacherously muddy roads between Stockton and the foothills brought severe shortages of supplies. So many miners tried to supplement store-bought food by hunting and fishing, and a few gathered greens or planted small gardens. Not all who hunted met with success. New Englander Moses Little brought down some quail just in time for Christmas dinner in 1852, but he spent most of his shot at target practice. William Miller, also from New England, had better luck. He and his white partners were camped near a group of free black miners, and in addition to joining together to dam the river and work its bed, the two parties went out deer hunting with one another and otherwise shared provisions. Heavy rains foiled the mining plans, but the African American and Anglo American residents of the camp continued to exchange gifts of fresh venison—despite harassment from white southerners who resented the presence of free blacks. By Christmas, one of the black men, Henry Garrison (born in New York but emigrated from Hawaii), had moved into Miller's tent. All parties spent the holiday together indulging in a "Splendid Dinner" of venison and the trimmings, and dancing to the music of Garrison's fine fiddle playing. Though men were not always successful hunters—given both the inexperience of immigrants from towns and cities and the decline in foothill animal populations wrought by the Gold Rush—cultural memory of hunting as a male pursuit encouraged men to give it a try.
Fewer men planted gardens or gathered greens. So visitors were astonished by Perlot's singular store of herbs and vegetables. After serving salad to an incredulous miner in the mid-1850s, Perlot took him on a stroll: "I led him a hundred paces from the house . . . where I gathered chervil; a few steps farther to a place where cress was growing well . . . ; a little farther, I found lamb's lettuce." One of Perlot's partners, the French Louvel, had planted the garden the year before. On seeing it, the newcomer exclaimed, "My God, . . . how stupid can you be! to suffer four years as I have, without having had an idea as simple as that."
Still, most immigrant men suffered from the dietary deficiencies created by their ignorance of the wild plants that Miwok women gathered and their unwillingness to grow more familiar crops. Perhaps they hesitated to plant vegetables because their campsites were temporary, or because kitchen gardens were generally women's responsibility back home. Whatever the reason, their reluctance made them sick. George Evans, for example, could not
fathom why he was too ill to work in the mines, until doctors told him he had scurvy. So he had friends gather wild cabbage and onions, and he bought some potatoes and a bottle of lime juice. His health took a turn for the better.
Evans, given his condition, was wise to eat his vegetables raw, but most miners cooked their food and had to decide among themselves how to share culinary duties. The evidence for such divisions of labor says more about Anglo men than other gold seekers, but Europeans and free blacks, at least, seem to have followed similar practices. The Belgian Perlot claimed, in fact, that most men organized cooking in like fashion: "The rule generally observed between miners in partnership . . . was to do the cooking by turns of a week." Similarly, John Doble, from rural Indiana, explained, "sometimes one does the cooking and sometimes another and one only cooks at a time and cooks for all who are in the Cabin."
A man's "cook week" began on Sunday, when he prepared for the days ahead, as Moses Little recorded: "It being my week to cook I have been somewhat busy—more so than on other Sabbath—Coffee to burn A box full of nuts to fry Bread to bake & Beef to cut up & take care of." During the week, the cook continued to make large quantities of staple foods like bread and beans, in addition to getting up three meals a day. The days around New Year's, 1850, must have been the cook week of Henry Garrison, the fiddle player who lived with William Miller and his dancing partners, because Miller's journal for that period is filled with references to Garrison cooking breakfast, making apple pudding, and stirring up a "Beautiful Stew" of squirrel meat. Miller must have looked forward to Garrison's cook weeks, because at least one of his other partners had trouble even lighting a fire, say nothing of preparing meals. Domestic competence was hardly universal in the diggings, but men valued it when they found it among their comrades.
While it is more difficult to determine from English-language and translated sources whether most gold seekers adopted similar divisions of labor, such sources do provide some evidence of Chinese domestic habits. Yet white observers were more apt to note how odd they found Chinese foods, cookware, and eating implements than to describe how Chinese men divided up domestic work. When J. D. Borthwick visited Chinese camps, the miners invited him to eat with them, but he declined, finding their dishes "clean" but "dubious" in appearance. He added that he much preferred "to be a spectator," a role chosen by many a white man in his dealings with Chinese miners. The spectacle Borthwick described was that of a Chinese camp at dinnertime, with men "squatted on the rocks in groups of eight or ten round a number of curious little black pots and dishes, from which they helped themselves with their chopsticks." Borthwick's word picture evoked white men's visions of the Chinese; there was something both delicate and animallike in the circle of men with their curious cookware. While his words said as
much about white visions as about Chinese practices, they did suggest that Chinese miners working in large parties broke into smaller groups who shared meals, and that they used cooking and eating utensils from their homeland.
Some white men were more gracious than Borthwick when invited to join Chinese circles. John Marshall Newton was camped near five hundred Chinese miners in 1852. After helping the Chinese secure their title to a claim that had been challenged by English miners, Newton fancied himself a "hero" in his neighbors' eyes. The Chinese men did give him gifts and invite him for meals; no doubt they appreciated Newton's assistance in what often proved for them an inhospitable local world. But however much they credited his actions, they also relished making him the butt of dinnertime jokes. Invariably when Newton sat down to eat someone would hand him chopsticks. "Of course I could do nothing with them," Newton recalled, and so "the whole 500 seeing my awkwardness would burst out into loud laughter."
To the Chinese miners, their neighbor must have looked a bit like an overgrown child fumbling with his food. Still, despite this momentary reversal of a dynamic in which white men disproportionately held the power and resources necessary to ensure survival in the diggings, more often Chinese men found it expedient to curry favor with whites. In a situation where white men missed more than anything "home comforts and home joys," Chinese men could turn such longings to their advantage. Howard Gardiner, for example, lived for a time by himself near a Chinese man. Sometimes Gardiner would stay late working on his claim, and when he went home, he recalled, "I found that the Celestial had preceded me and prepared supper." Gardiner's neighbor must have found some benefit in looking after the white man. Meanwhile, for Gardiner the arrangement seemed so unremarkable—so familiar—that he granted it only passing mention. In everyday events like these, where men of color performed tasks white men associated with white women, Gold Rush race relations became gender relations as well.
Among some men in the diggings, such domestic practices were institutionalized. Timothy Osborn, a white man from Martha's Vineyard, lived in 1850 near a party headed by a Mississippi planter. The white planter brought four of his thirty black slaves with him from home, whom Osborn observed were "prompt in executing the commands of their master." Osborn, who did his own domestic work, remarked that the African American men "were very useful fellows about a camp . . . in cooking and keeping everything 'decently and in order."' Northerners sometimes complained about slave labor in the mines, but, if Osborn's sentiments were at all common, the idea of having someone else prepare meals for white men and clean up around their camps had its appeal. After all, this was a culturally intelligible division of labor, even if back home it usually followed what were understood as lines of gender rather than race.
Osborn did not stop to think why his black neighbors were so "prompt" in obeying their master—after all, California was admitted to the union as a "free" state as part of the Compromise of 1850. The New Englander later learned that at least one of the men had left behind a wife and children in Mississippi; this could have provided good motivation for helping the master achieve his goals as quickly as possible. Then, too, although four black men accompanied the planter to California, by the time the group left for home, only three joined the return party. Maybe one of the men had been able to buy his way out of bondage after a few months of diligent work in the diggings. This was a common occurrence in California, where the price of freedom was generally around a thousand dollars. Whatever motivated the African American men's behavior, Osborn himself could not help but look longingly at the services they provided.
In still other camps, men who were not in hierarchical relationships with one another nevertheless chose divisions of labor that bore resemblance to the habits of home. When Perlot teamed up with Louvel, the Frenchman who gardened behind the cabin, the two came up with such an agreement. According to Perlot, Louvel had a "refined palate" and was a superb cook. So the men decided to forgo cooking in weekly rotations: "Louvel . . . consented to do it alone, on condition that I would go hunting every Sunday. He concocted the stew, I furnished the hare; each one found his satisfaction in this arrangement." In the long run, the plan had its costs. During the summer, both Louvel and Perlot spent their time digging a ditch for water to make it easier to wash gold-bearing dirt once the rains began. When they finished and found the skies still clear, Louvel grew restless. As Perlot recalled, Louvel "had nothing for distraction but his culinary occupations," while Perlot kept busy hunting. After weeks of inactivity, Louvel left to join a fellow countryman further north. Perlot was on his own for several months until he found a new partner, for whom he immediately prepared a welcoming feast. This partner was the fellow who was so taken by Perlot's succulent salads—so taken that the newcomer, like Louvel before him, agreed to take on cooking duties indefinitely. Perlot had a way with men.
No doubt similar domestic arrangements existed elsewhere in the diggings. But most who could rely on someone to make all their meals by definition either lived in or near a boardinghouse, owned a slave, or had a wife. Thomas Thorne lived in the best of all possible Gold Rush worlds. An Anglo immigrant from Texas, Thorne came to the Southern Mines with both enslaved women and men and a white wife. Together Thorne's wife Mary and the enslaved Diana Caruthers and her daughters ran a boardinghouse that was renowned for delicacies such as buttermilk and fresh eggs. A few miners lived with the Thornes, while others took their meals at the cabin for a weekly fee. Neighbors like Charles Davis ate there only on occasion, as
Davis explained to his daughter: "here in California we can get . . . a great plenty of common food of every kind. . . . But no eggs, no Turkey, no Chickens no pies no doughnuts no pastry . . . unless we take a meal at Mrs. Thornes."
Even when black labor helped to create such plenitude, white men associated domestic comfort largely with white women—in this case, with Mary Thorne. When Mary was ill, Davis acknowledged that there was "nobody except the Old darkey Woman & her two daughters to serve up for the boarders." But his preface of "nobody except" defined the presence of the Caruthers women as a sort of absence. Indeed, while white men might credit the usefulness of slaves for housework, it was white women's domestic abilities that most enthralled them. After eighteen months of cooking for himself, Lucius Fairchild, a future governor of Wisconsin, moved into a sturdy frame dwelling where one of the residents lived with a wife and child. The Vermont woman kept house for the men, and Fairchild was ecstatic: "You can't imagine," he wrote to his family, "how much more comfortable it is to have a good woman around." Or, as a similarly situated Anglo gold seeker put it, "A woman about a house produces a new order of things."
It was not only family homes that triggered gendered and racialized imaginings. Roadside houses where white women cooked for travelers also proved good sites for conflating things culinary and things female. Consider how P. V. Fox described his stop at such an establishment: "Had beef steak, Pickled Salmon, Hash, Potatoes, Bread, biscuit, Griddle cakes & Sirrup, Tea & coffee. Pies & cakes, Peach sauce, and a chat with the land lady (The rarest dish)." It was indeed the case that meals at white women's boardinghouses were more elaborate than white miners' usual fare. In particular, where an Anglo woman served food, milk and eggs were sure to be found—not surprising, since cows and chickens had long been a special province of women in rural American divisions of labor. In California, the prospect of indulging in such items could take on the urgency of romance. On one occasion, Samuel Ward—brother of soon-to-be-famous Julia Ward Howe—was traveling to Stockton from the mines and hesitated to stop at a new wayside inn rather than the one kept by a male acquaintance on the Tuolumne River. But, he recalled, "a smiling hostess in the doorway and a tethered cow hard by tempted me." Then he completed the metaphor: "This infidelity to my friend, the landlord of the Tuolumne, was recompensed by the unusual luxury of eggs and milk, for which I felt an eager longing."
As Ward's turn of phrase suggests, men's longings and men's loyalties could be confusing in California. Domestic concerns were somehow female (were they not?) and so it was only natural (was it not?) that men would prove inept at caring for themselves in the diggings. Often enough, such was the case. But for every case of scurvy, for every burnt loaf of bread, for every
man who could not cook a decent meal for his partners, there were daily domestic triumphs in the diggings. When he first arrived in the mines, for example, Pennsylvanian Enos Christman complained that his flapjacks "always came out heavy doughy things" that no one could eat. But trial and error brought good results, as Christman proudly noted: "We can now get up some fine dishes! " What were men to make of the domestic contentment they found in the diggings? What did it mean when a New Englander sat down to his journal after a sumptuous trout dinner and wrote, "French cooks we consider are totally eclipsed and for the reestablishment of their reputation we . . . recommend a visit to our camp"?
For English-speaking men to liken themselves to French cooks was no empty gesture. Anglo American and British immigrants seem to have considered exaggerated domesticity a national trait among French men. Englishman Frank Marryat was delighted to find a large French population in the town of Sonora, "for where Frenchmen are," he wrote, "a man can dine." Likewise, A. Hersey Dexter, who suffered through the hard winter of 1852–53, claimed he was saved by "the little French baker" next door who allowed neighboring miners a loaf of bread each day. Yet it was the traveler Borthwick who best elaborated this vision. Borthwick described a French dwelling in Calaveras County that bore resemblance to that of Perlot and Louvel—a "neat log cabin," behind which was a "small kitchen-garden in a high state of cultivation." Alongside stood a "diminutive fac-simile of the cabin itself," inhabited by a "knowing-looking little terrier-dog." Along with Dexter, Borthwick insisted on fashioning French men and things French as somehow dainty (small, little, diminutive)—echoing Borthwick's descriptions of Chinese men huddled around their "curious little black pots."
But in French domestic lives Borthwick found nothing exotic—the cabin was neat; the garden was cultivated; even the dog had an intelligent face. Instead, Borthwick found among the French a magic ability to create a homelike atmosphere: "without really . . . taking more trouble than other men about their domestic arrangements, they did 'fix things up' with such a degree of taste . . . as to give the idea that their life of toil was mitigated by more than a usual share of ease and comfort." The experience of Perlot and Louvel, of course, indicates that some French-speaking men were more inclined to "fix things up" than others. But the Anglo propensity for casting all French men as a sort of collective better half in the diggings is telling. More explicitly than back home, where gender could be mapped predictably onto bodies understood as male and female, gender in California chased shamelessly after racial and cultural markers of difference, heedless of bodily configurations.
California was, for many, a "world upside down." Lucius Fairchild, for example, worked for a time waiting tables and felt compelled to explain the sit-
uation to his family: "Now in the states you would think that a person . . . was broke if you saw him acting the part of hired Girl. . . . but here it is nothing, for all kinds of men do all kinds of work." Besides, he went on, "I can bob around the table, saying 'tea or Coffee Sir.' about as fast as most hombres. " Though Fairchild insisted it meant nothing in California, his explanation suggested that it meant a great deal—white men bobbing around tables waiting on other white men. If he could act the part with such enthusiasm, did gender and race have less to do with bodies and essences than with performing tasks and gestures? No doubt Fairchild thought he could tell a "natural" hired girl from a "made-up" one. But the anxiety such situations produced could be striking. Fairchild, for example, compared his own performance not to those of "real" women but to those of other "hombres"—as if the English word might not adequately insist upon his own essential manhood.
It was true that people who thought of themselves as "hombres" rather than "men" had less call to wait on or be waited on by other male gold seekers. Mexican men, as noted, arrived with their womenfolk more often than other Gold Rush immigrants. Mexican women did domestic work in California not just for husbands and brothers but often—at a price—for larger communities. Consider, for example, the party assembled in 1848 by Antonio Franco Coronel, a southern California ranchero. Coronel went to the diggings with four servants, two native men and two Sonorans, a woman and her husband, who were indebted to their patrón for the cost of the journey north. The Californio gave the woman a half-ounce of gold each day to buy provisions for the group. Of her own accord, she started preparing more food than her party could eat; the extra she sold. She charged a peso a plate for tortillas and frijoles, and eventually earned three or four ounces of gold (fifty dollars or more) per day.
Likewise, in the town of Sonora, Mexican women made a magnificent display of their culinary talents, cooking in open-air kitchens huge quantities of wheat and corn tortillas to serve along with a sopa of meat cooked in chile sauce. William Perkins recalled that both Indian and Spanish Mexican women sold their wares in this manner, while native men who had once lived in Spanish missions passed through the weekend crowds carrying buckets of iced drinks on their heads and singing out "agua fresca, agua fresca, quatro reales. " A few white women also sold food in quantity—one gold seeker met a woman from Oregon "who cooked and sold from early morn to dewy eve dried apple pies for $5.00 each." But nowhere did Anglos create the extensive commercial domestic world that Mexican women, along with Mission Indian men, set up on the streets of Sonora. It was a world that was reminiscent of Mexican cities where women supported themselves by hawking tortillas, tamales, and fresh produce. Even Hermosillo and Ures in northern
Mexico could not have produced as many willing customers for women's wares as the Gold Rush town of Sonora, however. There is no way to quantify how much gold dust passed from men's to women's hands in this domestic marketplace, but it must have been considerable.
Still, as Fairchild's waitressing suggests, this commercial sphere included men who provided goods and services as well. Fairchild was not alone in serving his fellow (white) man, but more often men who did such work were not Anglo American. Helen Nye, the woman who lived at Don Pedro's Bar, was in a good position to keep track of the demand, in particular, for non-Anglo cooks. Her home was also a boardinghouse, but she did not prepare the meals. In letters to her mother and sisters, Nye explained her absence from the kitchen in a number of ways. Once she intimated that her husband had decided to hire a French cook, seemingly over her objections. On another occasion, she wrote that although she wanted to help out, "about all who hire as Cooks prefer to do the whole and have the regular price." In yet another letter, she complained that her cook Florentino had "left in a kind of sulky fit" and that his job landed in her hands. This, she wrote, "was too much as it kept me on my feet all the day."
The shifting ground of Nye's explanation suggests that she worried about what her female relatives might think of her circumstances. Still, the male cooks kept on coming. Florentino got over his fit and returned, and he was preceded and followed by others, including an African American man. And though Nye implied that her husband made hiring decisions, she once revealed her own hand in the process by writing to her sister, "I think I shall try a Chinese cook next they are generally liked." Nye's compulsion about explaining her relationship to domestic duties and her inconsistent descriptions indicate that novel divisions of labor could unsettle notions of womanliness as well as manliness. What did it mean for a white woman to turn over cooking to a French man, a black man, a Chinese man?
It was confusing—the way that gender relations, race relations, and labor relations coursed into and out of customary channels in California, here carving gullies out of hard ground, there flowing in familiar waterways, whereby women waited on men, darker-skinned people served lighter-skinned people, and a few held control over the labor of many. Beyond food preparation, other kinds of domestic and personal service work became sites of confusion and contestation—especially laundry, sewing, and the care of convalescing men, activities that were often gendered female in immigrants' homelands. Washing clothes, for example, was generally the province of individual miners in the diggings, but in more densely populated areas, women and men of color often took in laundry for a price of twenty-five to fifty cents per piece. White men's letters and diaries indicate that Mexican women, African American men, and, most especially, Chinese men all opened wash houses in the
Southern Mines. But however often white men scrubbed their own shirts or handed them over to people of color to wash, they were haunted by memories of white women who did this work back home. A bit of Gold Rush doggerel entitled "We Miss Thee, Ladies" called white men in California "a banished race," and lamented to "ladies" left behind:
We miss thee at the washing tub,
When our sore and blistered digits,
Hath been compelled to weekly rub,
Giving us blues, hysterics, figits.
One of the more serious indications that life in the diggings did indeed give immigrant men "figits" about race and gender is the extent to which Gold Rush personal accounts, written primarily by Anglo Americans and Europeans, are filled with painstaking descriptions of native sexual divisions of labor. No other people's daily habits so interested white men, and no aspect of those habits proved so fascinating as the seemingly endless round of Miwok women's work. This was not a new fascination. For nearly three centuries, Europeans and then white Americans had commented on native divisions of labor, concluding that Indian women did most of the work while Indian men frittered away their time hunting and fishing. Historians have studied the actual differences between native and white divisions of labor that gave rise to such perceptions, as well as the ways in which such perceptions bolstered Euro-American ideologies of conquest. These elements infuse descriptions of California Indian practices as well.
But Gold Rush accounts were written in a particular historical contex—tone where men far outnumbered women, where a stunningly diverse population inhabited a relatively small area, and where most turned their attention to an economic activity that offered potential (however seldom realized) for quick accumulation of capital. In this context, where differences based on maleness and femaleness, color and culture, and access to wealth and power were so pronounced and yet so unpredictable, curiosity about the habits of native peoples took on a special urgency. In particular, men who recently had assumed responsibility for much of their own domestic work now seemed preoccupied with how differently native women maintained themselves and their communities.
White men were especially interested in how Indian women procured and prepared acorns, perhaps the single most important food Miwoks ate. In 1852, for example, John Doble watched as a nearby Miwok encampment grew from three bark huts to four hundred in preparation for what he called "a big Fandango." As he approached the camp, he found a half-dozen Miwok women at work. Suddenly he realized why he had seen in the foothills so many flat stone outcrops filled with round indentations. It was
on such surfaces that women sat pounding acorns with oblong rocks; the holes were created by the repeated impact of stone against stone. Once the acorns were hulled and ground, Doble observed, women leached the meal to remove the bitter-tasting tannic acid. Then they made it into bread or else boiled it, which involved dropping red-hot rocks into tightly woven baskets filled with water.
Other men's descriptions of this process shared Doble's obsession with detail, an obsession matched rarely in Gold Rush personal accounts save in explanations of placer mining techniques. Even miners' own culinary efforts did not receive as much attention as those of native women. It was almost as if, in their diligent representations of the seemingly reproductive work of Miwok women and the seemingly productive work of mining men, diary and letter writers tried to reinscribe ideas about gender difference that life in the diggings had so easily unsettled. But ideas about gender difference were always already ideas about race difference, and Miwok women were not the "ladies" whose absence made white men fidget. Indeed, in California, difference piled upon difference until it was hard for Gold Rush participants to insist upon any one true order of things. After all, no one could deny that white miners also performed "reproductive" tasks. Nor could anyone deny that native women's customary chores were "productive"—or that Miwok women now panned for gold as well. Besides, there were few simple parallels between Indian women's labor and the Euro-American category of "domestic" work. Try as men might to remember the comfort of customary gender relations, discomfort and disorientation were far more common in the diggings. In response, immigrant men tried to make sense of what they saw by drawing on an older discourse that opposed native women's drudgery and native men's indolence.
It was a familiar refrain. French journalist Étienne Derbec knew the tune: "It is generally believed that the Indians live from the hunt; but, mon Dieu! they are too lazy." Derbec claimed that Indian women always struggled under heavy burdens—either baskets of seeds and nuts when out gathering or family provisions when traveling—while men carried only their bows and arrows. Enos Christman, watching Miwoks pass through Sonora, noted this too: "The women appeared to do all of the drudgery, having their baskets . . . well filled with meat." A more thoughtful diarist might have noted whose work produced the animal flesh the women carried.
Friedrich Gerstäcker, a German traveler, assessed native divisions of labor differently. He acknowledged that a woman had to collect seeds, catch insects, cook meals, rear children, and bear heavy loads, while a man merely walked about "at his leisure with his light bow and arrow." But Gerstäcker thought he understood why: "though this seems unjust," he wrote, "it is necessary." He went on, "in a state of society where the lives of the family de-
pend on the success of the hunter, he must have his arms free." Still, the seemingly contradictory impulse either to castigate native men for their sloth or to elevate their economic role to a position of dominance arose from a common, culturally specific concern about the meanings of manhood.
This concern had its roots in the changing social and economic order that sent such letter, diary, and reminiscence writers off to California in the first place—one in which the transformation from a commercial to an industrial capitalism was accompanied by an increasing separation of home and workplace and by shifting distinctions between male and female spheres. White men who aspired to middle-class status were quickly caught up in this whirlwind of change, and the uncertainty of their own positions in the emerging economic system made the potential for quick riches in California all the more enticing. What most found in the diggings was no short-cut to middle-class manhood, but rather a bewildering array of humanity that confounded whatever sense of a natural order of things they could find in mid-nineteenth-century Western Europe or eastern North America. They might try to reinscribe gender difference through ritual descriptions of Miwok women's "domestic" chores and their own "breadwinning" labor. But, in the self-same gesture, that reinscription produced and reproduced race difference as well. Besides, the content of both immigrant and Indian lives in the diggings defied such easy oppositions.
Then, too, Miwok people talked back. Native women in particular looked with disbelief at how immigrant peoples organized their lives. Leonard Noyes, for example, recalled that an older Indian woman one day gave him "quite a Lecture on White Women working [too] little and Men [too] much." "She became very much excited and eloquant over it," Noyes remembered, "saying it was all wrong." In exchanges like these, Gold Rush contests over the meanings of gender and race—always close to the surface of everyday life—were articulated emphatically.
And Miwok sexual divisions of labor were not unchanging; they were dynamic constructions that shifted according to the exigencies of local economies impinged upon by market forces. At times native people resisted the changes, continuing older practices to an extent that bewildered immigrant observers. As Timothy Osborn exclaimed, "so long as a fish or a squirrel can be found . . . they will not make any exertions towards supplying themselves with any of the luxuries so indispensable to the white man!" He watched as Miwok women gathered acorns, and wondered why they did so, "while with the same labor expended in mining they could realize gold enough to keep them supplied with flour and provisions for the entire winter!"
Elsewhere, immigrants saw different strategies. Friedrich Gerstäcker noted, "the gold discovery has altered [Indians'] mode of life materially." On the one hand, he thought, "they have learned to want more necessaries," while
on the other, "the means of subsistence diminishes." More and more, Miwoks supplemented customary ways of getting food with gold mining in order to buy nourishment. Perlot recalled that in 1854 he regularly saw Indian women traveling to immigrant towns in Tuolumne and Mariposa counties to purchase flour with gold they had dug. At Belt's Ferry on the Merced River, where Samuel Ward lived, Miwoks probably spent more time mining than they did gathering and hunting. Following an Indian-immigrant conflict in 1851 known as the Mariposa War, merchant George Belt received a federal license to trade with local Miwoks as well as a contract to furnish them with flour and beef in order to keep the peace. Ward watched over Belt's ferry and store, and got to know native people who felt their best chance for survival lay in setting up camp near an Indian trader. Mining, performed by both women and men, supplied the gold they used to buy goods at the store. Still, problems multiplied in the contract for provisions, and even goods for purchase failed to appear on the shelves. So Miwok women frequently fanned out in search of seeds and nuts, and Miwok men watched for salmon runs or headed down to the San Joaquin Valley to hunt for wild horses.
The more things stayed the same, the more they changed. Miwok men watched for salmon, but found the fish had been waylaid by dams built downstream. Miwok women gathered, but just as their menfolk had added horse-raiding to hunting duties decades before, so might women now pan for gold as often as they collected acorns. White men looked for women to wash their clothes, but instead of wives or mothers, they found a mart for laundry dominated by Chinese men. White women, few in number, set up housekeeping in California, but learned that there were plenty of men for hire to help lighten the burdens of everyday life. African Americans who came to the mines enslaved worked as hard as ever, but found, too, that the Gold Rush opened up new possibilities for freedom. Mexican women sold tortillas on the street, just as they had in Sonoran towns and cities, but discovered that in California the market for their products seemed as if it could not be glutted. And Chilean, French, and Mexican men engaged in one more strategy to help themselves and their families out of precarious situations back home. Given racial and ethnic tensions in the mines and Anglo American efforts to assert dominance in California, some such men were not lucky enough to escape with their lives. If they did, though, they learned that mining the white miners—with their incomparable nostalgia for "home comforts and home joys" and their sense of entitlement to the same—was both safer and more lucrative than washing gold-bearing dirt.
Still, as often as Anglo men patronized a commercial domestic sphere peopled largely by non-Anglos, they also turned inward to create for themselves the comforts and joys of home. Some men reveled in what one man called the "fellow-feeling" that grew out of shared domestic tasks. Many more bemoaned the absence of white women—for whom household chores
increasingly were considered not only a responsibility but a natural vocation—and belittled their own, often manifest, abilities to sustain life. Indeed, in the diggings, the process of idealizing the home and woman's place in it was uncomplicated by the day-to-day tensions of actual family households. Thus, gold or no gold, newly married Moses Little could write confidently that there were "riches far richer" back home with his "companion in Domestic Happiness." Benjamin Kendrick was similarly emphatic in his recommendation: "I would not advise a single person that has a comfortable home in New England to leave its comforts and pleasures for any place such as California with all its gold mines." But New Yorker A. W. Genung went farthest in giving the gold country's missing quality—domestic comfort—an explicit gender and, implicitly, a race. Acknowledging its advantageous physiography, fine climate, and economic potential, Genung nonetheless was adamant about California's chief deficiency: "The country cannot be a great country nor the people a happy people unblessed by woman's society and woman's love." The society of Miwok or Mexican women did not figure in Genung's equation; the woman whose love California lacked was white. For men such as these, the more things changed, the more things stayed the same.
For many, then, the gold boom created what seemed an unnatural state of affairs—even so, a state of affairs to which they were ineluctably drawn. Benjamin Kendrick might not advise a single person to leave an eastern home, but he and thousands upon thousands of men did just that. While Gold Rush California was an unusual time and place, it was a time and place of its historical moment and geopolitical position. Thus New Englander Kendrick no less than Californio Antonio Franco Coronel and Belgian Jean-Nicolas Perlot felt compelled to risk the journey. The U.S. had just achieved continental breadth when gold was "discovered" in the Sierra Nevada foothills—that is, not just when someone saw it in a sawmill's tailrace, but when it took on meaning in an expanding nation and an imminent industrial capitalist world order. The representatives of this emerging order were busy sending tentacles out about the globe, linking peoples, places, and products to each other in their pursuit of wealth. In this world of commerce and now of industry, gold was money, or wealth, that could be turned with human labor and tools of manufacture into capital. Not all who rushed for gold were capitalists—far from it—but all had been touched by capitalism's dynamic tendencies. Some sought gold to create capital; others to ward off that dynamism and its habit of turning human energy into labor power.
Those who sought gold, however, discovered much more than buried treasure. They discovered a world upside down. It was not just the white men who boasted about feather-light flapjacks, or the Mexican women who managed a domestic market, or the French men who tidied their tasteful cabins, or the Miwok women who panned for gold; it was a world turned by a
spasmodic fiasco of meanings. As time went by in the Southern Mines, Anglo American men—and their womenfolk, who arrived in large numbers only after the initial boom—found more reliable ways to assert dominance in the diggings. As even more time went by, and as the Gold Rush passed into popular memory, Anglo Americans, and particularly Anglo American men, found ways to claim the event as a past that was entirely their own. In so doing, they buried a past in which paroxysms of gender and race brought daily discomfort to participants, but also glimpses of whole new worlds of possibility. If we are to find in the Gold Rush a usable past at this present time, when changing relations of race and gender so bewilder those accustomed to power, we must dig deeply in the meanings as well as the structures of the "world upside down" that Edmund Booth described to his wife in 1850. We must understand a time and place wherein white men wept when they thought about what they believed they had left behind.
Consider an episode Enos Christman recorded in his diary in 1852. One night, two Mexican women happened by a group of Anglo miners who were settling into their blankets at Cherokee Camp, near Sonora. The traveling musicians produced guitars and a tambourine, and the men set aside their bedding, listened to the serenade, and then got up to dance with each other. As the night wore on, the music's tempo slowed, until finally the women started strumming the chords of "Home, Sweet Home." They did not intone the lyrics; these women had watched Anglo miners long enough to know that the familiar tune alone would evoke the desired reaction. The men responded apace: "Suddenly a sob was heard, followed by another, and yet another, and tears flowed freely down the cheeks of the gold diggers." The musicians walked away, their tambourine filled with pieces of gold.