Sounds from the Gold Rush Era

Have you ever wondered what the past sounded like? That's right, sounds from the past—before there were cars, airplanes, and radios. Human voices, animals, birds, and nonmotorized vehicles like wagons and carriages dominated the soundscape. But there were also choirs, bands, and pianos, and they sang or played music we don't hear often today.

A time capsule of music.

A time capsule of music.

Several weeks ago, I came across a book in the Museum's archives that offers a brief glimpse into music you might have heard in Stockton shortly after the Gold Rush. Think of it as a 150-year old time capsule of popular music. The book has a hard binding and is about two inches thick. Viewed from the front, it measures ten by fourteen inches. Embossing on the cover reads "Miss Hattie Lanius, Stockton 1858."

The volume contains seventy pieces of sheet music, bound by Atwill and Company, in San Francisco, and apparently gathered at the direction of Miss Lanius. The contents include such sentimental titles as "Adieu Dear Native Land," "Death of Minnehaha," "I Wonder If She Loves Me," and "Willie We Have Missed You." Stephen Foster is one of its better known composers. A handwritten note inside the cover indicates that Miss Lanius at one point gave the volume to an acquaintance named "Mary."

And who was Hattie Lanius? A quick check in local history sources tells me that her father, William Lanius, held the position of postmaster in Stockton in the late 1850s. An appointee of Abraham Lincoln's predecessor, James Buchanan, Lanius played a prominent role in local Democratic politics leading up to the Civil War. In the presidential campaign of 1860, he supported one of Lincoln's opponents, Kentucky politician John C. Breckinridge.

Hattie Lanius disappears from the historical record in the spring of 1858, shortly after marrying Thomas R. Anthony in Stockton. But she left this book as the seed of an imaginary picture. In it, I see a young woman seated at a piano with a group of close friends—boys and girls. They talk; they laugh; they sing popular music; they flirt. They do what young people have done for a long, long time. But they do it without iPods, and with sentimental tunes and words we don't often hear these days.

Hattie Lanius's time capsule sends me a message: Words, melodies, and instruments of delivery may change over time, but the ability of music to express emotions and bring people together lasts forever.

Today, Harriet Lanius's collection of sheet music rests safely on a shelf in the Museum's archives. Perhaps some enterprising musician will crack it open someday, play a sample, and leave us swaying, weeping, or tapping our toes to popular tunes that also had the power to move Stocktonians shortly after the Gold Rush.

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