Imagine yourself caught up in the excitement of California's Gold Rush. Now imagine yourself boarding a ship on the East Coast, sailing to San Francisco, and heading out to the Southern Mines after stopping in Stockton for supplies. Thousands of other gold seekers from throughout the world join you, hoping to make a quick fortune then head back to civilization.
Culture—good literature, art, and music—are not high priorities. In fact, you probably couldn't care less—at least, according to popular stereotypes of the Forty Niners. But how accurate are those stereotypes? Was early California soon after the Gold Rush actually a cultural wasteland?
The reality seems to have been more complicated.
Recently, volunteer archivist Gail Erwin has been compiling a catalog of the library owned by Stockton founder Charles M. Weber and his family. The library dates from the 1850s and extends into the last days of the nineteenth century. It seems to have been extensive. Gail is not yet finished, but it's safe to say at this point that Weber and his family were widely read.
So far, Gail has identified four major categories: religion, philosophy, literature, and history. Representative historical works include Flavius Josephus's Works, Buffon's Natural History, William Still, The Underground Railroad Records (1872), and Giuseppe Garibaldi's Life (1859). Among other works are classics like Uncle Tom's Cabin (1852), the Works of William Shakespeare, and Daniel Defoe's Life and Adventures of Robinson Crusoe. Also present is poetry by William Wordsworth and a number of lesser poets.
The reading interests of the Weber family were not limited to the English language. True to Weber's own heritage, the library includes books written in German. In addition, it contains English-French and English-Latin dictionaries and, among other volumes, Victor Hugo's Les Misérables (1862), as originally published in French.
I don't doubt for a moment that, taken as a whole, California's Forty Niners and those who followed soon after were a rough-and-tumble lot. The group undoubtedly had more than its share of ruffians, riffraff, and adventurers. But the evidence tells me that we err if we imagine the entire group arriving in California as blank cultural and intellectual sheets.
True, not everybody had the income or time to behave like the Webers. But I suspect that enough settlers arrived with appreciation for culture and its institutions to plant seeds that eventually transformed the nature of life on the California frontier.
How that happened and the meaning of the process will be explored in another post.