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Culture in California Gold Rush

The Penny Press and Gold Fever

Sutter's Mill was not the first discovery of gold in American history. But it was the first discovery to induce "gold fever" on a national scale, and the scale of Forty-Niner migration was of a magnitude greater than the largest previous gold rush (which occurred in the Cherokee lands of Georgia in 1829).

Profound cultural and social changes in America between 1830 and 1849 made the California Gold Rush possible. First, the intensification of the market revolution created a large body of dissatisfied workers who might jump at the chance to escape a life of wage labor. Second, the evolution of the penny press in the 1830s and 1840s created, for the first time, a true mass media accessible to a majority of the American population. Articles in the penny press trumpeting California gold were able to mobilize a mass migration of prospectors in a fraction of the time it would have taken the information to disseminate through traditional kinship news networks that relied on word of mouth.

Once in California, the miners found themselves in a bizarre social universe—almost entirely male, multiethnic and polyglot—where they created their own distinctly boisterous, ribald cultural traditions. The culture of the Gold Rush may be best encountered today in the works of Mark Twain, who arrived in California long after the Forty-Niner era but learned its cultural forms from famed Gold Rush-era writers Bret Harte and Dan De Quille.

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