(from the California
Rooted in Barbarous Soil: People, Culture, and Community in Gold
Kevin Starr and Richard J. Orsi, Editors
University of California Press, Berkeley, CA, 2000, Published in association
with the California Historical Society, 346 pages
Reviewed by Lynn Downey
Historian, Levi Strauss & Co.
The Gold Rush is the
Energizer bunny of California history. Just when you think it is about to
run out of steam and topple over from sheer inertia, it revives and emerges
as strong as ever.
The latest evidence of this phenomenon is the stream of books that appeared
during and just following the 150th anniversary of the gold discovery in
1998. The book under consideration here is the third volume in the
California Historical Society's “California History Sesquicentennial
Series.” In his Introduction, Kevin Starr says that the purpose of the book
(and of the series as a whole) is to memorialize and make sense of the gold
rush experience. This particular volume is devoted to showing how Americans
took their Gold Rush experience and fashioned it into community, popular
culture and art.
I have to admit that I am not a big fan of Gold Rush histories. Perhaps this
is because everything I read (or was asked to read, as a fourth grader in
the 1960s) has been concerned with the surface story, as if I could
understand the Gold Rush by simply knowing how placer mining worked, or how
rough life was in the diggings. The Argonauts were paper cutouts, not made
of flesh and blood, and for this, they lost my interest.
I was therefore surprised and delighted to discover that the purpose of
Rooted in Barbarous Soil was to plant the Gold Rush into real life. The
essays in the book, each written by a variety of scholars of the West, are
devoted to the migration experience, ethnicity and race, urbanism, women,
art, literature, education, religion, popular culture and sex. If there is a
collection of topics better suited to expressing the transforming experience
of a major historical event, I'd like to hear about it.
Starr's introduction gets us ready for the essays by stating that the
research that went into their creation is both unsentimental and
revisionist. The essays are meant to act as a mirror to the present and show
us for what we were, as painful as that sometimes is. The essays on
settlement and race are especially unsparing, yet all of the authors manage
to make their points without losing the reader to either guilt or ennui.
What the volume does as a whole is strike a balance between atrocity and art
and I finished the book with a greater understanding of this extraordinary
Out of all the essays, the image that stayed with me was a description of
San Francisco at night, written by Bayard Taylor in 1850. The evocation of
light in the midst of total darkness seems an apt metaphor for the way in
which many writers have dealt with those who rushed for gold: they were
either hardy Argonauts or venal opportunists. Rooted in Barbarous Soil shows
us that these black and white characterizations have no place in a modern
understanding of the era which gave birth to the Golden State.
“The appearance of San Francisco at night, from the water, is unlike
anything I ever beheld. The houses are mostly of canvas, which is made
transparent by the lamps within, and transforms them, in the darkness, to
dwellings of solid light. Seated on the slopes of its three hills, the tents
pitched among the chaparral to the very summits, it gleams like an
amphitheatre of fire...” (p. 210).