Propaganda and Advertising During the Time of the California Gold Rush

What did you see? Did you envision a happy era full of immigrants and Americans happily co-existing and starting a “new life?” People getting rich and living their “american dream?” Not everyone was happy with what was going on during this time period. The California Gold rush was the center of attention during the 1800’s as it attracted my individuals and families from areas such as Asia and Europe and became a mass migration phenomenon. While there have been gold rushes before this time (Georgia of 1828), none have been as advertised or guaranteed. Posters promised anyone gold success by just coming to California.

Thousands of people traveled to the frontier on advertised success and happiness only to find that the minerals at that point had been all gathered. Propaganda and Advertising during the time of the California gold rush were like following a false map, as these promotive methods led populations to believe ideas only the propaganda and advertisements wanted them to perceive and not the reality they would have to face. Advertisements are made to play with the minds of the blissful ignorant and expand on common fantasies of easy success. A newspaper ad from 1849 (California Gold. Advertisement. New-London. ), shows the “success” of the Gold Rush. It implores people to travel west so they can get their share. “Doing so will guarantee the success of the American Dream.” While the American Dream is a common idealism in modern society, very few people are aware that the Dream of success has been a part of U.S. history for over hundred years. Specifically speaking, the 1849 California Gold Rush provided many with dreams of overnight success using posters like these. The advertisement is displaying the “guaranteed success” if one moved to California.

Along with advertisements, Propaganda was also used as a mechanism to spread the ideas of the Gold rush and persuade individuals to move to California. California. State Board of Trade. California: Early History, Commercial Position, Climate, Scenery, Forests…, an example of  propaganda used during the time defines America as the “land of promises” and persuades people into wanting their own prosperity. With propaganda fueling the initiative by giving people hope, the advertising influences people from around the world to chase after the “promises” they are assured to get. Although advertisements during the Gold Rush are mainly concerned with giving only an  appeal that America is a “Land of Promise,” as seen on one of the most iconic propaganda during the California Gold Rush (AN ACCOUNT OF CALIFORNIA AND THE WONDERFUL GOLD REGIONS) , there is no assurance or back up evidence supporting the claim in the advertisement. The concept that advertisements was just like eye- candy. Reality was different. The immigrant life was nothing compared to what advertisements promised.

Many immigrants were put to harsh working conditions, taken advantage of, and  chinese immigrants faced the horrible chinese exclusion act. (The Age of Gold: the California Gold Rush and the New American Dream.). Louise Amelia Knapp Smith Clappe was an author and school teacher. She moved from Massachusetts to California during the California gold rush and penned a series of letters to her sister between 1851 and 1852 describing life in the California mining communities of Rich Bar and Indian Bar. The letters, known as the ‘Shirley letters’ because she signed them ‘Dame Shirley,’ were later published and give present-day readers a detailed account of life in those communities.  There were 24 letters written in total, and amongst them was a very significant one. The sixth letter. This sixth letter revealed the painful reality that all gold miners must face.

That is, “in truth, the whole mining system in California is one great gambling, or better perhaps-lottery transaction. It is impossible to tell whether a ‘claim’ will prove valuable or not (Louise Clapp.).” It is also worth mentioning that Clappe clearly communicates that fluming, ditching, coyoting and claiming seems to continue almost 24 hours a day. In fact, Clappe goes as far as to say that there is “never ten consecutive minutes of silence from all the noise that results from the process of mining .” Above all, these 24 letters provide a bird’s eye view into a period without TV’s, cameras, and tape recorders.

Through the eyes of Louise Clappe one can see that miners did not care for newspapers, churches, lectures, concerts etc. In other words, miners were a culture of their own, bent on living for the sake of finding that so called fairy tale pot of gold. In addition, Clappe’s epistles also reveal the fact that, Gold Rush California appealed to a variety of nationalities outside the United States. For example, she cites several nationalities in Indian Bar, such as Kanakas, 5 Indians French, Spanish, English, Irish and Yankees, most of which were seeking their fortunes in gold. In conclusion, it can perhaps be said that any book that attempts to catalog the eyewitness events of its author has to have some degree of historical significance.

However, to a greater degree Dame Shirley seems to have painfully labored in an effort to give an honest and clear description of her experience. What makes “The Shirley Letters” perhaps so uniquely significant is the author’s intellectual ability to communicate in such decorative and illustrious images without compromising truth for fiction or being biased by the false advertising during the time period. (The Shirley Letters from the California Mines, 1851-1852). The Chinese formed part of the diverse gathering of peoples from throughout the world who contributed to the economic and population explosion that characterized the early history of the state of California during the gold rush. These immigrants proved to be productive and resourceful contributors to a multitude of industries and businesses.  From their arrival during the Gold Rush, the Chinese experienced discrimination and often overt racism, and finally exclusion.

Action often in the form of legislation was used against Chinese immigrants and started as early as the 1850 Foreign Miners’ License Tax law (“The Chinese Exclusion Act (1882): Brief Overview.”).  In 1854 the California State Supreme Court categorized Chinese with Blacks and Indians, denying them the right to testify against white men in courts of law. An economic downturn resulted in serious unemployment problems, and led to more heightened outcries against Asian immigrants. Racist labor union leaders directed their actions and the anger of unemployed workers at the Chinese, blaming them for depressed wages and lack of jobs, and accusing them of being morally corrupt. As a consequence of this hostility, local and statewide restrictions continued to be enforced against the Chinese (Chinese in California, 1850-1920). Eventually, the United States government passed the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, a law that stood in place until its repeal in 1943.

The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, the first major ethnic group immigration exclusion policy in the U.S., provided a 10-year moratorium on Chinese labor immigration.  The Act states that “in the opinion of the Government of the United States the coming of Chinese laborers to this country endangers the good order of certain localities within the territory . . . Therefore, Be it enacted by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America in Congress assembled, That from and after the expiration of ninety days next after the passage of this act, and until the expiration of ten years next after the passage of this act, the coming of Chinese laborers to the United States be, and the same is hereby, suspended; and during such suspension it shall not be lawful for any Chinese laborer to come, or, having so come after the expiration of said ninety days, to remain within the United States.”  This act was not a part of the deal/advertising that the propaganda and advertisements had put up. The position the chinese were in also did not reflected upon the “new life” they had come for ( The Age of Gold: the California Gold Rush and the New American Dream. ).

The influx of Chinese and other foreign laborers led to ethnic tensions in California, especially as gold grew scarce. In 1850, the California legislature enacted the Foreign Miners Tax, which levied a monthly $20 tax on each foreign miner. The tax compelled many Chinese to stop prospecting for gold. The Foreign Miners Tax was the opening act in a campaign by native-born white Americans to restrict the entry of Chinese laborers into California to compete with them for jobs and wages. In 1882, the campaign to restrict immigration to California reached its first climax with the federal Chinese Exclusion Act, which effectively halted Chinese immigration for ten years and prohibited Chinese from becoming US citizens. Although the Chinese did manage to halt the immigration act for 10 years, there was also a great price. The chinese had taken great risks and worked day and night for this to occur. Many other immigrants as well were in similar conditions, they worked long hours, day and night in the must harsh conditions. No one would ever leave their country to come to find this… Propaganda and Advertising during the time of the California gold rush was just like following a false map, as the ideas portrayed in them had no correlation to what the immigrants would have to face.