Claire Vaye Watkins provide readers with a view of what it is like during the California gold rush through her short story called, The Diggings. The Diggings tells the story of two brothers who travel to the California desert in search of gold. The elder brother Errol fosters an obsession to the point of mania in his pursuit of gold. Joshua the younger brother puts aside his plans to attend divinity school to help Errol find gold by using his ability of premonition. Miners of various nationalities travel to California to embark on this quest for gold. Finding gold and striking it rich is the ultimate goal of the miners for one reason or another. Several miners develop an unhealthy obsession with finding gold and striking it rich to the point of delirium and delusion.
This obsession akin to sickness is referred to as “lump fever.” While the California gold rush is appealing to the multitude, racism rears its ugly head, and innate societal beliefs emerge. Various ethnicities travel to the California desert to look for gold. As the number of gold seekers increases by the thousands, so does the competition. “This diverse group [includes] Anglo-American, African-American, Hispanic, Native, European, Chinese, and Jewish
During the gold rush period of 1849, Negroes wear the label of fugitives. The American white miners consider Indians as the current slaves; while Chinese are known as thieves and murderers. Chinese miners suffered enormously, enduring violent racism from white miners. (“California Gold Rush.” Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia, 28 October, 2018, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/California_Gold_Rush). When Joshua and Errol need additional hands to pan for gold, Joshua suggests asking the Chinese for help. Here Errol vividly displays his hatred toward the Chinese. He responds “You don’t become a man of society by keeping quarters with Orientals” (Claire Vaye Watkins 203). This display of racism and discontentment are a common theme during the gold rush. In spite of his feelings, Errol agrees to work with the Chinamen. However, aside from working with them, he steers clear. Errol is not a nice person. He expresses mean and onery characteristics.
Errol fights his brother and does not respect his opinions. He attacks the elder of the Chinamen. Errol presents himself as superior to the Chinamen. Errol is a racist. In fact, he forbids Joshua to engage with the Chinamen outside of panning. However, Joshua has a different view. He interacts with the Chinamen despite his brother’s ideologies. When Errol is away, Joshua eats with the Chinamen, he smokes with the elder Chinamen, and despite the language barrier, he engages in conversation with them. Joshua’s interest with the Chinamen began when he noticed them digging the same claims after he and Errol would search and abandon the claims. Joshua asks the Chinamen why they were following them. The Chinamen tell him, “too many Tongs are killed that way” (Claire Watkins 209). Through further conversation, Joshua learns the Chinamen are uncle and nephew.
The younger of the two Chinamen shares how his father succumbs to death. His father finds gold; white men accuse him of stealing their gold and hang him. Upon learning this, Joshua develops a commonality with the young boy. They are both fatherless. Joshua is kind. He believes in God. Joshua believes he is no better than the Chinamen. Joshua is a compassionate man of God. American white miners share Errol’s sentiment. White miners did not appreciate the influx of foreigners populating their land and claiming their gold. The miners were driving Indians out of their native land. It was common for the white miners to accuse the Chinese of stealing their gold knowing the gold belong to the Chinese. Nonetheless, the miners would hang the Chinese for their so-called thievery. These abhorrent actions of the white miners are quite similar to Errol’s.
Although The Diggings does not mention Errol killing anyone, his actions and beliefs are no better. While prejudice, rage, and violence run deep in Errol’s veins, Joshua proves himself to be unbiased, controlled and compassionate. Errol and Joshua are raised in the same household, with the same values, yet their views are stark in comparison. Though the gold is free and clear once it is claimed, the foreign miners pay immensely as they endure violence and death at the hands of white miners because of social differences. Just like us, the miners of 1849 are molded by the beliefs, mindsets, and prejudices of their era. The gold rush is a depiction of society in all its glory and degradation, goodness and madness. The lessons it shares are as significant, and heart-wrenching, in 2018 as they were in 1849.