by Ray Zone

Anonymous,"Miner with Pick,
Shovel and Pan," daguerreotype
ca. 1850. Photo from the collection
of Mathew R. Isenburg.

Anonymous, "Mining Operations of
the American River new Sacramento,"
daguerreotype, ca. 1950.

(Autry Museum of Western Heritage, Glendale) In 1846 the American explorer John Charles Fremont led a band of settlers West and established the Bear Flag Republic of California. By 1850, California was admitted to statehood. And in the intervening years a signal event transpired which, more than any other, has shaped the identity of this most progressive of western States. It was the Gold Rush of 1848. This definitive cultural watershed has emblazoned itself as the state motto: "Eureka! I have found it." And the symbolic impact of the Gold Rush continues to this day as a transformative quest for personal identity, high technology and social mobility.

Gold Fever! The Lure and Legacy of the California Gold Rush is the most comprehensive exhibit ever assembled on this historic subject. Originally organized by the Oakland Museum of California, over a thousand artifacts and works of art are on view, many of which are being publicly presented for the first time. The exhibit fills three separate galleries; included among the artifacts are actual gold nuggets found at Sutter's Mill, a one-pound gold and quartz ring made for President Franklin Pierce, the stern of the famous Gold Rush ship "Niantic," a portion of a miner's hand-hewn log cabin re-created with furnishings and accessories for life in the gold fields, and a powerful hydraulic monitor used to wash soil away and filter out gold deposits.

Visitors to this exhibit are immersed in the sights and sounds of this frenzied era via "personal audio tour" technology created by Antenna Theater of Sausalito, California. The audio program is triggered by motion sensors that are set off as the gallery visitor moves from room to room. The tours themselves are highly theatrical with actors reciting first-person narratives with accounts taken from correspondence of the era. The frenzy and activity of the stampede of fortune hunters pouring into California is excitingly portrayed. While the Gold Rush made the fortunes of some, it brought catastrophe to others, including California's Native Americans.

Photography was in its infancy at the time of the Gold Rush. Daguerreotypes recorded mining operations and portraits of individual miners. Painters such as Albert Bierstadt, George Henry Burgess and Thomas Moran also recorded the exploration of the west with highly romantic panoramas. A George Henry Burgess painting in this exhibit titled San Francisco in July, 1849, is a sweeping record of this most cosmpolitan of cities in its infancy with the gold rush playing a significant part in its development as migrant fortune hunters disembarked here after sailing around the world.The multicultural nature of the miners is comprehensively shown as peoples of every nationality made their way to the California gold fields. The exhibition concludes by examining the legacy of the Gold Rush. The overwhelming effect of mining on California's natural resources, for example, played a part in the subsequent birth of the conservation movement.

Project director Thomas Frye has summarized the legacy of the Gold Rush: "If we open our eyes, we can enjoy the wonderful metaphor of a golden California, and identify with the bold entrepreneurs who struck it rich in mines or in capital endeavors. . . .But," Frye elaborates, "we also need to look at the Gold Rush in a new light. . . .to examine both the winners and the losers, and to look inward at ourselves and think of California's future. . . ."


George Henry Burgess (1930-1905),
"SanFrancisco in July,
1849," o/c, 1891.

Gold in Quartz, a photographic
example of very rich gold ore.

This Golden State remains the ultimate cultural expression of the drive for a cutting edge, for discovery of what lies just beyond the perceptible horizon. The real gold today is information and the stampede continues in a digital era as a perpetual quest for more and better means to convey information in the form of entertainment, education and communication. With exhibits such as Gold Fever, the Autry Museum shows that it can play a significant role in this endeavor.