Photographing the California Gold Rush

Robert Lewis looks at the historical evidence contained within the daguerreotypes taken during the 1849 Gold Rush.

The California Gold Rush was the first event to be documented extensively by the new medium of photography. When 200,000 eager fortune-seekers arrived on the Pacific coast in 1849-51, with  100,000 more joining them in the next four years, daguerreotypists were there to meet them. However, as historical evidence, the several hundred remarkable images that survive raise formidable problems of interpretation. Most are of people unknown in places unknown at dates unknown by photographers unknown. And the portraits are very deliberately posed for the camera. What do these daguerreotypes reveal about the motivations of the ‘forty-niners’?

A few authenticated daguerreotypes exist in collections of personal papers where other forms of documentation – letters and diaries – comment directly on the significance of these images to individuals and their families. Indeed, the deliberate self-fashioning of the images aids interpretation. Gold-seeking was not for the faint-hearted or empty-pocketed. ‘Argonauts’ planning the lengthy and costly journey were well aware of the momentous decision and of perils unknown. They often recorded their thoughts and feelings in journals bought for that purpose. They also embraced the new technology of the daguerreotype endowing it with almost miraculous powers to document personal details and disposition. A ‘likeness’, enhanced by exaggerated role-playing and dramatic gestures, marked their passage to wealth and manhood. From photographs taken in the studio or in the mines in the Sierra foothills, it is possible to understand how forty-niners saw themselves and how they wished others to see them before and during their great adventure.

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