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Mercury and the Making of California

Mining, Landscape, and Race, 1840–1890

Andrew Scott Johnston

Publication Year: 2013

Mercury and the Making of California, Andrew Johnston’s multidisciplinary examination of the history and cultural landscapes of California’s mercury-mining industry, raises mercury to its rightful place alongside gold and silver in the development of the American West.

Gold and silver could not be refined without mercury; therefore, its production and use were vital to securing power and wealth in the West. The first industrialized mining in California, mercury mining had its own particular organization, structure, and built environments. These were formed within the Spanish Empire, subsequently transformed by British imperial ambitions, and eventually manipulated by American bankers and investors. In California mercury mining also depended on a workforce differentiated by race and ethnicity. The landscapes of work and camp and the relations among the many groups involved in the industry—Mexicans, Chileans, Spanish, English, Irish, Cornish, American, and Chinese—form a crucial chapter in the complex history of race and ethnicity in the American West.

This pioneering study explicates the mutual structuring of the built environments of the mercury-mining industry and the emergence of California’s ethnic communities. Combining rich documentary sources with a close examination of the existing physical landscape, Johnston explores both the detail of everyday work and life in the mines and the larger economic and social structures in which mercury mining was enmeshed, revealing the significance of mercury mining for Western history.

Published by: University Press of Colorado


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pp. 1-1

Title Page, Series Page, Copyright, Dedication

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pp. 2-7


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pp. vii-viii

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pp. ix-x

This book was inspired by work I did as an architect for the Historic American Engineering Record (HAER) of the National Park Service, recording and interpreting the Mariscal Mercury Mine in Big Bend National Park. Eric DeLony, former chief of HAER, has been an enthusiastic supporter of this project. ...

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Introduction: California: The Quicksilver State

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pp. 1-20

California is the Golden State, and has been linked with gold ever since the rush started in 1848. Gold colors our understanding of California and its history; there are elaborate myths of the gold rush emphasizing rugged individualism, democracy, manifest destiny, and cycles of boom and bust. ...

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1. Imperialism and California’s Quicksilver

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pp. 21-56

Years before gold was discovered at Sutter’s Mill, quicksilver was being produced at the New Almaden Mine in the hills a few miles to the south of Mission San Jose. The first mine in what was to become the state of California, New Almaden was recognized at the time for its potential value, and the mine was much discussed. ...

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2. Money and Power in the California Mercury Landscape

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pp. 57-92

The quicksilver industry in California was a capitalist one; capitalists used mercury to make money, and this money gave them power. Since the sixteenth century, mercury had been a tool used by states to control bullion production. Mercury was used by states as a means to achieve their mercantilist goals; ...

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3. A Geography of Mercury Mining in California

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pp. 93-136

The development of the New Idria Mine, and the way it was worked through much of the nineteenth century, together serve as an example of the complex interplay of many factors, both natural and cultural, shaping the California mercury landscape ...

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4. Race, Space, and Power at New Almaden

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pp. 137-192

The New Almaden Mine was created to exploit the rich cinnabar deposits in the hills south of San Francisco Bay. Like any remote industrial site constructed for resource exploitation, the mine was composed of work landscapes and camp landscapes, and these were created through the struggles of various groups of people involved with the mine, ...

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5. Race, Technology, and Work

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pp. 193-214

“The Yard Gang,” a photograph from the early twentieth century, shows a group of thirteen men and a dog at the New Idria Mine in California (Figure 5.1).1 Together these men— the reduction yard workers—sorted and crushed the ore coming from the mine, loaded the ore into quicksilver furnaces, and then bottled the resulting mercury for market.2 ...

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6. Race, Family, and Camp Life

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pp. 215-244

Photographs showing a nineteenth-century California mercury mine community are rare. Figure 6.1, a photograph taken at the Great Western Mine in Lake County, California, shows members of that mine community in 1879.1 This photo is of a type common to factories or company towns, in which workers, managers, and sometimes their families posed as a group in front of where they worked. ...

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7. Conclusion: The Legacy of the Quicksilver

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pp. 245-260

In the early 1870s, with the breakdown of the quicksilver combinations, Thomas Bell, the inheritor of the Barron, Forbes & Co. mercury empire, saw his control of the industry disappearing. Although he still made significant wealth related to mercury during the quicksilver boom and bust of the 1870s, ...


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pp. 261-276


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pp. 277-284

E-ISBN-13: 9781607322436
E-ISBN-10: 1607322439
Print-ISBN-13: 9781607322429
Print-ISBN-10: 1607322420

Page Count: 336
Illustrations: 66 b&w photographs, 23 line drawings, 12 maps, 3 tables
Publication Year: 2013

OCLC Number: 856932915
MUSE Marc Record: Download for Mercury and the Making of California

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Subject Headings

  • Mineral industries -- California -- History -- 19th century.
  • Mercury ores -- California -- History -- 19th century.
  • Landscapes -- California -- History -- 19th century.
  • Mining camps -- California -- History -- 19th century.
  • California -- Economic conditions -- 19th century.
  • California -- Social conditions -- 19th century.
  • California -- History -- 19th century.
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