- France and California and Gold
This uniquely valuable book is concerned with the French and (not in) the California gold rush; that is, most of the narrative takes place in France, as a nation plagued by economic depression and political near-chaos responds to the possibilities of gold and California. In Malcolm Rohrbough’s works on California and its gold, sensibly enough, potential wealth is always central—what it could do for an individual, for a family connection, and for a nation. His Days of Gold: The California Gold Rush and the American Nation (1997) described a people in the full flush of Manifest Destiny, willing to believe that the gold discovery in its newly conquered west confirmed that special democratic destiny. Moreover, California gold especially appealed to those who had not achieved the success expected of good Americans. The placers were physically within reach of most Americans, and few doubted that gold portended greatness for the nation and a real opportunity to improve themselves and their local standing.
For the French, as portrayed in Rush to Gold, the mines were far away in an unknown territory loosely held by a boastful new nation with dangerous political and social values. As Rohrbough effectively sums up the initial French reaction: “That gold was available in large quantities was improbable; that it was available to everyone was impossible” (p. 18). However, as trustworthy French accounts of the gold fever became available, especially through the accurate, provocative account by Jacques Moerenhaut, the French consul in San Francisco, a parallel excitement spread in France. Moerenhaut reported that gold was abundant and that, through hard physical labor, poor Californians had transformed a barter-based society into one shaped by a surplus of gold.
French commerce needed new markets; the Revolution of 1848 had been rooted in crop failures, the collapse of traditional rural economies, and industrial depression in Paris. The price of bread had doubled, desperate peasants had flooded into Paris, and the new republican government’s attempt to create work had collapsed. In June 1848, Parisians took to the barricades; the revolt [End Page 92] was violently repressed. The forces of order and Louis Napoleon dominated France, but the economic crisis abated only slowly. In Consul Moerenhaut’s view, the great opportunity for France lay in commerce, especially in supplying a profligate California mining population with wine and brandy. News of California gold reached France in November 1848; by January 1849, reports of wealth were confirmed; and in February, the first French ship sailed for San Francisco.
For most French citizens, however, California seemed too distant and too dangerous to be attempted. (It was widely believed that the gold discovery had led to social collapse.) Furthermore, French commerce seemed in no shape to take advantage of California opportunities. Then, during the first half of 1849, promoters organized “California companies” in response. The companies would ship goods to a mining population that produced gold in abundance but that didn’t produce its own food, drink, or clothing. Frenchmen who could pay 1,000 francs to become “associate members” of the company would be shipped to the mines and supplied with food, tools, mining engineers, physicians, priests, and money, all for a share—sometimes over half—of the gold they dug. The companies met the needs for massive capitalization to finance ships, trade goods, and miners’ provisions by trying to attract investors of all classes; a mere ten francs could buy a share. Potential investors were promised fabulous returns based on wildly enthusiastic estimates of how much gold could be mined and how much wine could be sold in California. For those floating the companies, at least, earlier cynicism about gold reports had given way to grandiose expectations. Roundly condemned by some officials and journalists as hopelessly overconfident—if not fraudulent—and badly undercapitalized, at least some of the companies got Argonauts to San Francisco. There the company miners found the promises of support simply untrue; they were on their own...