Rush to Gold: The French and the California Gold Rush, 1848–1854 by Malcolm J. Rohrbough (review)
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Rush to Gold: The French and the California Gold Rush, 1848–1854. By Malcolm J. Rohrbough. (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2013. Pp. 342. Cloth, $45.00.)

Even as California was just conquered by the United States, the Gold Rush was a transnational event. Malcolm Rohrbough, who in a previous, now classic work, mainly studied the New England argonauts, focuses on another group of miners in his new book, especially on “the intrusion of California and America into French life with the powerful pull of wealth in the form of gold discoveries” (2).1 He situates the Gold Rush in a transnational context by describing how gold fever played out in a distant country that sent a large group of immigrants to California. In so doing, his work is part of a larger movement that studies migration by following the migrants from their point of departure to their point of arrival and back. This body of literature studies both the push—what drives the migrants to leave their home country—and the pull—the reasons why they go to a particular place. Scholars have also shown that migrants returned to their country or even made several voyages before settling, a conclusion Rohrbough confirms.2

The Gold Rush migrations that began in 1848 took place during an era marked by economic crisis and political upheaval in Europe, particularly in France. In order to discuss that context, Rohrbough bases his analysis on primary sources, but unfortunately he fails to cite some of the important scholarship of the past thirty years, including key works by Maurice Agulhon or Peter McPhee, authors whose works have [End Page 431] appeared in English.3 Thus, the 1848 revolution in France is not considered in the book as a decisive step in the politicization process that allowed a growing number of French citizens, through voting and participation in sociability structures, to develop a national political consciousness. It also had an Atlantic dimension, as argued by Jean-Luc Mayaud or Marieke Polfliet, in the abolition of slavery and a more radical view of equality.4 It would have been interesting to see Rohrbough directly tackle such issues in the context of migration.

The book is divided into five parts (sixteen chapters) going back and forth from France to California. The first part, set in France, deals with the French context of 1848 and the French response to the discovery of gold, in particular the spread of news and the organization of companies. The second part focuses on the voyage and arrival to California either by way of Panama or Cape Horn. Upon arrival, it appears that most companies failed to comply with their promise to help the migrants travel to the mines. Like other nationalities, French miners were mostly men, who tended to stay together, as luck governed their success in mining. Returning to France, the third part describes a new generation of California companies, including a lottery aimed at funding the departure of three thousand emigrants to California at a time of great poverty and political uncertainty in France. The organization of such a lottery led to debates about emigration and where it should be encouraged. This is one place when the imperial question arose: Shouldn’t the emigrants be led to newly conquered Algeria rather than California? The fourth part takes the reader back to California to witness the lives of the French in the gold mines and to document the arrival of the last miners. It shows that, like other foreigners, the French had to defend their right to mine. [End Page 432] Part five ends the book with some miners returning to France and an evaluation of the impact of the Gold Rush in France and for the French.

Rohrbough has used an impressive body of national and local newspapers. Other sources include publications from the California companies or published and unpublished diaries or letters from French argonauts. His research in the provinces allows him to show the depth of the gold fever in France, although more detailed information about readership and reception would increase its relevance. It is only in the last chapter, however, that one...


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