Woke up. Got out of bed. Dragged a comb across my head...
Well, not really — the comb part, anyway. It was my last morning in Berkeley. I checked out of the "Y," grabbed an "F" bus courtesy of Alameda County Transit, and then found myself in somewhere called Emery (or Emeryville), along the shores of San Francisco Bay (near [or in?] Oakland).
I walked into a fancy Marriott Hotel — me, with my flannel shirt, dark green "Ranger" pants, clunky hiking boots, and big blue backpack. The kind lady at the front desk, without asking any questions, pointed me to the Hertz car rental facility behind the hotel.
With my compact rental car, I set off for the mountains. I took I-80 East, through the coast range and then down into the Sacramento Delta [a weird inland delta that then recombines itself into a single thread to pass through the Coast Range and dump into San Francisco Bay; or at least that's how things used to be; centuries of hydraulic engineering may have changed things]. But as much as the Sacramento River is still a delta, it seems only so in a very modern form, with the river literally disintegrating into countless numbers of irrigation channels going every which way. Or, at least that's what it looks like from the car. We drive along a causeway, perched above endless flatlands — the great Central Valley —, a patchwork of different crops, each giving off different hues. And, far in the distance on the horizon is a city that rises out of this muck, in the middle of the floodplain, the city of Sacramento.
I'll be coming back to Sacramento on Day 5, but for now I keep driving on I-80 east into the Sierra foothills. The highway follows along the western edge of the American River watershed, one of the principal tributary river systems of the Sacramento. It was here, on the South Fork of the American River, that gold was discovered on January 24 (my birthday!), 1848, at John Sutter's mill in Coloma. But we follow along the western edge of the North Fork of the American River now. (It's an aptly-named river, for the river and its communities remain steeped in the compelling "mythistory" of the California Gold Rush — a seminal moment in American history.)
Anyway, in the town of Auburn, California, I pull over at the Ranger's station for the Auburn State Recreation Area, a state nature preserve that encompasses much of the north and middle forks of the American River. I ask about camping sites, and am offered two options: Ruck-a-Chucky and Mineral Bar. On the map they hand me, Ruck-a-Chucky appears much closer, so I head there first. It is about 2 PM in the afternoon, and the temperature is 95°.
I drive away from the Ranger's station and eventually come to a road that takes me down, down, downhill — and the quality of the road actually follows a parallel declension. First it is paved, then it is smooth gravel, then it is course gravel, then it is a field of boulders left behind from when the last glaciers receded. (No, probably not; but that's what it felt like to my poor rental car!) When I finally made it to Ruck-a-Chucky, I found the hottest, driest, most desolate campsite imaginable. I thought about my plans for the next three days — to visit countless historic sites and museums across the region; a lot of driving — and I decided that my poor rental car would not survive driving the Ruck-a-Chucky on-and-off-ramp multiple times daily. But before I left, I saw two men returning from the river — the Middle Fork of the American River — holding pans. Gold pans. Placer mining pans. Yup, those pans of American "mythistory" that we believe every Yankee immigrant dipped into the water and pulled up little gold nuggets with. I didn't ask these men if they were successful. Doubtful. But I did later learn that panning is perfectly legal in California state parks and preservation areas, just as long as you aren't ripping up the stream bed, or re-channeling the flow of water, or something like that, which I'm sure our forefathers never, ever did back in the good ole days of the Gold Rush... [More on that later!]
Anyway, back in the car, and out of Ruck-a-Chucky, I returned to I-80 East until arriving in Colfax, California. If you've never heard of Colfax before, don't worry. Neither had I. Yet lo and behold Colfax would be my home for the next three days. Because when I drove down the hill into the Mineral Bar Campground area — a former Gold Rush site on the North Fork of the American River — I found well-maintained campsites — most of them full — as well as well-paved access roads, and what more? Tons of people were swimming — not panning — in the river. This campsite was, to be blunt, "golden." :)
My camp at Mineral Bar on the North Fork of the American River.
View of the North Fork of the American River at Mineral Bar. No one was gold panning, but kids were very busy manipulating the stream bed, as shown. And that was historic enough, since Gold Rush immigrants also ripped up and transformed stream beds in their wild search for gold.
The American River Watershed (in green). (Source: Wikipedia)
So there I was, at Mineral Bar, Colfax, California. I had grabbed a burrito and horchata on the road, and I finished my snack at camp. I went for a swim in the river. I read. And then I went to sleep, lullabied by the ridiculously loud country music blaring from my neighbor's pick-up truck. Great.
Woke at 6:30 AM and hit the road by 7. Today was my "Sacramento Exploration Day." I had never been to Sacramento City before. It was a Friday, and I arrived just after 8 AM along with all the morning commuter traffic. I found free parking on 25th & O Streets. [Sacramento is a well-designed city; in one direction the streets are numbered, and in the other they are lettered.] This was just a few blocks from Sutter's Fort State Historic Park. I walked over to poke around...and found Sutter there himself!
Statue of John (Johann Augustus) Sutter, the larger-than-life "founder" of Sacramento City. The statue stands across the street from Sutter's Fort, and in front of a hospital named after him.
The plaque reads, in part, that Sutter was "a man of vision and compassion who deserves the respect and gratitude of Americans and Swiss." Note that it doesn't say "...and Indians." Because, from all we know about Sutter, historians seem to agree that he treated "his" Indians —at times he had hundreds, even thousands, of Native Californian Indians working for him — pretty poorly.
Also note the body language. With hand outstretched, Sutter seems to be urging Indians to "Come over and let me help you." Or perhaps he is encouraging European and Euro-Americans to "Come over and help me help them."
It was 8 AM, and Sutter's Fort was not yet open. Not until 10. So I began walking downtown. My goal? Old Sacramento State Historic Park. And breakfast, too.
My walk took me through Sacramento's Capitol Park, where I stopped and took many photographs and pondered about the way the park memorializes California history...
Sacramento's Capitol Park. It is likely the best capitol grounds I have ever visited in the United States. You can wander for hours down various pathways examining flower gardens and tree species from all across the state. As I was walking through, I thought of one of our professors at Stony Brook who is currently writing a history of trees in California. I wonder what he thinks of this strange display of redwoods, palms, orange trees, etc. all thrown together. Is this some sort of arboreal representation of Californian empire?
Orange trees growing on the Capitol grounds. Capitol Park, Sacramento.
I was fascinated by the selection of war memorials. Every state capitol is littered with war memorials. Every capitol grounds has a WWII memorial; and every capitol is building a 9/11 memorial. But California has made some interesting choices. Spanish-American War monuments are usually pretty much hidden, if not non-existent. Most Americans are probably not very proud of that war, and we are weary of the idea of America as an "empire" (which we, of course, are, but the term surely bothers many of us). But California's monument to this forgotten war is actually pretty prominent. And, of course, they had a monument to the Mexican-American War, too. But, actually, they don't. [huh?]
Spanish-American War monument. Capitol Park, Sacramento.
Notice how the statue is aptly placed in a jungle-like, tropical, swampy setting, reminiscent of the Philippines where the Spanish-American War did not end, but continued for years until the U.S.A. crushed Filipino resistance fighters and their dreams of independence. Worth remembering.
Also, the plaque lists Cuba, the Philippines, and "Porto Rico," but not Guam.
Mexican-American War monument. Capitol Park, Sacramento.
It's a mind-boggling monument if you don't read Spanish. That's because the English-language plaque on the ground doesn't mention which war the monument is recognizing (World War II, apparently), and since it is a monument to Mexican-American war heroes, it is easy to misread the monument as a "Mexican-American War" monument, rather than a "Mexican-American" war monument. Got it?
By 10 AM I finally made it to my destination, Old Sacramento State Historic Park.
A street scene in the Old Sacramento State Historic Park.
You might be wondering why I would want to wander around streets held hostage to the mid-19th century in "old" Sacramento. Well, Hawaiian migrants lived and worked here, in this neighborhood, and along the shores of the Sacramento River back then. Indeed, I have the addresses for some of the Hawaiian workers I'm writing about in my dissertation, and in one case, I was even able to find the street where one guy had lived...
The alleyway between Front & Second Streets, and I & J Streets. Here, in 1859, a Hawaiian migrant worker lived. One day his landlord tried to evict him by throwing all his furniture out into the alley. Then he punched her in the face and was arrested by the police.
Yep. Just a little story in the history of Hawaiian migrant labor! And it happened right here, behind the Mechanics' Exchange.
While poking around the Old Sacramento State Historic Park, I also visited the Sacramento History Museum. It was a lot better than I expected. I ended up spending a full hour inside. I was searching for any evidence of Hawaiian settlement in California in the 19th century, and while I didn't find much, I did find this:
Mrs. Jennie Mahuku, c.1880. Sacramento History Museum.
It's a pretty arresting image. And the fascinating thing is that I had seen it before — just days before — in a manuscript collection at the Bancroft Library in Berkeley. Maybe it makes the rounds because it is, as far as I know, the only photograph of Hawaiians immigrants in 19th-century California.
The caption for the photo is pretty amazing. "John Sutter brought over fifty natives from the Sandwich Islands..." I have read in numerous places that Sutter brought over only ten or twelve Native Hawaiians, but fifty? If any reader knows more about this, I'd love to know! The rest of the caption is pretty good. It talks about the "Hawaiian-Indian village" in "Verona," which is what the place is known as today, but back then it was Vernon. And just a quick peak at U.S. census schedules, like the one for Vernon from 1880, shows "Jane Mahuka," 37 years old, living with her husband Ed Mahuka, 41 years old (and whose name pops up in Hawaiian-language newspaper articles now and then in the 1860s and 1870s). The census states that the couple have two kids, both born in the 1870s, and both born in California. The census records Jane and Ed both as "black," and notes that they were both born in the Sandwich Islands. One of their kids is listed as a daughter aged 4, so that is likely "Ellen," pictured at left above. The other girl, standing with her arm on Jennie's shoulder, is more confusing. But as for her story, you'll have to visit the Bancroft Library to figure it out, as I'm not at liberty to publish any of what I read about her yet...
Anyway, it's a great photograph. It's great that is shows women. And children, too. Because the textual evidence of Hawaiians in California is overwhelmingly weighted toward documenting male experiences, so this offers a nice counterbalance, and opens up new windows into the Hawaiian migrant experience in California.
Next, to Sutter's Fort.
"Sutter's Fort is Open." Sutter's Fort State Historic Park. Sacramento.
As already mentioned, John (Johann Augustus) Sutter came to what is now Sacramento in 1839 with about a dozen Native Hawaiians (men and women) in tow, with dreams of founding a "colony," an "empire" — I've seen it described a million different ways — which he dubbed New Helvetia. He set up shop at the confluence of the Sacramento and American Rivers, in- and upland a few miles, which was smart, because the Sacramento River constantly overflows its banks and causes devastating floods. So, Sutter got to work building a fort / trading post, which is what remains today. As already mentioned, as well, Sutter employed hundreds — even thousands — of California Indians to live in his colony and put their sweat into his agricultural empire. He notoriously treated them as his "children," and — as I was just reading about today in a manuscript collection at the Huntington Library — he had a penchant for selling off and trading the Indian children to other white folks, like, as if the kids were just commodities. Sick.
The big question for me is, what did those ten or twelve (or fifty?) Native Hawaiians do in New Helvetia? Did they help build the fort? Possibly. Did they do work around the fort? Possibly. Unfortunately, I couldn't find any mention of "Sutter's Canacas" (Kanakas) at the historic site. It was as if Sutter had arrived all by himself — oh, did I mention he abandoned his wife and kids in Europe, too, and that some even speculate that in California he had an extramarital affair with one of the Hawaiian gals he had brought over? Nice guy.
A typical room at Sutter's Fort. Did one of "Sutter's Canacas" ever live here?
There is a lot more to learn about Hawaiians in 1840s Alta California. I have learned some things on this research adventure, but there is still a long way to go...
Finally, I decided I had to go visit where Mrs. Jennie Mahuka (Mahuku) once lived, a place where I was sure I wouldn't find any remnant of Hawaiian migrant history, but I needed to just stand there: Vernon (present-day Verona, California).
This was the place where, as the Gold Rush waned, and the gold mining industry continued to morph into something uglier than our "mythistory" ever admits it to have been, Hawaiian ex-miners reconnected and reorganized their lives. It was, by 1870, one of the largest non-urban communities of Hawaiian immigrants in all of California. We're talking, like, fifteen people here. Nothing huge, but noticeable enough in Hawaiian-language newspapers of the period. The Hawaiian men worked as fishermen, and there were women and children, too (as the earlier photo suggests, as do the censuses).
Anyway, there don't seem to be any Hawaiian fishermen in Vernon/Verona anymore, but I did find that this small village still has lots of boats floating around it.
The marina at historic Vernon / present-day Verona.
I did learn one thing from visiting Vernon/Verona. I had looked at maps of the place again and again, trying to make sense of why — of all places — Hawaiians settled there after the Gold Rush. And when I got there, it finally clicked: it's a river confluence. Just like Sacramento City sits at the confluence of the Sacramento and American Rivers, Vernon sits at the confluence of the Sacramento and Feather Rivers. River convergences attract port facilities, docks, and become centers of riparian trade. Perhaps our Hawaiian fishermen wanted easy upstream access to both rivers. Well, then, what better place to establish a fishing community than at the confluence of those two rivers?
Historic Vernon / present-day Verona, California, where the Sacramento and Feather Rivers meet.
Back in Colfax, I returned to my campsite around 5:30PM, only to find that my neighbors had been worried about me. Where was I all day, they asked. Did I know that, while I was gone, my tent had blown away and almost fell into the American River? I had to thank them quite a bit for saving my tent — on multiple occasions throughout the day, they professed — and in the process I got to know my neighbors better. They couldn't believe I was from New York City. What the hell was I doing in Colfax, they wondered. I didn't want to tell them that I was doing "field research" for my dissertation on the history of Hawaiian migrant labor, because, honestly, when you are camped along the American River, listening to the water rushing downstream, watching the sun slowly receding over the mountaintops, who wants to talk about that shit? I certainly did not. I'm just exploring, I replied. And so I was.
If Day 5 was Sacramento day, then Day 6 was Mining day. I left early again, at 7 AM, to drive north on Route 49 to the Malakoff Diggins State Historic Park.
When I arrived, I did not know I had arrived. I drove through what looked like a ghost town. It was 9 AM and I was literally the only person around on a street full of empty buildings. Uh...is there a Visitor Center here? Nope. So I just kept driving around until I realized that I was on my own.
I pulled off at the trailhead for the "Diggins" trail. (I don't know why, but this place insists on using the spelling "Diggins" rather than "Diggings.") What I saw was pretty amazing: I'll call it a "ruinscape." Back in the 19th century I would have called it a "minescape," but since mining ended here in the 1880s, the place has just sat like a ruin for over a century.
The "ruinscape" of Malakoff Diggins State Historic Park.
The "ruinscape" of Malakoff Diggins State Historic Park.
If you've ever visited a surface mine or former surface mine, or quarry, or something of that nature, you probably won't be surprised to see these photos of a huge gaping hole in the ground that has barely recovered in over a century of disuse. Like I, your first reaction upon visiting the mining "ruinscape" in person might perhaps be to say, "okay...."
Grasping the nature of this site involves a little extra knowledge about mining history plus a really good imagination. You have to imagine it is the 1850s, 60s, 70s, or even early 80s. Placed inside this big gaping pit are scores of these:
"Giant." A monitor. This was basically a huge water cannon that shot at rocks instead of protestors.
Imagine all these monitors placed through the Malakoff Diggins pit site, shooting massive amounts of water at high speeds at the surrounding rock walls. All the eerie, sculpted dunes at Malakoff were the product of this high-speed erosion. The place is like a battle site, like the Gettysburg of mining history. But instead of memorializing where people were shot dead with cannons, it memorializes where the land was ripped away by cannons.
And what was the point of all this? To find gold, of course. Our "mythistory" of the Gold Rush imagines that all immigrants to California in the late 1840s and early 1850s were out there with pick axe and pan sorting through stream bed gravel on their own — every man for himself — picking out nuggets in a race for gold. But if that was ever true, it wasn't true for long. Instead, in the 1850s the number of individuals self-employed by gold prospecting dropped to nil while the number of corporations controlling the gold industry and employing immigrant workers as wage labor increased. Part of this was just unregulated capitalism doing its thing. But part of it was also in response to the fact that gold was just getting harder and harder to find. So technological change spurred changes in the social relations of production (and vice-versa?). By the end of the 1850s placer mining had been replaced by hydraulic mining.
Hydraulic mining? Yes, with water cannons shooting all around.
It is not clear if Hawaiian migrants were ever employed in hydraulic mining. We might imagine them shooting monitors at rock walls, but somehow I just can't imagine it. Maybe not until I find some real evidence. But one thing we can be sure they experienced were the disastrous results of hydraulic mining.
Part of the Malakoff Diggins drainage system. Waste water from the hydraulic mine was released through an elaborate drainage system all the way into Humbug Creek. And from there, of course, it continued into the Sacramento River watershed.
If we think about our friends back in Vernon/Verona in the 1870s, fishing for a living, imagine what was happening to the fisheries in the Sacramento and Feather Rivers as the waste water from hydraulic mining upstream clouded the water. Look at that photo of Malakoff Diggins — that big pit — and imagine where all the rock and gravel and sediment that wasn't gold ended up. It all got flushed away, polluting streams and rivers. Indeed, environmental historians have concluded that a number of fish in the Sacramento River system were extirpated during this era. The Hawaiians at Vernon would have felt that; they would have experienced it first-hand in their own working lives.
Well, if that wasn't interesting enough, I still had to see what gold mining was like after the 1880s, after the state of California banned hydraulic mining. It turns out that hydraulic's replacement was what is termed "hard rock mining."
Scale model of the Empire Mine. Empire Mine State Historic Park.
I learned about hard rock gold mining at the Empire Mine State Historic Park in Grass Valley, California. Empire was an active gold mine from the late 19th century until the 1950s. If we can imagine "placer mining" as a bearded Yankee dude with a pan picking out gold nuggets, and "hydraulic mining" as an army of wage workers shooting water cannons at hillsides, then "hard rock mining" is when industrial wage workers got into little cars and rode down shafts thousands of feet into the core of the earth to find the very last bits of gold left in California.
The scale model, shown in the photograph above, depicts all the shafts built over nearly a century at the Empire Mine. In the 1860s and 1870s, when — theoretically — a Hawaiian migrant miner may have worked there, Empire's shafts only descended one or two hundred feet. But by the mid-20th century the deepest shafts descended 11,000 feet!! That's crazy!!
A rail "car." Each wooden slab could seat one worker. The miners rode the car toboggan-style down into the mine shafts, sometimes traveling as far as 11,000 feet!
I arrived on a "living history" day, so there were some "miners" on hand to tell me about the work conditions. At the head of this shaft, an old miner told me that the "commute" to the mines through the shaft could take as long as one hour. One hour? Yes, he said. And at first the workers weren't even paid for that hour; they traveled down the shafts on their own time.
Can you imagine descending in a toboggan on a rickety rail in the pitch blackness with a bunch of smelly guys for an hour? And that's just one way. They spent two hours each day just traveling through these pits. And they didn't have iPods, or even books, to entertain them on their daily commute. I wonder if they sang songs? Or talked about news? Local gossip? Mind-boggling.
Looking down a mine shaft, about 150 feet. Empire Mine State Historic Park.
Unlike Malakoff, which used water to destroy the land but now is bone-dry-free of water, the Empire Mine struggled throughout its existence to remove water from their site, because, of course, the mining occurred below the water table and the mines naturally flooded. So part of the technology of hard rock mining was constantly pumping water out of the mines — and pumping air in, too — so that miners could survive. But after the mine closed in the 1950s, the pumps stopped, and the mines, from 11,000 feet all the way up to about 150 feet below the surface, flooded, and remain flooded to this day. Maybe some day they'll offer submarine tours of the Empire Mine. That would be so cool.
My last stop in Gold Country — saving the best for last — was Marshall Gold Discovery State Historic Park. This is where the dream lives on...
A child stands in front of a life-size exhibit depicting a man just reaching down into a stream bed, about to pluck a big ole gold nugget out and place that nugget into his pocket and change his life forever.
Marshall Gold Discovery State Historic Park. Coloma, California.
This is where it began. Here, in Coloma, at Sutter's Mill, built by James Marshall, gold was discovered on my birthday, January 24, in the year 1848.
A reconstruction of Sutter's Mill. Marshall Gold Discovery State Historic Park.
Being the fifth state park I had visited in two days, I was a bit "done" by the time I made it to Coloma. I was interested in visiting Coloma only because there was a major Hawaiian migrant worker community living here in the late 1850s and early 1860s that is well documented in the Hawaiian-language sources. But they were camped out at "Irish Creek," and I only had a vague idea where that place is/was (it no longer is, I believe).
But what's cool about the Marshall site is that some of the oldest buildings on Coloma's Main Street have been protected, and I'm sure the Hawaiian migrants at Irish Creek visited those buildings. They visited the post office to pick up mail. They must have visited some of the stores in town. So, walking through Coloma, I got at least a glimpse into part of their world.
In one part of the park, children and their parents were "panning for gold" in a hands-on demonstration, and it was brought to my attention that recreational panning could be done in the American River, too, right alongside the historic site. What is it about GOLD that attracts our attention so much? Is it like the lottery — like people who buy scratch-off tickets every day, and only become the poorer for it, but in their risk-taking they satisfy some primal urge to gamble? For gold mining is just a type of gambling, right? You gamble your health, the quality of your environment, your livelihood, all on the hopes of striking it big. And few did. And few do. But the "mythistory" of the Gold Rush remains so appealing to Americans. Perhaps it is because in the "mythistory" every immigrant is an individual with the "liberty" to make their own decisions. There are no wage workers struggling under oppression in the "mythistory" of the Gold Rush. Everyone is a pioneer. Everyone is a winner because they at least tried. Rugged individualism and entrepreneurship. Yes, the Gold Rush was the foundation of our American capitalist deregulated free-enterprise dreams. Yes, that one bright shining moment, when there were basically no laws, and everyone was just fighting each other over access to the gold commons, killing each other (especially Indians) for the sake of a simple gamble. Oh, what a great thing, this "America."
A utopia of liberty on the banks of the American River. Let the preacher preach. Let the two dudes dance together (without any fear of being called homosexuals). Let the darker-skinned man participate in some marginal way, for a moment, to give everyone else the impression of inclusion.
I took the above photograph to document the only instance where Hawaiians were mentioned in all of the Marshall Gold Discovery State Historical Park. But look, Hawaiians aren't even mentioned. Other nationalities are mentioned, but one — and only one — group of people is listed by some sort of nickname, in quotation marks, rather than by their commonly-accepted ethnic or national designation. "Kanakas." I have no problem with the use of that term, but how many visitors know who the "Kanakas" were? Why not say Polynesians? Or more confidently, Hawaiians? I find the choice to list "Kanakas" as "Kanakas" pretty strange.
Anyway, I left Coloma with great tiredness in my eyes and my limbs. It's not easy looking for 19th-century Hawaiian history in 21st-century California. It takes a lot of looking, without a lot of finding. But my travels through Gold Country were worth it. I got to see where people lived, worked, and played. I got to see how places changed, and how some have stayed roughly the same. I learned that the history of gold in California is complicated. It involved a variety of technologies, a diversity of peoples, and most importantly, a long period of time. We focus so much on 1849, when "the world rushed in." But gold mining continued, and changed, for over a century after that. There are more untold stories than told ones, and regrettably, we waste too much time retelling old "mythistories" instead of digging up new ones. There are still so many gold nuggets to be found — in the archives, in the land, in the people. And more exploration to be done.
Next stop, Pasadena, California, and the Huntington Library!