Monday, September 22, 2014

Manuscript Monday—Gold Rush correspondence, Part I: “Paths are seen like pieces of thread curling around the hills…”

Gold Rush letters have been on my mind, ever since CHS’ cataloger Will Murdoch (also of the San Francisco Public Library’s History Center) threw down the gauntlet, declaring that he had found the greatest Gold Rush letter ever written, in the public library’s collection. Brimming with wit, pathos, and sublimity, these letters, written by ordinary people to their families back home, represent some of the best literature produced in California. For the next few weeks, Manuscript Monday will feature a Gold Rush letter (or two) from the CHS collection, in honor of this surprising, delightful, and disturbing genre.

Downieville, Sierra County, Cal., California Lettersheet Collection, Kemble Spec Col 09, courtesy, California Historical Society, Kemble Spec Col 09_B059.
The fairy-tale-like juxtaposition of whimsical and disturbing imagery can be found in many Gold Rush letters. Perhaps Dame Shirley was the master of this technique, which was also deployed by artists in the many pictorial lettersheets of the period. One of the most memorable juxtapositions, however, comes from the manuscript letters of William Hubert Burgess, a gold miner, jeweler, artist, and teacher. I cannot forget the image of his tent glowing at night, decorated with scrolls and flowers, followed, somewhat incongruously as in a dream, by an account of a man’s murder: 

The tent in which I carry on business now is an object of curiosity to many on Mokelumne Hill. I have drawn all over it in a bold style scrolls and flowers with charcoal. It shows up well at night, the ground being white canvas. Society is of the most degraded condition here. There have been no less than seven murders since I have been on the hill, one last night (Sunday). You need not be alarmed on my account as they all occur among a class of people with whom I have no intercourse; they are mostly drunken brawls. I saw one poor wretch (a Mexican) lying dead with two bullet holes through his heart a week or so since.

For a wonderful reading of Burgess' letters, please see Gary F. Kurutz's "California is Quite a Different Place Now": The Gold Rush Letters and Sketches of William Hubert Burgess (California Historical Quarterly, Vol. 56, No. 3, Fall 1977, available on Jstor). 

Marie Silva
Archivist & Manuscripts Librarian
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