An Afternoon with the Gold Rush Trio


You…are not much inclined to devote yourself to purely intellectual pursuits; but you can grasp a subject with a great deal of spirit

–Phrenological analysis of Samuel McCullough, New York, 1854

Nothing but the hope of making a speedy fortune in the mines brings a man up under the many hardships…together with the excitement of the mind

–Samuel McCullough, from the Fraser River gold rush, British Columbia, 1858


As the trio of presenters at our November 7 colloquium stressed in unpacking their research, making sense of the 19th and early-20th century surge of gold rushes in a way that moves the needle forward on the history of global integration means venturing beyond (though not altogether leaving behind) California and the Yukon and exploring New Zealand, the Gold Coast of Africa, and, as University of Melbourne Professor David Goodman offered in the colloquium’s first act, what is now Lumpkin County, Georgia.

Though more or less lost to popular historical memory, the Georgia rush, sparked in 1829 by the discovery of rich deposits on Cherokee land in the northernmost reaches of the state, empowered a radical strain of democratic thought, the ripple effect of which was felt all the way around the globe. Specifically, Prof. Goodman focused in his talk on the association of individual wealth seeking and reimagined democratic norms that congealed as a counter-argument to Georgia Governor George Rockingham Gilmer’s classically republican proposal to reserve a majority of extracted precious metals for public use. Ultimately, he explained, Gilmer’s fear that the gold rush would overstimulate an anti-democratic love of gain was re-cast by successful gubernatorial challenger Wilson Lumpkin as an aristocratic plot to withhold wealth from the patriotic poor that was hopelessly out of touch with the people’s right to self-government. This pro-individual rights sentiment re-surfaced in Australia in 1854, Prof. Goodman went on to show, in the form of a successful rebellion against state license fees that cemented miners’ status as international symbols of resistance to conservative, paternalistic oppression (and, he added, that remains a touchstone of democratic history and lore in the nation to this day). As he noted in wrapping up, though, in revisiting these moments—and particularly in revisiting them with the horizons of environmental history in mind—we must raise the question of why republican public interest arguments are not remembered as advancing an equally, if differently, democratic agenda.

Shifting the lens slightly, La Trobe University Research Fellow Benjamin Mountford examined the differing transatlantic conceptualizations of national character that emerged out of the struggle for order within settler societies. In San Francisco, for example, mounting anxiety over the police and courts’ failure to curb what was perceived as the lawlessness of the “Sydney Ducks” of Telegraph Hill led to the 1851 creation of the San Francisco Committee of Vigilance, whose violent, extralegal campaigns for justice were praised by Americans as embodying the stabilizing and fiercely independent frontier will that was being forged in and by mining communities. By contrast, a fear of Californians bringing this vigilante-ism with them to the mining settlements of New South Wales inspired a swift and harsh pursuit of justice in circuit courts of the region that, as Dr. Mountford argued in bringing his presentation to a close, mapped broadly onto a developing transatlantic distinction between American myths of self-reliance and a British devotion to institutions. Moving forward in time to the more mechanized gold rushes of the later 19th century, University of Oxford’s Stephen Tuffnell argued that the evolving nature of mining itself began to bridge the kinds of gaps on which Dr. Mountford’s presentation focused. For example, the shift from the crude panning of gold rush “Argonauts” in the 1840s to the machine-driven, capital-intensive extraction methods of the 1880s was accompanied by the formation of trade organizations like the Institute of American Mine Engineers and, in turn, the professionalization and standardization of the industry. While the rise of such organizations on both sides of the Atlantic initiated intra- as well as transnational exchanges of ideas through the creation of centralized databases and trade journals, Prof. Tuffnell concluded by noting how it also exposed race- and gender-based lines of division and modes of exclusion within the mining world.

More complete abstracts for each paper to be discussed can be found here.

David Goodman received his PhD from the University of Chicago and currently teaches American history at the University of Melbourne. He is the author of Gold Seeking: Victoria and California in the 1850s (Stanford University Press, 1994) and Radio’s Civic Ambition: American Broadcasting and Democracy in the 1930s (Oxford University Press, 2011), and he is in the process of completing a book on the local, grassroots debate about US entry into World War II.

Benjamin Mountford is a David Myers Research Fellow in History at La Trobe University, Australia, where he came after serving from 2008-15 as an Associate of the Centre for Global History and the first Michael Brock Junior Research Fellow in Modern British History at Oxford. He is the author of Britain, China, and Colonial Australia (Oxford University Press, 2016) and a co-editor of Fighting Words: Fifteen Books That Shaped the Postcolonial World (Peter Lang, 2017), and he is currently at work on a history of Australians at the California gold rush.

Stephen Tuffnell is Associate Professor of US History at the University of Oxford. He is currently completing work on The American Invaders: Nationhood and Empire in Britain’s American Community, 1790-1914, as well as a second project titled Conquest, Labor, Profit: US Empire and British Africa, 1871-1910, which examines US engineering and technological imperialism in the creation and development of Britain’s African colonies. His work has appeared in Diplomatic History, the Journal of Global History, and Britain and the World.