"So Goes California": The Gano Family Gold Rush Scrapbook
By: Brian Wright *23
It was 1849 in America, and Stephen Gano was not someone you might call desperate. His father Daniel, a court clerk, had raised Stephen and his two sisters in some degree of middle-class comfort in mid-nineteenth century Cincinnati, Ohio. According to the 1850 census, the Gano family enjoyed the services of five domestic laborers, all young immigrants from Europe. And as Stephen’s letters to his parents make clear, Daniel’s clerk job had instilled in his children a wide vocabulary and a lawyerly precision of thought. These were the days, after all, when basic literacy and genteel manners went a long way toward acquiring white-collar work.
So it was a rude awakening when, like thousands of other young men from around the world, many of them from fairly well-to-do families, Stephen decided to spend a few prime years of his twenties knee-deep in the rivers of California’s Sierra Nevada, panning—squinting, even—for nuggets of gold.
The Gano household was a portrait, in a way, of nineteenth-century America’s singular ascendance. Here was a comfortable, nondescript Anglo family settled in an extractive, energetic Western city, pampered by the cheap labor of some Old World drifters, sending their only son to the edge of the continent for a dubious shot at instant wealth. Stephen, like most gold-seekers in the early days, believed that he would get to California, collect enough gold to pay for the trip West and then some, and return home to Ohio within three or four years. There was little pretense that Stephen would become a permanent Californian—what, other than that precious metal, did those western reaches have in store for a young man like Stephen?
The story of Stephen Gano’s Gold Rush adventure comes to us in the form of a Gano family scrapbook fashioned out of a “barrister book,” thick ledgers used by clerks like Stephen’s father Daniel to record court case dockets. Pasted into the scrapbook are about a dozen letters from Stephen to his parents and other family members; several letters from Stephen’s cousin and some friends out West reassuring Stephen’s father that his son was in good health and spirits along the way; a hand-colored lithograph, published by Kelloggs & Comstock, depicting “California Gold Diggers”; hundreds of newspaper articles about the Gold Rush; and a photograph of an elderly Stephen Gano, inscribed on verso “Stephen Gano, my grandfather.”
Departing from Cincinnati, it made more sense for Stephen to try the overland route to the gold fields. He skipped town in the spring of 1849, traveling with a local outfit of Ohio settlers called the California Mining and Trading Company of Cincinnati. These “49ers” quickly got through Louisville, then St. Louis, and within a month arrived in Independence, Missouri. Independence was the quintessential Western springboard town, offering supplies, lodging, and travel advice—some good, some not—to families and companies before they plunged into the Great Plains and beyond. Along the way, Stephen wrote home about a deadly cholera outbreak in St. Louis, which killed one of the party’s leaders, Woodhull Schenck, and clearly put a dent in morale. “His death,” wrote Stephen, “has had a most gloomy effect on the Passengers.” Once the company got to Independence, they haggled with blacksmiths and wagonmakers and merchants to acquire 30 wagons and nearly 100 overpriced mules. Stephen especially mourned the cash the company had to surrender to get those mules.
A few days later, writing from a creek bed about 20 miles west of the Missouri-Kansas border, Stephen felt ambivalent about the journey ahead. “It is with the greatest pleasure,” he wrote to his parents, “I am perched up here to write, altho with the utmost difficulty.” A brief struggle with his mule had given Stephen a “stiff thumb,” and he lamented that he was “fulfilling scripture where it says ‘a fool is always rewarded according to his folly.’” Sore thumb in tow, Stephen still began to appreciate the sublime beauty of the landscape through which they trudged. The party rolled by “a great variety of yellow flowers making the ride one of the most beautiful I had ever enjoyed.”
In a rare acknowledgment of what these settlers had gotten themselves into, Stephen wrote that “we were then in Indian Territory and the ground we camped on belonged to the Delaware Tribe.” That did not mean, however, that Stephen could transcend the prejudice that shaped the settler’s mind. “During the day’s journey,” he wrote, “we met Indians and passed their settlements, which are log houses and all around them resembles the appearance of our farms owned by the poorer lazier class of Farmers. They are clueless, lazy and proverbially filthy.” Like most other westward-bound migrants, Stephen lived in fear of Native raiding parties. “Have seen large numbers of Sioux Indians in the Pawnee Country," he wrote, "these tribes being at war, both tribes fatal to whites in small parties, not in murdering them, but robbing them of all, mules Clothing guns & provisions, & leaving them naked in the plains, which is worse than murder.”
During the day’s journey, we met Indians and passed their settlements, which are log houses and all around them resembles the appearance of our farms owned by the poorer lazier class of Farmers. They are clueless, lazy and proverbially filthy.
Having maligned the stewards of the land through which they passed, Stephen still couldn’t help but embrace the physicality and rawness of natural man, a state of being he associated with what he called the “nakedness” of Native peoples. “I can assure you,” he wrote his parents, “that the few and light traces that Civilization may have accidentally made upon the exterior of this young man are fast disappearing.” Since they left St. Louis, “nothing has been clean about me or any one else,” and Stephen had “never enjoyed better health and buoyancy of spirits than at present, and only fear that I shall become so enamored of this roaming simple hard life that I shall reluctantly settle down into a Civilized citizen.” Life on the trail was a far cry from the Cincinnati hearth, but Stephen felt confident, donning this new persona, that “this life just suits the physical man. It is the most free from care of any other place in the World.”
“I can assure you,” Stephen wrote his parents, “that the few and light traces that Civilization may have accidentally made upon the exterior of this young man are fast disappearing.”
Summarizing this powerful experience a half-century later, one indulged by so many Western settlers, a young historian from Wisconsin named Frederick Jackson Turner wrote in 1893 that out West, “the wilderness masters the colonist.” The settler’s confrontation with the harsh unknown “strips off the garments of civilization,” Turner wrote, “and arrays him in the hunting shirt and the moccasin… it takes him from the railroad car and puts him in the birch canoe.” Stephen Gano believed he had become something like Adam, and Turner believed that frontier living would impute to even the most squeamish suckers the singular traits of the Westerner: “That coarseness and strength combined with acuteness and inquisitiveness…that restless, nervous energy, that dominant individualism, working for good and for evil, and withal that buoyancy and exuberance which comes with freedom.”
This regression to a kind of prelapsarian state, “going native,” was often performative—playful, even—especially for the benefit of soft and curious relatives out East. The power and comforts of industrialization had endowed many nineteenth-century Americans with a quixotic nostalgia for pre-modern life. Trudging alongside ox-carts through “terra incognita” invited Gano and his compatriots to cultivate a kind of bygone symbiosis with the natural world. From this Edenic stage, these settlers might reenact the stadial development of human society, a dramatic tableau which Turner described as “the process of civilization, marching single file—the buffalo following the trail to the salt springs, the Indian, the fur-trader and hunter, the cattle-raiser, the pioneer farmer…”
John Gast's iconic painting usefully summarized how nineteenth-century American settlers imagined the colonization of the trans-Mississippi West: the railroad and telegraph overwhelm shadowy Indians and penetrate stark landscapes, all while prototypically Western characters––the miner, the farmer––quietly brighten and nourish terra incognita. George A. Crofutt's chromolithograph of American Progress found its way into thousands of booster tracts, textbooks, and souvenirs in the late nineteenth century. Frederick Jackson Turner's 1893 essay ventriloquized the nation's brash claims to the region, staging violent conquest as an inevitable episode in the quest for perfect government and national greatness.
Stephen et al. continued on the Santa Fe Trail through the summer, mostly without incident, riding into Santa Fe in early August and lodging for nearly a month. Along the way, Stephen noted the angst and failure common to so many overland parties. “Large numbers have become discouraged & are going back,” Stephen wrote, “in consequence of over driving their mules & oxen. The road is strewed with Provisions of all kinds, wagons, dead mules, oxen & so any pertaining to a migrating party. Throwing any thing away to get along.” Legendary mountain man and trail guide Kit Carson had briefly guided the company before handing them over to a friend. The Ohioans made their way across the Southwestern deserts en route to San Diego, admiring “beautiful rich valleys…covered with the most delightful verdure,” collecting “the most interesting Geological specimens,” and more than once fleeing “the shots by Rifle and arrows of the Apache Indians.” From San Diego, Stephen took a steamer up the coast to San Francisco, arriving at California’s overnight metropolis in early November.
While waiting for passage in San Diego, Stephen quickly caught on to one of the economic ironies of the Gold Rush era: the men who got rich were not the miners but the merchants who sold things to the miners. Speculators and petty proprietors found far more success than even the managers of some industrial and hydraulic mining projects, much less the average mining grunt. “I would rather have money to buy real estate in this place than work at the mines for 10 years,” Stephen wrote home. “I say so because every body else does. It is the commonest matter of experience here for persons to work a short time at the mines, get a small stock to start a lot speculation, and get property worth $20,000, $50.000, + $60.000.” The young man was nothing if not observant. All this before he had even reached his first dig.
Once Stephen did make it to the diggings, he quickly took note of the masculine boorishness that would make Gold Rush California such an iconic episode in the oft-mythologized story of America’s West. “Fighting shooting wrangling drunkenness & profanity are quite fashionable,” he wrote. Monte, the Hispanic card game, was the “great curse of this Country,” gold dust became the gambler’s currency of choice, and the local saloon was nothing more than a “source of expense, Brutal degradations, and sickness.” It was, according to Stephen, “next to impossible to spend an evening in a comfortable place without being surrounded with the Curses, made more alluring by Music.”
The clerk’s son felt distinctly out of place. “The crowd is by no means made of elements in accordance with my fancy. The old Proverb that ‘Poverty makes strange Bedfellows’ should be altered by substituting California for Poverty.” “Ever since coming into the Country,” Stephen wrote, he had consorted “with few others than the mining class, who are made up of all kinds and conditions and with whom I associate as little as possible. I think to my advantage.” Stephen was a good son, a man of character and class, and assured his parents that he was only a spectator to such chaos. “Without boasting I take pleasure in letting Grand Ma and my dear Parents know that I am free from the above,” he wrote, “and with Divine aid shall continue to be.”
It didn’t take long, though, for Stephen to embrace the mining life. There was something pure and raw, he felt, to primitive living in pursuit of the American Dream. “Don’t think of pitying me for sleeping on the ground,” Stephen wrote to his parents, feeling that he had transcended—defeated, even—his family’s delicate Victorian constitution. “I rather pity you voluptuances,” he continued, “who weary yourselves on feather beds 6 & 8 hours out of every 24 and then rise weak tired and exhausted, and before night feel a deep sorrow for the hard fare of the California boys.” Worry not, he told them, for a routine of toil could only build character. “You here see no haggard careworn countenance. The only misery is from hard labour, great gain, and extravagant losses.” Having first glared down his nose at the “mining class” around him, Stephen bargained that snobbishness would make him few friends.
You here see no haggard careworn countenance. The only misery is from hard labour, great gain, and extravagant losses.
Few other miners are mentioned by name in Stephen’s letters, but the men clearly spent every waking hour working, eating, sleeping, complaining, and reveling together. “Excuse this scribble,” Stephen wrote home, “as I am on the ground in a Cabin surrounded by 9 or 10 men dancing singing playing cards fiddling laughing &c &c. So goes California.” It slowly dawned on the young man that nearly all of the settlers around him stood little chance at genuine riches. “Tell your young adventurous friends,” Stephen wrote home, “they can get rich here if they will work hard early and late in water, dirt, and heat.” If America’s plucky sons would “be content with pork, Pilot Bread & Coffee and be their own Cook and Washingwoman,” they just might get by.
Stephen’s use of “Washingwoman” is telling. The men of Gold Rush California—mostly bereft of servile wives to keep house—were forced to perform traditionally feminine duties to maintain some semblance of order and cleanliness in the diggings. This “social confusion,” as historian Susan Lee Johnson has argued, totally rearranged local gender dynamics. Some men, like Stephen Gano, disdained “women’s work” and yearned for the labor (and companionship) of women. “I have not seen a white Woman in this Country since I left Stockton last fall,” Stephen wrote with obvious melancholy. “I would give a month’s earnings to sit down in the Parlor of my much admired Louise, to hear her sweet voice for 5 minutes.”
“I have not seen a white Woman in this Country since I left Stockton last fall,” Stephen wrote with obvious melancholy. “I would give a month’s earnings to sit down in the Parlor of my much admired Louise, to hear her sweet voice for 5 minutes.”
Other men embraced new homosocial activities, delighting in nude river bathing and taking pride in the presentation of their tents and dress. Stephen could barely make sense of this upside-down world. “You would be utterly at a loss,” Stephen wrote to his parents, “to attempt to describe such a crowd made up of men who are, I believe by nature, or some other cause, more careless than Women, more turbulent in disposition and far more intensely selfish and unscrupulous.”
Perhaps the most startling episode in the scrapbook can only be described as a race war. The mines were populated by argonauts from across the world, and ethnic disputes were not at all uncommon. In a lengthy letter, Stephen offered his parents an account of a claim dispute between Chilean and Anglo miners that erupted into a riot and culminated in a kangaroo court execution. "By the time this letter reaches you," Stephen wrote, "report and busy rumor will have had 200 or 300 Miners killed and as many more wounded by Chileans." Stephen relayed that a few days before, a Chilean crew fined for stealing by the local alcalde had besieged a small Anglo camp, killing two and wounding several others. Local Anglos "roused to boiling raging fever," tracked down the Chileans, and "released the Americans & bound the Chileans and took them back to the neighborhood of the cruel butchery." There, the miners "constituted themselves a Court & Jury pronounced Sentence and had the 3 leaders shot and cut off the ears and whipped the balance; 14 in number." Stephen provided few details of the gruesome scene, but conveyed enough of the murderous atmosphere to venture that resource competition in the mines––a place bereft of central authority and coursing with masculine furor––regularly prompted such spectacular violence.
Eventually, after a few months at the diggings, Stephen soured on California. “Gold though plenty is hard to get,” Stephen wrote, “and a great deal harder to keep.” He begged his parents to “do all you can dissuade the most of persons from coming” to California, for “the hardship, endurance & moral and physical are too great.” “Father,” he wrote pleadingly, “don’t come here for anything, no matter what you hear.” Any comity Stephen might’ve felt with his compatriots had long dissolved as the months wore on. “There is an immense thickness of wrangling selfishness over the entire land like a Mississippi Fog,” Stephen wrote home. The rat race had taken its toll on the fragile harmony of these slapdash mining camps. “No man here,” he wrote, “feels as tho he can or should sympathize with anyone, as all are too intently engaged in hot pursuit for wealth.” Disappointment, even despair, could consume even “the hardest working, most healthy, temperate, doggedly persevering, economical, observing, honest man.” Some, according to Stephen, even took their own lives after losing it all at a Monte game or a busted investment. “There are many suicides by disappointed young men in this place,” Stephen wrote. But he assured his parents that “you need not fear my busting my throat or brains by knife or pistol.”
“Father,” Stephen wrote pleadingly, “don’t come here for anything, no matter what you hear.”
Perhaps worse than California’s peculiar traits was the simple fact that it wasn’t Cincinnati—it wasn’t home. “I have wished a thousand times to be at home,” Stephen wrote to his parents, who by virtue of the surviving scrapbook clearly saved many if not all of the letters he wrote them. During a stretch in the diggings without regular mail, Stephen grew almost desperate: “I have read no letters from Home,” he wrote, “and feel to be forgotten.” Stephen felt so transformed by the journey that he needed his family to actually see it. “I would give almost anything,” he wrote home, “if your fair and comfortable Friends could see a Daguerrotype likeness of your wandering Son, most especially as he rises in the morning and fusses around to make a fire, after a hard nights rain.”
There was something powerful going on here: the westering son pining after visual proof of his frontier transformation. Photography, a technology only a decade old in 1849, might bring Stephen—or at least the image of Stephen the gold miner—home to his parents in Cincinnati. This connection between photography and the West was not uncommon. As Princeton historian Martha Sandweiss has written, “the new American region and the new medium came of age together” across the nineteenth century. Sandweiss’ book, Print the Legend: Photography and the American West, argues that in photographs, “Americans found persuasive evidence of what they had, who they were, and what they could become; and in the West, nineteenth-century American photography found its most distinctive subject.”
Westerners themselves, especially recent transplants like Stephen, often found themselves the most distinctive subjects of the West. But Stephen never got his wish. The lone photograph of Stephen Gano that did find its way into the scrapbook was taken decades later, long after Stephen had left California for good and returned to Ohio. When the photograph was taken, most likely near the end of the nineteenth century, Stephen seemed to have rediscovered the “few and light traces of Civilization” that had so easily melted off his body just west of Independence, Missouri. Wearing a wizened beard and a suit jacket, the elder Stephen gazes imperiously at the camera. He looks serious, cerebral. Stephen no longer looks like some filthy “wandering Son” or a gold miner’s caricature. Even if a daguerreotype never captured Stephen in his western effects, the scrapbook assembled first by his father and then rediscovered by his grandchildren could still, in its own way, capture the dreams and the trials of a snobbish Cincinnati boy trying his luck at California, and—like most of those ‘49er boys—coming up short and turning back East for home.
 Frederick Jackson Turner, "The Significance of the Frontier in American History." (Chicago: Annual Meeting of the American Historical Association, 1893).
 Turner, Ibid.
 Susan Lee Johnson, Roaring Camp: The Social World of the California Gold Rush (New York: Norton, 2000).
 Martha A. Sandweiss, Print the Legend: Photography and the American West (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2002), 2.