Carrying the Gold Rush Into 2019

Mary McDougall Gordon, ed. Overland to California with the Pioneer Line: The Gold Rush Diary of Bernard J. Reid (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1987)
How do historians work?

Reading a Gold Rush diary this morning, I stumbled across this brief (but unusually full) description by the author, a young Irish-American named Bernard Reid, of a campsite in present-day Wyoming in July, 1849: “Growing city of wagons, tents, men, women and children, whites, Indians, negros, horses, oxen, and mules. Motley crowd.”

Historians don’t usually waste a lot of time tut-tutting at the dead for their failure to anticipate modern sensibilities, so I’m not to harrumph at Reid for his lack of cultural sensitivity in lumping people in the same sentence with animals and inanimate objects: I’m just grateful he made this observation. It’s a no-brainer that he thought differently than we do, and lazy to assume he thus has nothing of value to say.

To understand the significance of this scene to us in 2019, I have to think of it in modern terms. I contemplate that what Reid (unaccustomed to mingling with people unlike himself) calls a “motley crowd” is what we might term diverse. The common conception of the Gold Rush as a bunch of white men heading West needs to be modified. African-Americans were among the migrants. Women and children were present. And almost every location (except for the driest of deserts), the migrants encountered and spoke with American Indian peoples.
Bernard Reid was struck by the novelty of diversity, and it would become his new normal. This is just one of many sources of our idea of California. The word “diversity” would likely have been alien to Bernard Reid, but no matter. His thoughtful attention to the crowd helped pave the way to where we are now, and his diary is a treasure.

As a historian who writes fiction, and who tries to link past with present, I now have to help carry Bernard Reid’s worldview from his diary (published more than thirty years ago in an edition edited by a historian) into the 21st century, and make it relevant to a broad audience through my novel, and my Gone West! program for schools, libraries, and museums.

Annette Laing, PhD, is an academic historian of early America and the Atlantic World. She was formerly a tenured professor at Georgia Southern University, where she was a member of the department of history and the Africana Studies program faculty. She is the author of The Snipesville Chronicles series of MG/YA time-travel novels.

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