Small Vibrant Windows on an American Dream Defined by Gold

“California Gold Rush Daguerreotypes” at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art

Gold. Forever a symbol of wealth and human desire, it’s also a source of folly and madness. It has been a catalyst of enormous historical force. It can spell cataclysm and doom. And, beginning in September, it’s the subtext of a haunting exhibit of historical photographs at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art.

Specifically, the show presents a kind of visual history of the great Gold Rush to California, which began when the precious metal was discovered at Sutter’s Mill in 1848. But not just any images. The Gold Rush coincided with the early years of camera technology, and its story here is being told through more than 100 daguerreotypes.

For the most part, “Golden Prospects: California Gold Rush Daguerreotypes,” comes from the vast archives of the museum’s Hallmark Photography Collection. Other images belong to the University of California’s Bancroft Library, the Ontario Museum and some private collections. After the Nelson-Atkins, the exhibit will move on to the Peabody Essex Museum in Massachusetts, and the Yale University Art Museum.

For the last few years curator Jane Aspinwall, arranging her third daguerreotype exhibit since the museum’s Bloch Building opened in 2007, has delved deeply into the social movement, the technology and the cultural and environmental aspects of the period and found many surprises.

“I just went about teaching myself about sluices and hydraulic mining, things I hadn’t thought about before,” Aspinwall said in an interview over coffee in the Bloch lobby. “And I realized how relevant the issues facing California miners were to issues of today — water rights, immigrant populations.”

Newspapers of the day, for example, published letter after letter complaining about immigrants — from Mexico, China and elsewhere — suggesting they should be kept out of California. “They could have been written yesterday,” Aspinwall said. “So that was surprising. Disappointing and surprising.”

The exhibit walks viewers through a quick journey to California, a trek that in the early 1850s typically began in St. Joseph, Missouri. There are encounters with Indians. You meet mountain men, trappers and miscellaneous frontiersmen as the wagon trains crossed the high plains, mountains and deserts. San Francisco bustled with the newcomers, and then most headed to Sacramento, the largest town closest to the gold fields. Tent camps and ad hoc communities popped up with names like Fiddletown, Sandy Gulch and Grizzly Flats. Crime, lawlessness and the many dangers of mining cast a dark cloud over the boomtown atmosphere.

“A lot of people didn’t return home,” Aspinwall said.

Photos of a gravestone, a mining cemetery and a mourning widow with child help tell that part of the story.

All of this appears in the intimate format of the daguerreotype, the first significant photographic process, named for its French co-creator. Louis Daguerre and Nicéphore Niépce discovered the image-making qualities of a copper plate, coated with silver nitrate, exposed to light and mercury vapor and fixed in a salt bath. By the late 1840s, entrepreneurial photographers had built an industry of portrait making. Because of the plates’ fragility, they were often cased behind glass in a metal frame, creating
a jewel-box sort of object.

The light is kept low in daguerreotype galleries, and the images, roughly 4-by-5 or 3-by-4 inches, require close-up viewing and contemplation. So their rewards — the human connection, the minefield verities, the grit and pathos — take a kind of patience not always evident in a museum-going crowd. Yet, to meet the gaze of a miner proudly sitting for a portraitist injects a worthy dose of humanity.

Photographers of the Gold Rush and other subjects beyond the portrait studio hauled their heavy equipment on wagons, and, while creating an unprecedented documentary record, in a way democratized the imagery. The rough-and-tumble world of miners was a far cry from the upper-crust portraiture that had dominated the medium.

Aspinwall goes deeper into the history in a book that accompanies the show.

Mark Twain, of course, shows up briefly in her account as a commentator on mining (more from Twain coming right up). And she was surprised to learn that when miners weren’t fending for themselves, women handled the domestic tasks of tent camps and “were kind of the unsung entrepreneurs of the Gold Rush, which I didn’t know about before I delved into this.”

The photographers were often commissioned by mining companies or individuals to document claims. They would fancy up some pictures by gilding the content of a successful miner’s pan. Although many of the creators are unknown, some, such as George H. Johnson and Robert H. Vance, left a substantial body of work for historians like Aspinwall to study.

As Aspinwall inspected the handful of existing Gold Rush collections across the continent and sorted images the museum already owned or acquired on the daguerreotype market in recent years, Johnson’s name kept recurring. Johnson was a New Yorker who migrated to California after the discovery of gold and set up a studio in San Francisco. As a result of Aspinwall’s discoveries, she was able to put together a sequence of his photos of one mining settlement and learn something new about his practices.

Mark Twain, the pen name of the adventurous Samuel Clemens of Hannibal, Missouri, arrived in California in 1862, a few years past the scope of this exhibit. Yet, he wrote for newspapers and spent a few months prospecting in the gold fields. Ten years later, he revisited his experience on paper and left us (in “Roughing It,” of 1872) with a vivid account that may well serve as a proper mood-setter for taking in “California Gold Rush Daguerreotypes” at the Nelson-Atkins. Twain’s specificity about the human cost and context of gold fever is worth quoting at length:

“It was in this Sacramento Valley . . . that a deal of the most lucrative of the early gold mining was done, and you may still see, in places, its grassy slopes and levels torn and guttered and disfigured by the avaricious spoilers of fifteen and twenty years ago. You may see such disfigurements far and wide over California — and in some such places, where only meadows and forests are visible — not a living creature, not a house, no stick or stone or remnant of a ruin, and not a sound, not even a whisper to disturb the Sabbath stillness — you will find it hard to believe that there stood at one time a fiercely-flourishing little city, of two thousand or three thousand souls, with its newspaper, fire company, brass band, volunteer militia, bank, hotels, noisy Fourth of July processions and speeches, gambling hells crammed with tobacco smoke, profanity, and rough-bearded men of all nations and colors, with tables heaped with gold dust sufficient for the revenues of a German principality — streets crowded and rife with business — town lots worth four hundred dollars a front foot — labor, laughter, music, dancing, swearing, fighting, shooting, stabbing — a bloody inquest and a man for breakfast every morning — everything that delights and adorns existence — all the appointments and appurtenances of a thriving and prosperous and promising young city, — and now nothing is left of it all but a lifeless, homeless solitude. The men are gone, the houses have vanished, even the name of the place is forgotten. In no other land, in modern times, have towns so absolutely died and disappeared, as in the old mining regions of California.”

“Golden Prospects: California Gold Rush Daguerreotypes” opens Sept. 6 at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, 4525 Oak St., and continues through Jan. 26. For more information, 816.751.1278 or

About The Author: Steve Paul

Steve Paul

Steve Paul is the author of “Hemingway at Eighteen” and is currently researching a biography of Evan S. Connell.


  • Reply Cliff Kennedy

    The Sacramento image is extraordinary! The buildings pictured, including G. H. Johnson’s Gallery, were destroyed by fire in November 1852.

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