Faculty Scholarly Dissemination Grants


Narratives of Otherness and Civilization on the Paths to California Gold




College of Liberal Arts and Sciences

Date Range



Scholarship on the California gold rush has undergone a renaissance of late, but comparatively few works have studied the migrations to the gold fields. While recent work has been done on the Argonauts (who went by sea), scholarship on the Overland migrants has stagnated since the work of Faragher and Unruh. Even more importantly, these two migrations have never been put into dialogue with each other. This paper addresses that lacuna. This paper argues that while both Overlanders and Argonauts shared certain assumptions about themselves and the various Others they encountered on their voyage, they perceived the landscapes, peoples, and built environments in fundamentally different, though linked, ways. Specifically, Overlanders traveling west understood their experiences through a narrative in which civilization replaced savagery, while the Argonauts viewed their experiences in Latin America through a narrative in which the colonial project regenerated a degraded society. Central to these judgments was the perceived distance of the peoples and places encountered by Anglo-American migrants from Anglo-American standards of democracy and capitalism. More than simply describing the contours of these narratives and their relationship to each other, this paper follows the migrants to California, arguing that experiences on the trip west were a major factor shaping the eventual articulation of the structure and logic of California s colonial society. Popular and official policies toward Spanish-speakers and Californian Indians in gold rush California reflected the migrant s perceptions of degraded civilization and savage wilderness that they had experienced on their journey west.

Conference Name

The Organization of American Historians Annual Conference

Conference Location

Milwaukee, Wisconsin

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