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Story Behind the Story #70,
Part 2: Gold Rush Girl

The Cal­i­for­nia Gold Rush was indeed a rush. The Unit­ed States had tak­en over San Fran­cis­co as a result of its war with Mex­i­co. (1846–48). That aggres­sive war—fiercely object­ed to by many, includ­ing Abra­ham Lincoln—had, as one of its objec­tives, the annex­ing of San Fran­cis­co Bay. When gold was dis­cov­ered, chunks of it went on dis­play in Wash­ing­ton, DC. They caused much excite­ment. But it was a speech to Con­gress by Pres­i­dent Polk (wide­ly pub­li­cized) in which he not just ver­i­fied that gold had been found, but tout­ed its abun­dance and ease of find­ing.

California Gold Rush
illus­tra­tion: Wiki­me­dia Commons

At the time the USA was suf­fer­ing a finan­cial down­turn, with much unem­ploy­ment. Hence, easy wealth was a grand induce­ment to go west. The rush was on.

Something UpstairsWhen I was liv­ing in Prov­i­dence, Rhode Island, writ­ing a book called Some­thing Upstairs, I did research on my old house. I learned that in the year 1848 the fam­i­ly liv­ing there was named Blais­dell. From what I also learned about Prov­i­dence, there was rea­son to believe (or want to believe) that the Blais­dells sold that house to go west.

True or not, it seemed a good place to start my new sto­ry. Thus, both books, Some­thing Upstairs, and Gold Rush Girl begin in the same dwelling. The Blais­dells would move into my new book.

(The old house, which is still stand­ing, is at 15 Shel­don Street, in Prov­i­dence, Rhode Island, and may be viewed on Google Maps.)

When you do his­tor­i­cal research, serendip­i­ty is a splen­did thing. When I learned that Jane Eyre was first pub­lished in Amer­i­can in 1848, I had the frame­work for the emer­gence of my pro­tag­o­nist, Vic­to­ria Blaisdell.

As for San Fran­cis­co, there is a vast library of mate­ri­als about the Cal­i­for­nia Gold Rush of 1849. It is so much a part of our nation­al his­to­ry that San Francisco’s foot­ball team was named the “Forty-nin­ers,” with the assur­ance that all would know the ref­er­ence. (One can’t say the same for, say, the Col­orado or Neva­da gold rush­es which hap­pened later.)

Ships aban­doned in Yer­ba Bue­na Cove, San Fran­cis­co, dur­ing the 1849 Cal­i­for­nia Gold Rush 
(pho­to: Wiki­me­dia Commons)

 The Gold Rush was also the first major event in US his­to­ry for which there is a pho­to­graph­ic record.

Gold Rush GirlMy prob­lem was not “how will I find out about the moment and the city?” but how to deal with so much information.

The his­tor­i­cal growth of the city, which went from a tiny Mex­i­can town to a large, crowd­ed city in a mat­ter of months, is fas­ci­nat­ing. It was chaot­ic, row­dy, vio­lent, and unique, cast­ing a blind eye on much that would be con­sid­ered pro­scribed by the polite soci­ety of its day. The city still trea­sures that reputation.

 For a nov­el­ist all that is its own gold.

 to be con­tin­ued

back to Part 1 of this arti­cle

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