Day 7: News from the Trail of the Gold Rush

Annette on the Road

The Gold Country of California is conveniently color-coded, so you know when you have arrived. Look! It’s gold! How about that? Photo: Annette Laing, 2021.

What’s In A Name?

After six days on the road from Wisconsin with our Honda wagon, He Who Shall Not Be Named on the Internets (HWSNBNOTI, pronounced Hoosen Benoti) and I finally made it across the Sierras via the Carson route, and recovered our phone and data signals.

Hurrah! California, here we are! It has been rough staying in corporate hotels and eating bad hamburgers, but we finally made it to the Golden State.

Speaking of which . . . Whichever thankless souls put together the California State Library’s page on Official State Things has now confused me. California, it tells me, has the Official Nickname of the Golden State because:

"The Golden State" has long been a popular designation for California and was made the official State Nickname in 1968. It is particularly appropriate since California's modern development can be traced back to the discovery of gold in 1848 and fields of golden poppies can be seen each spring throughout the state.”

That’s funny. I assumed back in 1981, as a newly-arrived Brit in Sacramento, that the nickname was all about the gold discovery. I remember people looking at me pityingly, and shaking their heads. “No,” they said, “it’s not that. It’s the color of the hills.” They had a point, I guess. But, although I was too polite (or interested in self-preservation) to say so, I saw the landscape as burnt, rather than gold. Ever determined to look on the bright side of living in a place prone to fires, floods, and earthquakes, Californians saw gold where the rest of us see drought.

What this example does show, however, is that the reasoning about California’s nickname, like everything else, has changed over time. This comes to no surprise to old historians, who have been teaching about constant change over time for decades before they realize through life experience that it really, truly, is true.

Still, I do wonder why the State Legislature would have taken all the time and effort in 1988 to insist that the Official State Song is I Love You, California when nobody cared what they thought?

I swear, hand on heart, that I never heard of I Love You, California until ten minutes ago. And neither has California native Hoosen, whom I woke up just now (at 4:30 a.m.) to poll on the subject. Hoosen thought the Official State Song might be California Dreaming by the Mamas and the Papas, which isn’t the worst idea.

But as everyone (i.e. me) knows, the California state song is really California, Here I Come, because that’s the one Ricky, Lucy, Fred, and Ethel sang as they drove to California. None of the actors who sing so enthusiastically were born in California, but they all got here as soon as they could, and that’s maybe the most California thing of all.

Whether or not you stay, living in California makes you forever a Californian. It did me. I was 16 years old when I was airlifted from drab postwar England into a blazing Sacramento summer. I wouldn’t have been the same person if AFS Exchange Programs had sent me to Ohio (which is what I had requested), or Mississippi, or New York.

And there’s nowhere more against the California stereotype of bikini-clad blondes on beaches than Sacramento, or more what all California should be like than Sacramento. Sacramentans Greta Gerwig, who made Lady Bird, the most Sacramento movie ever, and philosopher Cornel West, who has declared “I’ve been away for 50 years, but I’m Sacramentan to the core,” would surely agree.

All that said . . . Honestly, the politicians who come up with these Official State Things really need a life. And also they need to stop writing history and social studies curriculum for schools, because I strongly suspect the same people are responsible for those, since they’re just as out of step with reality.

But that’s a subject for later in this post, so stick with me. Meanwhile, a couple of observations from our last day on the road, this time the journey between Reno, Nevada, and Sacramento, California, which took us waaaay longer than the two hours Hoosen had estimated.

He had forgotten he was married to me.

Not as Advertised: Mormon Station

Here’s the view of the Sierras that the 1849 Gold Rush migrants got if they took the Carson Route to California, which many of them did because (a) The other route, along the Truckee River (the basis for the modern I-80 freeway route) became less popular after the Donner Party ended up eating each other, and (b) The Mormon Battalion members, on their way home to Utah with all the gold they found in 1848, made the trail easier for wagons to cross (another major Mormon contribution to western infrastructure, see my recent post, This is the Place)

In fact, it was the Washoe people who first used the Carson Pass to get over the mountains, because of course it was Indians who figured it out first. Washoes told explorer John Fremont about it, warning him not to travel through the snow. What did he do? Of course he did. He led his men through the Carson Pass in snow season, and they ended up eating their own horses, mules and dogs. Because what would the Washoe know, right? They’ve only been living there for thousands of years.

Genoa, Nevada, is a tiny and pretty town slapped right up against the Eastern face of the Sierra Nevada mountains. These days, it’s mostly businesses that serve lunches, knickknacks, antiques, and ice cream to passing tourists. But in 1851, the building that started it all served food and supplies to Gold Rush migrants at eye-watering prices. Try $2 for a pound of flour (maybe $60 today) or $1 for a pound of beef.

Still, after months of beans, bacon, and bad water, the emigrants were so happy to see fresh fruit and vegetables, they forked over the cash. Some of them by 1852 didn’t bother going on for gold (wise decision) and stayed here instead.

As one migrant put it:

"We came to Carson Valley today. It is a beautiful valley, and some emigrants are settling here. The Mormon Station has been built one or two years. It is a boarding house and store together, in a pretty location at the edge of mountains with pine trees all around.... we have at last arrived into civilization..." -Francis Sawyer, 1852

Mormon Station was the local nickname for this store, but, although it was (at that time) in the new State of Utah, it was not an official venture of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. A man named Reese in Salt Lake City heard about the Gold Rush, and spotted the brilliant opportunity to make money from the gold . . . miners. It was always more profitable to mine the gold miners than to mine for gold, as Ledyard and Margaret Frink (and many others) also figured out.

Four years after Reese started his business venture, church leader and Utah governor Brigham Young sent a hundred families of Mormons to Mormon Station, led by Orson Hyde, a church leader appointed by Young to take charge of the area. It was Hyde who renamed the place Genoa. The Mormon colony lasted two years: In 1857, Young heard rumors of a US Army march on Utah. He contacted Mormon leaders in Genoa and surrounding settlements, and recalled everyone to Salt Lake City, pronto, to help in defense. They sold up and left.

Hoosen and I enjoyed our chat with Nevada State Parks ranger Lynne, who is now about to retire after twenty years. She explained that there’s much confusion about Mormon Station, which looks like a fort intended as a defensive structure for a conflict with the Washoe Indians, but never was one, because that wasn't needed. Here’s one of my photos of how it looks today on the inside of the stockade (fence):

Photo: Annette Laing, 2021

And here’s how the real building actually looked in 1910, looking much more obviously like a store, before it burned down:

Photo: Public Domain

Burned down? Oh, sure. The one you see today is a fake from the 1950s. This is often the case with “historic” buildings in the US, where we often demolish in haste, and repent at our leisure. If you’re not sure if the building you're looking at is at all authentic, ask your ranger or guide, who may suddenly get all evasive and shifty-eyed.

Not Lynne, mind. She was eager to tell her visitors the truth. I wish her well in retirement, but her departure will surely be a loss.

One thing she did point out: The “stockade” was to keep cattle from wandering off, and no wonder when the station was charging $1 a pound (about $30 today) for beef. This was never a fort of any kind, because none was needed.

The little museum inside (Admission: $1 in 2021 dollars, so nobody should be put off) had a great tiny exhibit about the Washoe Indians and their sustainable way of life. Baskets, as I explained in my post on the Nisenan people, who live on the other side of the Sierras, were the all-purpose sustainable vessels of life: They even carried water. And they were also beautiful, because people like beautiful things:

Washoe woman weaving baskets, from Mormon Station State Park, Genoa Nevada. Photo: Annette Laing, 2021.

Washoe basket in Mormon Station State Park museum. Photo: Annette Laing, 2021.

A Tale of Two Mindens

When Hoosen and I were on our way to Genoa, I saw we were near Minden, Nevada. If you have an amazing memory, you may remember that Harold Warp’s Pioneer Village, which Hoosen and I visited the other day, is in Minden, Nebraska. Was the Nevada Minden named after the Nebraska Minden? I rushed to Wikipedia while I still had a phone signal.

No, it wasn’t, but they were both named after a town in Germany, a place that apparently inspired a lot of people to want to leave it.

Much more interesting, though, is what I read about the Nevada Minden. In 1917, at the height of Jim Crow violence and discrimination in the South, a siren sounded every day at 6:30 p.m. in Minden, advising the Washoe people to get out of town, or else.

Minden was a “sundown town”, a subject on which James Loewen, author of Lies My Teacher Told Me, has written an entire book. Sundown Towns existed all over America in the 20th century, and they all had laws requiring Black and/or Indian people to leave town at sunset.

Jim Loewen is an anthropologist, but historians like to claim him, too, because he’s a good guy. I remember when he came to speak about Sundown Towns at Georgia Southern University, around the time it was first published in 2005, at the invitation of my former colleague Dr. Jonathan Bryant. The audience was made up mostly of teachers invited from area schools.

In the Q and A, one teacher, a white woman, said plaintively that she very much wanted to teach her students about subjects like sundown towns, but that she had to spend all her time in class teaching textbook facts so they could pass the state-mandated test. Jim urged her to try to find time (A quick mention? Five minutes? Please? I remember thinking). She and the other teachers looked skeptical, and I couldn’t blame them. Making teachers’ jobs and salaries depend on stuffing kids’ heads full of trivia lists developed by politicians, instead of teaching them history, is a travesty, and it hurts us all.

So, back to Minden, Nevada. The town carried on blaring that siren at 6:30 p.m. every day, even though, officially, since the 1970s, they had ruled it no longer meant Washoe folk had to leave town. Something was said about honoring volunteer firefighters, or whatever.

I'm imagining Brits running the terrifying WWII air raid siren every single evening to honor firefighters, and how well that would go down with the public. Nope.

Minden finally ended the siren (wait for it) last week.

And that was only because the Nevada State legislature stepped in and told them to knock it off.

You know why it’s always good to read my posts to the end? Yes, I know it takes time, but so does scrolling through Facebook or putting selfies on Instagram, and I bet neither of those leaves you feeling like you benefited. I often end on something like this, something I most think we need to know, on purpose.

Why not act like a proper journalist. and put the most gobsmacking stuff in the lede? Because I’m also a proper professor, and I don’t believe in clickbait. I believe in rewarding your trust and support, time and attention, with my very best work, and in persuading you to read the less sensational but equally important stuff too.

And I promise that increased historical literacy will be the result. The world is a more interesting place when we know what we're looking at, and when we have better context for our lives.

Dr. Annette Laing is a real historian, and the author of Non-Boring History, which is not history (no footnotes, often written on the hoof, journalism with added amusing bits) but aims to get you interested in subjects in history. Because nobody can know everything that happened in the past, but each of us can find the history that speaks to us, and it’s not always what we think it should be.

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