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Letters from the Californian gold diggings

Date: 1852
Overall: 127 x 77 mm, 3 mm
Medium: Ink on paper
Credit Line: ANMM Collection Purchased with USA Bicentennial Gift funds
Object Copyright: © George Fawcett
Classification:Books and journals
Object Name: Letterbook
Object No: 00004386
Place Manufactured:California

User Terms

    This pocket size letter book contains copies of three letters sent by George Fawcett from California to his sister in England. The first letter describes panning for gold, life at the diggings and an Indian funeral. The second letter describes gambling and fighting in the camp and the different mining techniques of dry digging and washing. The third letter described Fawcett's homesickness, and his desperate plea for news of family and friends.

    On the inside cover of the letter book is an advertisement for Gregory's California Express, which claims it is "one of the oldest established in the business, dispatch messengers TWICE EVERY MONTH, by steamers leaving New York and San Francisco, in charge of letters, parcels, packages, gold dust and valuables..."
    SignificanceThis letter book offers a glimpse into life on the Californian gold fields. It highlights not only the experiences of the miners, but the importance of receiving letters with news from home and staying in contact with family and friends.
    HistoryThe discovery of gold on January 24, 1848 by James W. Marshall at Sutter's Mill, in Coloma, California started the beginning of the Californian Gold Rush. The discovery of gold in California, closely followed by the discovery in Australia, attracted thousands of miners and their families resulting in an influx of people and wealth to both countries and dramatically changing their societies and environments. The coverage of the Gold rush was a popular story in America, Australia and England as many people were keen to discover their fortune on the gold fields too. People wanted to hear about the opportunities, adventure and conditions on the gold fields. Tens of thousands of miners criss-crossed the Pacific Ocean between Australia and America. A $20 one-way ticket bought the traveller a bunk and space for one trunk, the trip between Sydney and San Francisco taking about six weeks.

    Living and working on the gold diggings was a harsh and dirty existence. The landscape was often stripped of trees that were used for firewood, huts and building mine shafts. The extremes in weather conditions and sanitation were a major issue for the large number of people living and working together. Washing for gold added to the pollution of streams and rivers. Holes in the ground held both sewage and refuse. Infections and diseases spread readily under these conditions with influenza and pneumonia being a common cause of death for miners of all ages and genders. Many children suffered from scarlet fever and diphtheria. If they did not die from the disease, they were often killed by the 'cures' - many of which were poisons.

    Only a small number of miners made a real fortune in the Gold Rush. It was easier and more common to gain wealth by establishing businesses and trade related to the diggings. Many unsuccessful miners turned to grazing cattle, fruit plots or running stores selling over-priced goods, supplies and services. Some of the miner's camps developed into permanent settlements with the demand for food, housing and supplies fueling the Australian economy.

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