The Vagaries of Mail Service During the Early California Gold Rush


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Grimes ltr San FranOne of the issues I have dealt with in my novel about the California Gold Rush is long-distance communications in the West between 1848 and 1850. I have characters living in Oregon, others in California, and they have relatives in Missouri and Massachusetts. The only way people could communicate over distance was through letters, but mail delivery was slow and often unreliable.

The difficulties of communications in the mid-19th century provides some interesting plot turns in my novel. In real life, it led to frustration, disappointment, and uncertainty, and the same is true in my story.

From California to either Oregon or the East Coast, the quickest way for a letter to be delivered was by ship. But regular ship schedules were not established until about the same time that news of the Gold Rush reached the East. The Gold Rush caused its own complications in mail delivery.

The Pacific Mail Steamship Company was founded in New York in April 1848. Its ships were intended to travel north as far as Oregon, but just as the company’s first ships were launched in the spring and summer of 1848, the Gold Rush intervened, and the ships had all they could do in transporting people and goods between Panama and California. Oregon was only an afterthought.

Mail service was overwhelmed by demand after the Forty-Niners invaded California. According to accounts in A Year of Mud and Gold: San Francisco in Letters and Diaries, 1849-1850, edited by William Benemann (1999), after a ship docked in San Francisco bringing mail to California, the Post Office closed for two or three days to sort the mail the ship had brought. Think of the difficulty of sorting the mail, when the address might simply be a name and “Sacramento City, Upper California”. One man wrote in February 1850 that the San Francisco Post Office had received 95 bags of mail after a month with no deliveries.

Bidwell ltr Sutters Mill

Once the Post Office reopened, men spent hours in line waiting for their mail. One poor man got in line at 5:00am, with one hundred men in line ahead of him. It took him an hour to get inside the Post Office. Another wrote of 600 men waiting in the A-K line, and 600 more in L-Z. Some men paid others to wait in line for them.

I read one account stating Sacramento didn’t even have a Post Office until around September 1849. Stores and fort trading posts served as mail depositories in the absence of facilities under contract with the U.S. Postmaster General.

And mail service was slow and unreliable. In 1850 a letter sent from the East to California in early March didn’t arrive in San Francisco until mid-May—which was fairly rapid delivery for the times. Sometimes ships wrecked with mail on board. In 1850, the Samuel Roberts, a schooner bound from California to Oregon went down off the mouth of the Rogue River in southern Oregon. The Oregon Spectator edition for July 11, 1850, reported problems with mail and paper deliveries in the territory. Mail was supposed to come from Portland to Oregon City twice a week, but there was no contract in place at the time for that route, so the mail was placed on private boats to be forwarded.

us 5c stampToday’s consumers complain about the high cost of postage, but we don’t have it so bad. In the 1840s, U.S. postal rates varied by the distance the letter was sent. In 1845, two mail rates were established in the States, with additional rates for mail sent to the West Coast. Letters sent less than 300 miles cost 5 cents per half-ounce, and letters sent over 300 miles cost 10 cents per half-ounce. Starting in 1847, letters to and from Oregon or elsewhere on the West Coast to the States cost 40 cents per half-ounce. In 1848, another rate for letters between points on the West Coast was set—12.5 cents per half-ounce. Ship fees were added on top.

So emigrants paid 40 cents or more to send a letter back home, in a time when a laborer’s wages in San Francisco were $8/day, with skilled carpenters making $14/day and a blacksmith $20/day. And a man worth $40,000 was considered wealthy.

us 10c stampThe United States issued its first postage stamps in 1847—for 5 cents and 10 cents. Before that time, all domestic mail was “stampless” with the rates, dates and origin of the letter being either written by hand (manuscript) or sometimes in combination with a handstamp device.

Mail service between the coasts didn’t improve substantially until the Pony Express, which cut mail delivery across the continent to ten days. The Pony Express didn’t start until 1860, and it became obsolete with the establishment of the first transcontinental telegraph line in 1861.

With all this, it’s amazing that any communications got through at all between the coasts in the late 1840s. Yet residents of the West longed for these letters from back home. High prices and waiting in line for hours seemed small prices to pay for word from their loved ones.

Based on all these historical variables, I felt justified in allowing letters the characters in my novel sent to arrive or be delayed as my plot required. My rule of thumb was that letters between Oregon to California should take at least a month to deliver. Letters from the East Coast or Missouri to the West would take at least two months after steamship service was established, and could take six or more months before then. One crucial letter never arrived. I could point to some historical occurrence to support any of these delivery decisions.

When have you been frustrated by slow communications?

Outlived Its Usefulness: The Reader’s Encyclopedia


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readers enc 20160809_093520Among the books I found when I cleaned out my bookcase recently was a two-volume set called The Reader’s Encyclopedia. These books had been on my shelf for many years, but they originally belonged to my parents. I remember the volumes from childhood.

When I had nothing better to do on a lazy afternoon, I would take one of the books down from the bookcase and browse through it, looking for something to interest my twelve-or-so-year-old mind. The books purported to summarize all literature around the world, and I could usually find something to engage my imagination. I read about classic English novels, important authors in the U.S. and Great Britain, and literature from the Greek and Roman Empires through To Kill a Mockingbird.

In high school, whenever I had a term paper to write in English, I started my research in The Reader’s Encyclopedia. It might only have a paragraph or two on the book or author I had to write about, but it was usually enough to get me started on a topic for my paper. Then I’d do my detailed research in more focused books on that author that I checked out from the library, but at least I had some direction as I read.

I don’t recall when my mother decided she didn’t want the set any more. I seem to remember acquiring the volumes sometime after my family moved into our current house in 1984. Therefore, it’s likely that she gave me the books in 1986, when my parents moved back to Richland, Washington. That was the year that my youngest sibling graduated from high school—no more need for her to keep a convenient reference set in the house.

Besides, the set was out of date by that time. My mother had the Second Edition, published in 1965, so it was about twenty years past its prime when she gave it to me. A lot of literature got published in those twenty years, though of course, anything written about the Greek and Roman Empires, Jane Austen, Mark Twain, and a myriad of other authors and their works would still be valid.

I kept the volumes on my bookcase from whenever I received them until earlier this month. The volumes I gave away were over fifty years old. Half a century out of date. I decided I didn’t need them anymore.

In the thirty or so years that I owned the books, I only referred to them occasionally. About once every three or four years, I might pull down a book, mostly out of nostalgia. Of course, I no longer write English term papers, so I no longer need prompts to develop my themes. I simply didn’t use them.

But the primary reason I gave the books away is that they were no longer the quickest means of finding an answer to a literary question. Now we have the Internet. What were Thomas Hardy’s best-known works? Google it. Which writers were part of the transcendentalist school? Google it. What were the major Greek gods and how did they translate into the Roman gods? Google it. In less time than I could pull The Reader’s Encyclopedia off my shelf, I could type these questions into my computer—or even my cell phone—and have the answer.

So not only were the books outdated, they were old technology. They might still contain useful information, but their information was both incomplete and hard to access. It was not a hard decision to give the set away.

Still, I wonder, if I were twelve again today, what books would I browse that would open my imagination to the world that preceded me? Would I surf the net? But could I do so safely? The Reader’s Encyclopedia might have mentioned pornography, but the two volumes certainly didn’t depict it. Experts had curated what was worth knowing and how it was portrayed. The raw data available on the Internet is overwhelming, and we are never sure what we can trust.

I am awed whenever I think about our ability today to access all the knowledge of the ages through a device we can hold in the palm of a hand. But we have also lost the pleasure of meandering through great works from A through L (or M through Z) while nestled in an easy chair on a summer afternoon.

What books did you browse as a child?

Tidying Up: Beginner Level


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My husband was recently out of town for about ten days, leaving me home alone. I wanted to focus on my work-in-progress, and I did get a good chunk of it edited into close-to-final shape (yay!), though I didn’t do as much as I had hoped (boo). I also decided that while he was gone I would undertake some household clean-up projects.

I’m not good at keeping things in order, as I have written before. Moreover, my husband and I have different styles—he is neat, and I am not. I see right through clutter. It doesn’t bother me to sit in the middle of stacks of paper—I can still focus on the work at hand.

Plus, I know from experience that sorting stuff out gets messier before it gets neater. One must strew everything on the floor so it is all visible before it can be organized and stowed.

“I’m getting nervous,” my husband says, whenever he sees me strewing paper about, or if my old piles of paper start to teeter. He doesn’t deal well with the interim stage of chaos.

“Stifle it,” is what I want to say when that happens, but I try to just smile and say, “It’ll all be put away soon.”

Soon, of course, never comes soon enough for him, which is why I wanted to do my cleaning while he was gone.

I developed a long list of projects to do in his absence—sort out financial files (the ones not shredded in my last cleaning project), go through all our old computer peripherals and electronic gadgets to throw away or donate, organize my bookshelves and give away books I didn’t need, sort through files from boards and committees I’ve been on in the last decade, organize the documents I should keep from my time as executor of my parents’ estates, etc.

I started with my books. I had a pile of books on my bedside table that had been there for months (okay, make that years). I wanted to read them, but I usually turn to ebooks before I go to bed. I had two shelves of books I’d received as gifts that I hadn’t read yet. As well as two more shelves of beloved books I might want to read again. And books authored and autographed by friends. And textbooks left from law school and management programs. And half a shelf of French novels that I should really read to keep up my French vocabulary.

You get the picture. (It will have to be a mental picture, I didn’t take a photo of my bookcase before I started.)

tidying upI began by taking all the books off the shelves and piling them on the floor to sort. Imagine my surprise when I found a book I didn’t remember receiving—The life-changing magic of tidying up, by Marie Kondo.

Ironic, I thought, to find a book on tidying when I planned to spend a week at that activity. I opened the book—and was further surprised (though I shouldn’t have been) to learn that the person who gave it to me was my husband. I’d stuck a little Christmas gift card from him inside the front cover. Even more ironic.

So Kondo’s book did not end up in my discard heap, and I read it in the evenings after I worked on my clean-up projects.

bags of books 20160809_093721

Bags of books (more than 100 books in total) waiting to be given to the library

First I learned that when “tidying up”, as Kondo defines it, there are two rules: (1) Start by discarding, and (2) then organize your space. Okay, I’d done that part right. When reviewing my books, after I spread them all out, I put about 100 aside to donate to our local library. Only when I’d made my “discard” decisions did I start putting the books back on the shelves.

Moreover, Kondo recommends starting with clothes and books. My clothes closet was in decent shape still, because my daughter and I did a major clean-out a year and a half ago. Kondo would have approved me starting with my books, I thought.

But then my approach began to deviate from Kondo’s. Does each item you own give you joy? she asks. If an item doesn’t give you joy, get rid of it. On one level, all books give me joy. On another level, there are books that I know I will never read, but I hate to not give them a try. Or at least tell myself I will give them a try.

And after all, I gave away more than 100 books. Isn’t that good enough?

Kondo and my husband would say no. I should have discarded every one of the books that I probably will never read.

But it would have to do. The bookcase looked better than it had. I moved on to the next project.

bookcase after 20160815_214521

My bookcase “after” tidying up. Not perfect, but definitely better.

I certainly didn’t get to everything on my long list while my husband was gone, but I made a dent. He has another trip planned in September, so I’ll check off more items then. Tidying up will not bring me joy, but I’ll keep plugging away at it.

Is it easy or hard for you to get rid of things?

P.S. After I drafted this post, I read a post by a writer friend, Jessica Conoley, who also just read Marie Kondo’s book. Here is Jessica’s take on tidying up.

Are You Celebrating National Relaxation Day Today?


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hammock AFB41CF89E

I learned recently that August 15 is National Relaxation Day—a day is set aside to slow down, unwind, and relax.  We are advised to avoid stress, not work late, and rest when work is over.

What an odd notion—that we need a day each year devoted to relaxation. Whatever happened to “on the seventh day God rested”? I thought we got a day every week to relax.

Of course, I do not typically exercise my weekly option. When I was working, I was at the office at least six days a week, and scurried around the house on the other day doing chores like laundry and grocery shopping. Now that I’m retired, there is no boundary between work and life—work/life balance means nothing.

wineglass A819A004C3In fact, today, August 15, I start with an obligation at 8:30 in the morning, and my day will continue past midnight when I have to pick up a relative at the airport. I do get to attend a social event in the evening, but I’ll have to curtail the wine I drink because of my late night to follow. In between my morning meeting and my social event, I need to get the guest room ready for guests, edit several chapters of my work-in-progress, and follow-up on a couple of marketing efforts for my last novel.

Ironic—Relaxation Day is likely to be one of my longest and busiest days in months.

I can’t complain about my life in general, not compared to when I was working. Most mornings I get up when I want to, then read the newspaper and do the sudoku before moving on to writing. Most days I stop work at 4:00 or 5:00, with my only obligation for the rest of the day being to fix dinner. In the evenings, I can read or watch a movie, though I often find myself writing blog posts or editing just one more chapter before I relax.

So take a Relaxation Day? Not often. And not this August 15.

But I’ll mark my calendar now for 2017. If I schedule it a year in advance, perhaps it will happen.

What is your favorite relaxation activity? And will you get to do it on Relaxation Day?

Ky-Bee-Chee-Bee Did It


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MTH & bookcase

Me, in the Ky-Bee-Chee-Bee years

When I was a small child, I had an imaginary friend named Ky-Bee-Chee-Bee. To me she was very real, and she went everywhere with me. I don’t know where the name Ky-Bee-Chee-Bee came from—that was her name, and I didn’t question it.

The spelling of Ky-Bee-Chee-Bee is phonetic. I didn’t know how to write when Ky-Bee-Chee-Bee was in my life, so her name never had letters in my mind, just sounds.

Ky-Bee-Chee-Bee was a little girl just my size. She had short, dark hair like I did. She was like me in every way, except she was naughtier. She didn’t want to eat her vegetables, and thought she should get dessert even if she didn’t eat her carrots. She talked back to my parents. She did bad things like get her clothes dirty and talk me into doing stuff I wasn’t supposed to do.

Whenever I got in trouble, I told my mother, “Ky-Bee-Chee-Bee did it.” If the toys were strewn all over the living room, “Ky-Bee-Chee-Bee did it.” If I tracked sand into the house from the sandbox, “Ky-Bee-Chee-Bee did it.”

My mother just rolled her eyes. Sometimes she let it go, and sometimes she called me on my blame-shifting. When she did, I felt terribly wronged. After all, in my mind Ky-Bee-Chee-Bee really had done the evil deeds!

I don’t remember when Ky-Bee-Chee-Bee became my friend. I think it was about the time we moved to Corvallis, Oregon. Maybe I was lonely and needed a playmate. The only kid I knew was my toddler brother. I remember playing with Ky-Bee-Chee-Bee all through the hot days of one summer, probably the summer of 1960, before I started preschool, though it might have been the year before.

And I don’t remember when Ky-Bee-Chee-Bee left me. But I’m pretty sure she didn’t go to kindergarten (and then first grade) with me in the fall of 1961.

By 1962 I spent my time role-playing with dolls, and I didn’t play with Ky-Bee-Chee-Bee anymore. I remember holding my life-size baby doll up to the window as my father drove our family to Seattle for the Worlds Fair in 1962, hoping the people we passed would think I was holding a real baby. (Babies weren’t strapped into car seats in those days.) My parents thought I was too young to go to the fair, and I was going to have to stay with my great-aunt, but I wanted people to think I was a big girl—big enough to hold a baby.

For years I forgot about Ky-Bee-Chee-Bee. Then sometime in adulthood, maybe when my own kids were young, she came back to me. Oh, the invisible girl who played with me didn’t return, but the memory of her constant companionship and comfort did.

At first all I remembered was that I’d had an imaginary friend. I didn’t remember her name. But then the name came back to me also. (You wouldn’t think I’d forget a name like Ky-Bee-Chee-Bee, but I did.)

I wish I could remember more about my days with Ky-Bee-Chee-Bee, about the time when with one accusation—“Ky-Bee-Chee-Bee did it”—I could make the world right again. Or at least try to make the world right. But grown-ups aren’t allowed to blame their mistakes on imaginary friends.

Did you have an imaginary playmate as a child?

Questions of History Raised by Roman Empire Treasures


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A few weeks ago my husband and I went to the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City to see the exhibit of Roman Empire luxuries—gold jewelry, silver platters, bronze statuettes, and other artifacts. I was most impressed with the jewelry.

I don’t wear much jewelry other than earrings, but I drooled over the Roman necklaces and bracelets. Most were made of gold and many were encrusted with gems. They would be fabulous if created today, and realizing that they were made 2000 years ago put me in awe. Their appeal transcends the centuries.

Which made me think that people haven’t changed that much in two millennia. Our notions of beauty and adornment aren’t much different. The size of the pieces are comparable to a lot of 21st-century jewelry items, and, indeed, they wouldn’t look out-of-place in many of our social gatherings (if one could afford them).

coin pendants 275 CE Rennes 20160717_133447

Coin pendants found in Brittany, France. I would wear any of these.

Despite the appeal of these pieces—which I assume was as great during the Roman Empire years as it is today—they were lost for over a millennium. Some of the items from the exhibit were found in Brittany in France in 1774, and analysis showed they were probably buried in about 275 C.E. And more necklaces from around 200 C.E. were found in eastern France in 1809.

necklaces e France 20160717_133825

Necklaces found in eastern France. I would wear most of these.

So these items were probably in the ground for about 1500 years. What made their owners bury them? What happened to the owners that they could not retrieve them?

coin pendant Egypt 20160717_133738

Necklace of coins found in Egypt. The piece I loved the most.

Another necklace of Roman coins came from an Egyptian tomb outside Alexandria, and dates back to about 240 C.E. This piece is similar to the coin pendants found in France, and is of the same era. That makes me think of how vast the Roman Empire was—from Alexandria to Brittany. And in a day without modern communications.

Some of the silver was found in Berthouville in northwestern France in 1830 by a farmer plowing his field. The happenstance of this discovery boggles my mind. Why hadn’t earlier generations of farmers found the silver?

The value of the 54 pounds of silver pieces found in Berthouville has been equated to the annual salary of 30 soldiers. In today’s terms, a U.S. Army E-4 corporal makes about $33,000/year, so thirty soldiers make about $1 million/year. Still a fortune worth hiding. Again, why was the silver buried, and why wasn’t it reclaimed by its owners?

paten w cross 20160717_135512

Paten engraved with cross

Thinking of the historical developments during the Roman Empire period also impressed me. Greek and Roman gods were depicted on the early coin jewelry created in the mid-200s C.E. One of the later pieces in the exhibit was a Christian paten from Constantinople in about 500 C.E. The shift from paganism to Christianity must have revolutionized their culture. But was that change more significant or less than what the “modern” era has seen in the 240 years since the signing of the Declaration of Independence?

And then I thought, what else might be buried from past cultures? And which of our treasures might find their way into a museum 1500 years from now?

Many questions. Some might be answered by future generations. Some might never be answered.

The Nelson-Atkins exhibit is entitled “Luxury Treasures of the Roman Empire,” and it lasts until October 2, 2016. If you’re in the Kansas City area, go see it!

When have you been impressed by ancient artifacts?

More Odd Search Requests That Pointed to This Blog


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Every so often I look at what tells me about searches that have led people to my blog. I’ve mentioned some of these odd requests before.

Most of the search requests relate to topics along the Oregon Trail or in the California Gold Rush era. I can tell when someone has been assigned a classroom paper on the Oregon Trail and decides to write about Catherine Sager or Katrina Belknap. Lots of people seem curious about the role of women in the Gold Rush years, though some are more interested in mining methods such as panning and sluicing. Some readers have looked at my haunting book reviews—I hope they’ve then bought the books.

Here are a few of the more unusual recent searches that have made me chuckle:

jim the wonder dog museum

flat stanley wearing shorts

licorice ice cream baskin robbins

barbie magic house

Even though these searches are amusing, at least I can understand why they led to my blog. I have written about these topics or related notions. I’ll let you copy and paste these search requests to find the relevant posts. (But you’ll have to paste them into a web browser—using the search box on this blog won’t work because some of the search terms are not exactly what I wrote about).

There was one frequent search request that stopped me cold—I had no idea how this was related to my blog:

the snake called kganyapa

I didn’t even know what a “kganyapa” was, so how could I have written about it?

So, of course, I searched for the term myself. A “kganyapa” is a mythical river snake believed to drown passersby. Well, I’ve never written about river snakes, but I have written about the Snake River.  The post that a search for “kganyapa” surfaces first is this one.

I’d post a picture of a kganyapa if I could, but the mythical snake is too shy to be photographed. So you’ll have to be satisfied with a 19th century depiction of the Snake River at Three Island Crossing.

3 island crossing snake plate52

When have you been surprised by something you came across on the internet? (that you can write about on a family-oriented blog)

Memories: A Creative Blend of Fact and Fiction


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Many of the posts on this blog are about my memories. My theme, after all, is “one writer’s journey through life and time.” And what is our journey, if not a collection of memories?

Last week, the Wall Street Journal published an article entitled “The Value of a Flawed Memory,” by Sue Shellenberger. The thrust of the article was that even inaccurate memories help shape who we are.

Ms. Shellenberger writes:

“A growing number of researchers say memories are not just a storehouse for facts but also a creative blend of fact and fiction that helps people tell meaningful stories about their lives, set goals and envision the future in a realistic way.

“It is commonly believed that storing a memory is like making a video, but long-term memories are never literal replays. They’re mental constructions of facts, inferences and imagined details that people patch together after the fact.”

A creative blend of fact and fiction. A mental construct patched together of facts, inferences, and imagined details. It sounds so amorphous. Yet this is who we are—this weaving of what really happened, what we think happened, and perhaps even what we wish had happened.

As a lawyer, I saw many examples where two credible witnesses swore that opposite events had occurred—the light was red, no it was green. I have experienced this in my own memories as well, where one family member recalls something one way, and another recalls it completely in reverse.

T 17 mo & M 2 wks

Me at 17 months, and my newborn brother

I have memories that probably are not really memories. For example, my younger brother was born when I was just seventeen months old. It’s doubtful I have any real memory of when he was born. Yet I can feel myself sitting in the chair with him when he was just days old—the shiny chintz of the fabric cover, the soft flannel of his pale blue blanket. And I hear my grandmother telling me what a good big sister I am.

Could this be real? Or did I construct it later from the picture and from the constant retellings of the story by my parents and grandparents?

Does it matter? The Shellenberger article is quite clear—it doesn’t matter. Whether our memories are accurate or inaccurate, real or imagined, psychologists say they shape us. They form our self-identity. They help us set our goals in life. They create cohesion in our lives and help us make sense of the world around us.

So whether I remember my brother’s birth or not, the story became that I was a good big sister.

I write novels (fiction) and memoir (non-fiction). But I keep my novels historically accurate and I embellish my memories in this blog to tell a story. As I wrote in one early post, the French use the same word “histoire” for both fiction and history. Similarly, “mémoire” in French can mean memory or report.

The line between fact and fiction is blurry. Sometimes the blurring just happens. Sometimes we blur it on purpose.

When have your memories turned out to be false? Does it matter?

Why Don’t I Write About the Chinese During the California Gold Rush?


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Chinese Gold Miners, from Wikipedia

The novel I’m currently writing alludes to race relations between whites and Native Americans, Hispanics, and African Americans during the California Gold Rush years. However, I do not touch on the Chinese influx into California. Why not? Because my novel takes place in 1848-1850, before the large wave of Asian immigration to California began.

The U.S. Census in 1848 reported that there were three Chinese men in San Francisco. One source states there were 54 Chinese in California in February 1849, then 791 by January 1850, and around 4,000 by the end of the year.

Word of the discovery of gold in California reached China sometime in 1848. A few Chinese men set out for California to seek their fortunes, just as prospectors from around the world did. They sent back word to their home provinces that California was a “Gold Mountain” where the precious metal lay on the ground waiting for them.

It wasn’t until these reports reached China that the Chinese began immigrating to California in large numbers, reaching the new U.S. in 1851 and after. Around 2,700 Chinese came in 1851 and 20,000 arrived in San Francisco in 1852. By the end of 1852, there were 25,000 Chinese in California. See The Story of California From the Earliest Days to the Present, by Henry K. Norton (1924). By the mid-1850s, the Chinese were the largest single group of Gold Rush immigrants to California other than whites.

One article states:

“The typical Chinese gold seeker was in his late teens or early twenties, male, single, and uneducated. His purpose was to return to China as soon as he had accumulated his wealth. He did not intend to assimilate into the California community and he assiduously protected his traditional life style. Customs, clothing, language, food, and the traditional queue set him apart from his fellow miners.” 

chinese man 1851 oakland museum silver-chman

Chinese man in 1851, from Oakland Museum of California

Because the Chinese workers’ intent was to amass their fortunes return to China, they were incredibly hard workers and were willing to do work that many others did not want to do. They worked gold claims that whites had already abandoned. They worked as cooks and in laundries. They started small businesses supplying miners. They accepted wages far lower than white workers, who had better opportunities in the gold fields.

Another reason the Chinese were not particular about the work they did was that there was a strong prejudice against them. This was true of attitudes toward other foreign miners, African Americans, Hispanics, and Native Americans, but the Chinese were visibly different and kept to themselves.

According to most reports, the Chinese kept to themselves more than most other immigrants to California. White prospectors tended to mine by themselves or in small groups. By contrast, Chinese worked in larger communities and so retained their conspicuously different language, food, hair and dress, religion, and other customs.

African American and Hispanic laborers were also easily identifiable, and often were kept separate both legally and socially, but the longer history between whites and these groups meant that they were more easily assimilated into Western life than the Chinese.

Starting in 1850, the California legislature passed laws taxing foreign miners. The Foreign Miners’ License Law imposed a tax of $20/month on all foreign miners, but this immediately took workers out of the mining camps. A destitute population returned from the mines to San Francisco, causing social and fiscal upheaval. The law was repealed in 1851.

But in 1852 California instituted a new tax on foreign miners who were not U.S. citizens. Although this tax was lower—three dollars per month—Chinese miners made only six dollars a month. Moreover, Chinese could not become U.S. citizens, so the tax effectively precluded the Chinese from mining, while permitting white foreigners to become citizens and avoid the tax. As a result, the Chinese had to earn their keep otherwise.

Although some Chinese sought legal protections in the California courts, in 1854, a California Supreme Court decision declared that they could not serve as witnesses in court proceedings. Section 14 of the Criminal Act stated “no Black or Mulatto person or Indian shall be allowed to give evidence in favor of, or against, a White man.” The court found that this law was intended to preclude all non-white persons from testifying against whites.

After this decision, the Chinese immigrant communities became even more insular, deciding most disputes among themselves. As a result, they were viewed as having their own secret laws—which, of course, they did, because it was the only way they could find any justice.

About the time the Gold Rush bonanza declined, the railroads needed workers. The Chinese became the primary labor force for the railroads in the West in the 1860s. They laid most of the tracks from Sacramento across the Sierra Nevada mountains.

Chinese immigration came to an abrupt halt in 1882, with the passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act—the first U.S. immigration law excluding a specific national or ethnic group, though similar acts followed against other racial and ethnic groups. This act remained on the books until 1943, but quotas for Chinese immigrants remained impossibly low until 1965.

As I researched this post, I found many parallels between treatment of the Chinese in the 1850s and how some think we should treat Muslims today. Conspicuously different religions and cultures have always been difficult to assimilate. This topic may not be an issue in my novel, but writing this post has given me a new perspective on history, and on our politics today.

When have you learned something about history that you see reflected in today’s society?

Old LPs: Finding My Youth and Throwing It Away


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20160704_154231A few weeks ago my husband decided to give away all his unused audio equipment to Audio Reader, a service sponsored by the University of Kansas to provide radio for the blind and print-disabled.  Audio Reader has a 24/7 broadcast of volunteers reading newspapers, magazines and books, and other programs of interest to the aging and disabled. The service also provides radios free of charge to people who need them.

It’s a worthy cause—my father-in-law was blind for the last few years of his life, and we set up a digital radio for him to use so he could listen to more than television. We tuned one of the buttons to Audio Reader (though he usually preferred the local farm station we also tuned it to).

Audio Reader raises funds in part through a For Your Ears Only sale of audio goods. People in the Kansas City and Lawrence, Kansas, area who have old equipment, records, CDs, etc., should consider donating to this sale. More information can be found here.

My husband packed up the last turntable in our house as well as all his LPs. He set aside LPs I had brought to the marriage almost 40 years ago. I don’t think I’ve bought a new record in all that time—I had already made the shift to cassette tapes.

I never owned many records. I didn’t have a record player of my own until I went to law school, and I was married just over a year later. I’d been given a radio/cassette player when I was about fifteen, so I purchased and listened to cassettes. (At least I didn’t have eight-track tapes.)

20160704_175812Without a turntable, there was no reason for me to keep my LPs. Our CDs duplicated many of the records I had. And with Pandora, YouTube and other digital services, I hadn’t listened to the LPs—or most of the CDs—in years. The LPs sat unused in the back of a cupboard for most of the thirty years we’ve lived in our current house.

So I put the records in the donation pile. All of them.

But before I did, I thumbed through them, remembering.

My father taught me to appreciate classical music at an early age. He often had music playing in the evenings while he read. He loved Beethoven, Tchaikovsky, and Mozart . So did I. He sometimes hummed along. I rarely did—his voice was much better than mine. When I saw the cover of Rachmaninoff playing “Moonlight Sonata,” I immediately thought of my father.

20160704_175643I never listened to much popular music as a teenager (maybe because I didn’t have my own stereo). But I enjoyed certain soft rock musicians like America, Gordon Lightfoot, and Loggins and Messina. Seeing those record jackets took me right back to my college years and the roommates who introduced me to some of these artists.

“Ventura Highway.” “Ribbon of Darkness.” “A Horse with No Name.” “House at Pooh Corner.” “Early Morning Rain.” “Sundown.” “Vahevala.” I hadn’t even thought of these songs in years, but instant nostalgia brought tears to my eyes.

20160704_175719And then there were the recordings of classical guitar artists. My dad liked the guitar, and bought me one for Christmas when I was in the 8th grade. I learned folk guitar, then took classical guitar lessons one semester in college. I wasn’t very good, but I loved listening to Segovia, Christopher Parkinson, and others. The liquid sound of Rodrigo’s Spanish guitar music still evokes mystery and seduction whenever I hear it. One of the first Pandora channels I set up for myself was of classical guitar music—something that almost always lifted my mood.

Unlike the loss of my brag files, I don’t regret donating the LPs. They weren’t getting used, and music today is ubiquitous on the Internet. With music, it is sound and not object that brings memories to mind. I don’t need the objects when the sound is available. And I can hear it in my head, even when there is no sound.

What role does music play in your life?