Tragedy of The Southern Mines: Susan Johnson’s Roaring Camp

Susan Johnson’s Roaring Camp isn’t about the Gold Rush. She tells a story about a place in California gold country during the 1850s in which many of the people are gold miners. But her story revises the themes of previous Gold Rush histories. And its point has as much to do with here, now, and us than with then, there, and them.


The story Johnson tells is, in many ways, a tragedy. In 1848, ’49, ’50, and ’51, people from all over the world, some calling themselves “argonauts,” came to dig for gold in the Southern Mines, a region of south central California. And they constituted a novel diverse culture. But during the 1850s, Anglo-American men overtook the culture, making it look increasingly like the eastern United States, and people they perceived as “other” were pushed to the margins of society.


To tell the tragedy, Johnson first exposés that new polyglottal culture forming at the start of the Gold Rush. In the first few years after 1848, people – mostly men – from Mexico, Chile, France, and China would join native Miwoks in the Southern Mines, establishing ways of life new and unfamiliar to all. Although Gold Rush participants occasionally celebrated those ways of life, Johnson focuses mainly on anxiety, especially among white men, that came from living with strange people in an unfamiliar social structure. Johnson argues that, for anyone who imagined white Americans as the country’s chosen people, the first few Gold Rush years in the Southern Mines were scary. Anglo-Americans weren’t in control, and it seemed they might never be. Johnson shows with census data how, during the first Rush years in the Southern Mines, immigrant populations from Mexico, Chile, and Europe dwarfed the number of those from the eastern U.S. She also points out that, besides native Miwok women, the Southern Mines were overwhelmingly male – something that figured prominently in miners’ anxieties about what some of them saw as the backwardness of early Gold Rush society. Near absence of Anglo-American women upset standard American gender roles; many Anglo men felt effeminated when they had to cook their own food and wash their own clothes. Also contributing to Anglo men’s anxieties were the lack of protestant Christian institutions and the ubiquity of gambling, drinking, and prostitution. Often, these worries tied in to issues of race and gender, since Mexican or French women were usually the ones running gambling tables and selling themselves for sex – or even just for company, that’s how badly some of these men wanted to be around women, and how rare women were.


In an indirect way, the geology of the gold deposits themselves contributed to racial anxieties among Anglos in the Southern Mines. Most of the gold in the Southern Mines was in surface deposits called placers. Unlike quartz vein deposits – more common in the Northern Mines – which required special equipment and large labor forces, placers could be mined by just one person with a few tools. Johnson explains that abundant placers in the Southern Mines meant sustained opportunity for gold rushers who didn’t have much more than their picks and pans. That also meant immigrants, especially Chinese, could continue to find relatively lucrative, easy-to-mine claims into the late Rush years. Chinese immigrants disconcerted Anglo miners because, like other foreigners, they were unfamiliar and because, unlike other foreigners, they seemingly wouldn’t be discouraged by a foreign miners tax (enacted in 1852) or by other white efforts to exclude them from the best claims in the area.


Chinese miners, many observed, seemed content with working the already-mined claims abandoned by white miners. The Chinese, along with Mexicans, Miwoks, Chileans, French, and women of all nationalities (but mostly non-white and non-American) in the Southern Mines constituted a diverse community that wouldn’t easily fit Anglo-American notions of “society.” What Johnson terms a “crisis of representation” was the concern among Anglo-Americans in the early Gold Rush that the Southern Mines weren’t “American” enough – that is, they didn’t look familiar to the Anglo-Americans from the eastern states who thought themselves rightful owners of California.[i]


The tragedy in Roaring Camp happens when the Anglo-Americans start to resolve that crisis of representation. Starting in 1850, Anglo-Americans, still just a fraction of the Southern Mines population, won decisive victories over other groups and started to emerge as the area’s ruling social group. Anglo-Americans made various attempts to exclude foreigners from placer claims, in a few instances starting racial conflicts over mining rights. For example, after the Anglos enacted a steep foreign miners tax (the first of two, in 1850) armed French, Chileans, and Mexicans allegedly threatened Anglos by promising to burn the town of Sonora. Some of the region’s Anglo miners came armed ready to fight the foreigners, but the conflict didn’t escalate to violence. Still, it seems many non-Anglos were threatened enough to leave their claims and try to fit in elsewhere. The U.S. government, Johnson argues, provided the legal backup Anglos needed to push foreigners out of the Southern Mines. Without the government’s support, outnumbered Anglo-Americans wouldn’t have been able to enact or enforce any exclusionary policies like the foreign miners tax.


Beyond conflict over mining claims, Johnson points to another cultural turning point in the Southern Mines after 1850, as more married Anglo-American women came from the eastern states to settle down with their families. Those Anglo women, seeing themselves as bringers of morality went to work trying to reform what they saw as the social ills of Gold Rush California. That work contributed to the decline of the French- and Mexican-run saloons, dance halls, and gambling houses that had dominated the Southern Mines just a few years earlier. And that meant even fewer non-Anglos had niches in the Southern Mines.


Also losing their place in California society were what Johnson describes as “homosocial” men – miners who preferred the almost-exclusively male company of the diggings to more gender-balanced society. Johnson doesn’t present any of those men as homosexual, partly because that label would be ahistorical; people didn’t then have a concept for what we call “homosexuality.” Further, It seems there’s not even any direct documentation of man-on-man (or woman-on-woman) sex in Gold Rush California. Despite this evidential void, which Johnson calls a deafening historical silence, Johnson is able to find plenty about the personal lives of homosocial argonauts.[ii]


The native Miwoks add another dimension of the Southern Mines tragedy. Since the very beginning of the Gold Rush, they were pushed off of their hunting and gathering land by gold-thirsty immigrants. In the later years of the Rush, even some of the Anglos themselves were tragic figures. As water monopolists from an emerging upper class forced miners to pay a high price for water, which was essential for cleaning gold-bearing soil of its non-gold sediments. Which meant argonauts had to pay the monopolists to dig for gold. As the Gold Rush went on, the society of the Southern Mines looked more and more like the eastern U.S. so that a diverse world of miners, prostitutes, dance halls, and gambling houses gave way, by the end of the 1850s, to a racialized, class-stratified, American culture. Anglos tried to resolve their crisis of representation by bulldozing the frenetic society of the early Gold Rush.


And yet, Johnson argues, in a funny way, the crisis wasn’t yet resolved, and still isn’t today. Roaring Camp isn’t just about the transformation of Gold Rush California. The Southern Mines are misrepresented in American cultural memory. When Americans think of the Gold Rush, Johnson contends, they think of the Northern Mines, which fit more readily into traditional narratives of western American history. Northern Mines geology was more typical of western gold mining destinations; there were more subterranean quartz veins and fewer placer deposits. That contributed in part to the ordering of initial Rush chaos as surface deposits depleted and most miners became employees of the powerful mining companies that tapped the quartz veins. The Northern Mines had a less-diverse, more Anglo, more female population, and it was more fully controlled by an upper class – the mining company managers. The crisis of representation Johnson describes is unique to the Southern Mines. The complexity of early Gold Rush society in the Southern Mines is hard to understand in the frame of simpler Anglo-centered historical narratives. That’s why there is much less history, and much less popular culture surrounding the Southern Mines today.


What Johnson wants to say in Roaring Camp is this: the tragedy of the Southern Mines was that Mexicans, Miwoks, Chileans, French, Chinese, the homosocial, and the lower class all lost as the Gold Rush went on in the Southern Mines. And Americans don’t like to remember the Southern Mines partly because that story doesn’t fit their collective memory. But, Johnson says, if it could, and Americans could integrate the Southern Mines into cultural memory, then Native Americans, foreign immigrants, homosocial, and homosexual people – all groups still marginalized today – could have a more fair place in American society.


Johnson’s research includes censuses from the 1840s and ’50s, which are important for her analysis of changing demographics in the diggings. She also uses California Newspapers from the period in several different chapters, often acknowledging a newspaper’s bias. She draws on legal documents like court records, which allow her to expose key parts of at least one racial conflict, the “Chilean War.” That conflict came about partly because of conflicting orders from two different legal jurisdictions. And Johnson reconstructs the events using newspaper accounts and court documents.[iii]


But the largest body of Johnson’s source material is personal accounts of miners, and most of those accounts belong to European or Anglo-American men. Women, Mexicans, and Miwoks, who figure prominently in the narrative, appear mostly through accounts written by those men. So one of Johnson’s challenges in Roaring Camp was to prove her points about marginalized people with mostly indirect documentation. Johnson uses the word “discursive” several times to describe her argument, which is fitting. Largely because Johnson draws on so many personal accounts, each chapter is a collection of stories, often about a single person or small group of people, that all relate to a certain theme, but not directly to each other. The chapters together form a narrative while each chapter functions like a series of vignettes.


The way Johnson analyzes a few of those personal accounts reveals more about how she engineered her argument. Johnson quotes an account written by Chilean argonaut Pedro Isidoro Combet in a section on tensions related to religion in Southern Mines culture. In the section, Johnson tries to reconstruct an incident in a Catholic church in San Andreas where Anglo men obstructed a service, Johnson argues, just to show contempt for the mostly-Mexican congregation. Johnson takes the account of that incident from the journal of another argonaut, J. D. Borthwick and not from Combet. Johnson uses Combet’s journal as a more indirect connection to what happened in the San Andreas church. She quotes a passage where Combet describes a Catholic congregation not in the Southern Mines but in San Jose. But she suggests that Catholic congregations in the Southern Mines must have looked a something like Combet’s.


Interestingly, there’s Catholic-Protestant tension in Combet’s account that Johnson doesn’t discuss. Describing the San Jose congregation, Combet wrote, and Johnson quotes, “Nothing could have been more impressive and picturesque than this gathering of the faithful of all Catholic nations: the types and manners all mixed together. … This assembly of men of many races, wearing the same kind of clothes… and worshipping the same God, all of this did affect me deeply.” What Johnson doesn’t mention is what Combet wrote in the next paragraph: that the congregation’s priest “[gave] them a glimpse of the temptations and seductions they were going to be exposed to because of the coming of the Americans and Protestantism.”[iv] Although it looks in that section of Johnson’s book as if Combet was celebrating Gold Rush California’s cosmopolitan society, Combet had a clear idea of a European, Native- and Latin-American Catholic “us” and an Anglo-Protestant “them.” It might seem Combet’s view of Protestant Americans would have been important to Johnson’s argument about a struggle for cultural dominance in the Southern Mines. So why did Johnson leave it out? There may be a few reasons. First, Combet’s account doesn’t take place in the Southern Mines, but in San Jose, which was, at the time still dominated by Catholic Mexicans who had lived there since before the Mexican-American war. So Catholicism was probably stronger and Protestants less welcome in San Jose than in the Southern Mines. A comparison of the two catholic congregations is safer than a comparison between the relationships those congregations had with respective communities. Second, Combet’s account, titled Memories of California, is probably a reminiscence and not a journal. It’s possible Johnson wanted to limit how much she took from it given how inaccuracy and bias can leak into accounts recalled long after-the-fact. But a third reason could be Johnson didn’t want to take her argument in that direction – at least not quite yet. She wanted to argue in this particular part of her book that Catholics, with all their diversity, caused a crisis of representation for Anglos and not that Anglos caused a crisis for Catholics. In fact, in this section, she shows how the San Andreas congregation calmly ignored Anglo antagonism, continuing their worship even while being interrupted. To portray Southern Mines Catholics in the early Gold Rush as noble victims-to-be better serves Johnson’s end than to portray any of them as being bigots themselves. That’s partly why she didn’t draw more on Combet’s account.


There’s something similar going on when Johnson uses one account of German novelist and Gold Rush participant Friedrich Gerstäcker. In a section about homosociality and sexual attraction among men in the mines, Johnson uses Gerstäcker to represent miners who preferred the almost all male society of the Southern Mines. But she also uses him to represent miners who thought California would benefit from more women. She can do that because, in Gerstäcker’s published account of the Gold Rush (and other travels), Narrative of a Journey Round the World, he seems to have a mid-narrative change of heart on gender issues. In one passage, which Johnson quotes, he writes of his all-male camp on Rich Gulch in the Southern Mines, “we now lived in… a little world of ourselves, in closest neighborhood and amity, eating, working, and sleeping together, and not caring more for the world around us, than if it did not exist… we formed a perfectly social body.”[v] But as contented with Gold Rush society as Gerstäcker was when he wrote that, he was disillusioned fifteen pages later when he wrote, “I for my part should never like to choose [any gold country] for a continued and actual residence.” and, “Social life… must grow up from itself, and principally by and through the presence of the gentler sex.”[vi] As Johnson quotes him, Gerstäcker came to dislike the overwhelming male-ness of Southern Mines society even though he had seemed to celebrate it just a few pages earlier. Johnson stresses, gold seekers didn’t fit neatly into categories of homo- or heterosocial, And Gerstäcker is proof.[vii] Readers of Journey Round the World can’t tell just what made Gerstäcker seem to change his mind about Gold Rush society, but Johnson carefully and effectively characterizes the complex writer so that she can still use his account how she means to – to describe tension between the homo- and heterosocial in the mostly male Southern Mines.


But here, again, there’s some unused information in the document that might seem related to Johnson’s larger argument about a cultural struggle in the Southern Mines. In more context, it sounds like Gerstäcker’s “perfectly social body” isn’t just all-male, but also mostly German. It could be that Gerstäcker, a German, thought his camp perfect more because it was German than because it was male. Gerstäcker describes his Rich Gulch camp as not just a perfect camp but “a perfect German camp.” He also describes one of his campmates in German terms as “a farmer’s boy… for which we have in our language the very significant word Bauerjunge.” Of course, someone translated Gerstäcker’s writing from German, so a German word in the English version isn’t in itself special. But in this quote, Gerstäcker is clearly connecting his campmate to the homeland. And the translator seems to agree, since he leaves “Bauerjenge” untranslated. Also, Gerstäcker mentions in passing that five members of the camp are named Meier – a Germanic name – which suggests a relatively high proportion in Rich Gulch of Germans, (or at least Germanic-speaking people e.g. Scandinavians, or Austrians).[viii] Gerstäcker seems to be comfortable in his camp because he’s surrounded by his countrymen. Further, Gerstäcker seems to exhibit race-based anxiety towards one non-German member of the camp. Immediately after smiling on the camp society, he points out that one campmate, a Polish man, was a “nasty disgusting fellow.” When Gerstäcker says “the gentler sex” will fix California society, he’s talking explicitly about gender, but when he’s talking about his camp, he might be talking more about nationality.[ix]


So, again, why doesn’t Johnson use this document in her discussion of racial tensions? Again, there are probably a few reasons. First, Johnson addresses racial tensions elsewhere in the book. And in one of those places she already uses a Gerstäcker document, called “The French Revolution,” as an example of counter-Anglo opinion on the foreign miners tax controversy.[x] But second, the race tension (what little there admittedly is) in Gerstäcker’s Journey Round the World, doesn’t involve Anglos, it’s between a German and a Pole. In Johnson’s analysis of Journey Round the World, race tensions among non-Anglo groups took the back seat to gender tensions.


Besides Gerstäcker, Johnson uses an argonaut named Jean-Nicolas Perlot as an example of a man who seemed to prefer the mostly-male company of the mines. Perlot was deeply disappointed at the coming of women to the placers (Perlot places this event in 1855 though Johnson notes it was actually years earlier.) The passage Johnson quotes comes from Perlot’s Gold Rush reminiscence, Gold Seeker, where he wrote that from the moment women arrived, “everything changed. Farewell to the peaceful life of the placers! … People worked less and spent more; illnesses were more frequent, more numerous, more deadly.” In the pages of Gold Seeker that follow, Perlot recounts a fight between the two men he shared a house with, Louvel and Rocq. It seemed to Perlot that Rocq, unable to mine because he was sick, probably with a sexually-transmitted disease (Perlot says “Rocq had a tender heart … that is why he was sick.”) had stolen some of Louvel’s gold, prompting Louvel to kick Rocq out of the house. It’s unclear whether Perlot blamed women for the breakup of his roommates. If he didn’t, he must have juxtaposed by accident his rant on women and the story of his roommates’ fight, thus contradicting himself. Meaning he complained about the balancing of gender in the diggings right before proving that men alone couldn’t maintain their social contract. But Johnson, and Occam’s razor, cut it the other way. Perlot was clearly a well-educated, skillful writer, as he shows with phrases like “Love, it was thee who lost Troy!” A reference to the classics like that points to advanced academic training in literature and probably rhetoric, too. Further, Gold Seeker was a reminiscence, not a journal, meaning Perlot had time after the fact to rearrange his story so that he could tell the story however he saw fit. So it seems most likely that Perlot intended the juxtoposition, that indeed he blamed the fight on the prostitute he thought got Rocq sick. And he blamed women generally for breaking the all-male dynamic of the mines.[xi]


Johnson uses Perlot’s Gold Seeker periodically in Roaring Camp, taking several opportunities to insinuate how Perlot preferred the company of men. For example, when recounting how Perlot convinced one of his cohabitants to take on cooking duties for the two of them, Johnson says, “Perlot had a way with men.”[xii] Johnson doesn’t mean to insinuate Perlot was homosexual, since that identity didn’t exist at the time, but she clearly means to highlight how fond Perlot was of men. If there’s a man seeking men in Roaring Camp, it’s certainly him.



I don’t mean to imply by these analyses of her documents that Johnson has somehow bent the rules by interpreting accounts with a bias. She followed all the rules, interpreting the documents carefully. No historian can be expected to detail every part of every document and still tell a story that makes sense. Further, as historian William Cronon says, “there is no such thing as value-free understanding.”[xiii] What we see in Roaring Camp is a frame of values, imposed by the author, around a detailed accurate picture of Gold Rush California.



Roaring Camp isn’t about the Gold Rush. It’s about American society’s marginalized people. Johnson wants the book to give today’s marginalized people a better place in society. But to try to do that, she had to retell an origin story of Anglo Protestant Heterosocial Heterosexual dominance. She had to show how that origin was problematic and tragic. She had to include characters like the Catholic worshippers in the San Andreas church who righteously rebuffed the kind of intolerant Anglos who nonetheless would eventually triumph over and marginalize Catholics. Or like the German argonaut arguing with himself about what gender was best for society. Or like the woman-fearing Perlot, who thought women were tearing apart his ideal all-male social world. The Miwoks, Mexicans, French, Chileans, the lower-class Anglos. All characters caught up in conflict caused by the American nation-building process in the Southern Mines. All characters we could relate to marginalized people in the present day. By interpreting Gold Rush documents as she does, Johnson tells a story with a moral, encouraging readers to learn from the history of the Southern Mines and help make a world more just than that of Gold Rush California.

[i] Susan Johnson, Roaring Camp (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2000), 144.

[ii] Johnson, 337.

[iii] Ibid, 196.

[iv] For the English version of Combet’s account see Pedro Isidoro Combet, “Memories of California,” in We Were 49ers! Chilean Accounts of the California Gold Rush, trans. and ed. Edwin A Beilharz and Carlos U. Lopez (Pasadena Calif.: Ward Ritchie Press, 1976), 164. For Johnson’s analysis, see Johnson, 150.

[v] See Friedrich Gerstäcker, Narrative of a Journey Round the World (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1853), 236-237.

[vi] Ibid, 251.

[vii] Johnson makes this argument by analyzing the two Gerstäcker quotes together. See Johnson, 169.

[viii] In fact, Gerstäcker identifies another camper as Danish, the only person in this passage he explicitly identifies by nationality, besides the Pole. See Gerstäcker 236.

[ix] Ibid, 236-237, 251.

[x] The title references not the 1789-’99 French Revolution but an ethnic conflict in the Southern Mines that pitted Anglos against other groups as a result of the foreign miners tax. See George Cosgrave and Friedrick Gerstacker, “The French Revolution,” in California Historical Society Quarterly, Vol. 17, No. 1 (March, 1938), 2-17. Referenced by Johnson, 210.

[xi] Jean-Nicolas Perlot, Gold Seeker: Adventures of a Belgian Argonaut during the Gold Rush Years, Trans. Helen Harding Bretnor. Ed. Howard R. Lamar (New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 1985), 246-250 esp. 246. Quoted by Johnson, 169.

[xii] Johnson, 115.

[xiii] William Cronon, “That Which We Tame” (lecture delivered to the course History, Environmental Studies, and Geography 460: “American Environmental History,” the University of Wisconsin–Madison, December 12, 2012). For a note handout from that lecture, see <>.