New Perspectives on the Gold Rush
September 3, 2015
Review By Mica Jorgenson
Under editor Kathryn Bridge, New Perspectives on the Gold Rush teams up academic historians, archaeologists, and museum professionals in an effort to add previously marginalized voices to traditional histories of British Columbia’s gold rush. Despite good intentions and a few fine essays, the collection’s inability to fully do away the old perspectives and associated celebratory clichés of progress limits its impact.
New Perspectives was released to coincide with the Royal BC Museum’s (RBCM) Gold Rush! El Dorado in BC exhibit. Bridge asked authors to “pick a topic that interests them,” and the resulting work includes examinations of painters and photographers, immigrating Chinese, women, First Nations, old timers, government employees, and politicians (23-24). The essays focus on British Columbia and proceed in roughly chronological order, following Bridge’s introduction, to immigration, mining, conflict with indigenous people, infrastructure development, and historic preservation. There are two anomalies in this basic structure. The first chapter by Colombian scholars María Alicia Uribe Villegas, Juan Pablo Quintero Guzmán, and Hector García Botero examines pre-hispanic metalworking in Colombia, reflecting the companion exhibition Allure of Gold on loan at the RBCM from Bogotá’s Museo del Oro. This connection is not explained in the text and precludes any discussion of British Columbia’s own pre-history. The second anomaly comes in Lorne Foster Hammond’s essay “The Gold Rush and Confederation,” which breaks the book’s chronology by coming after Barkerville CEO Judy Campbell’s account of creating Barkerville Historic Park in the 1970s.
The essays that stand out include Lily Chow’s “Chinese Foot Prints in the Fraser Gold Rush,” which features reproduced census records and other primary documents that allow the reader to get a valuable glimpse at the hard data used to piece together marginalized pasts. Also of note is Tzu-I Chung’s “Trans-Pacific Gold Mountain Trade,” which locates the gold rush’s Chinese participants within the context of a burgeoning transnational Pacific exchange. The piece expertly weaves RBCM artefacts with a gold rush historical narrative. Finally, Daniel Marshall’s “Conflict in the New El Dorado” links the Fraser River War to its American precedents and acknowledges informational exchange between Nlaka’pamux and indigenous contacts south of the border (129). Marshall’s chapter is an impressive amalgamation of scattered sources and a welcome addition to the literature on First Nations participation in BC’s gold rush.
Unfortunately, old perspectives such as those of white, male, prospectors take centre stage at crucial moments in the book. For example, Bridge opens her introduction with a discussion of white miners’ experiences on BC’s gold frontier and a poem by an American miner longing for home — hardly a “new perspective” of the gold rush (18-19). In Lily Chow’s essay, an image of a white man with a rocker illustrates a section on Chinese gold mining technology, where an image of a Chinese miner would have been more appropriate (82). At the end of the collection, Hammond’s piece gives credit to Barkerville resident Dr. Robert W.W. Carrall for his underappreciated role in confederation negotiations, but leaves out any mention of this event’s implications for First Nations, Chinese, black, or female residents. Many of the pieces, particularly Marshall’s essay “The British Columbia Commonwealth,” portray British Columbia as a haven of unrivalled colonial opportunity and equality. These tired tropes fit awkwardly with Bridge’s claim that New Perspectives aims to “explore new ground” and “rethink some of the clichés about the gold rush” (24).
Ultimately, New Perspectives is a product of the tension in BC history caused by historians’ attempts to elevate alternative voices without disturbing cherished celebratory narratives. Doing justice to truly “new” perspectives of the gold rush means admitting to the existence of racism, discrimination, colonialism, and other unpalatable themes sidelined in this collection. Nevertheless, the authors’ interest in untold stories, the self-consciousness of their history, and their thorough footnoting are welcome additions to the popular literature. Hopefully, New Perspectives is only the first step in a growing effort to deal openly with the skeletons in BC’s historical closet.
New Perspectives on the Gold Rush
Kathryn Bridge, editor
Victoria: Royal British Columbia Museum, 2015. 192 pp. $24.95 paper