September 25, 2007
To many of the thousands of gold-seekers pouring through the Golden Gate back in 1849, the word “Argonaut” was already a familiar one, drawn from the ancient myth of “Jason and the Golden Fleece”.
“Argonaut” was the name applied to Jason’s band of heroic companions, combining the name of his ship — the “Argos” — with the Greek word for sailor — “nautes”. The word came to mean “an adventurer engaged in a quest, usually by sea”. The parallels between Jason’s search for the Golden Fleece and the ’49ers quest for California gold proved irresistible, and by the 1870s “Argonaut” was in common use to identify that first generation of pioneers.
Charles Warren Haskins was part of that first wave of Argonauts. He worked the gold fields around Hangtown (now Placerville) for a couple of years and then returned to Massachusetts to get married in 1851. He brought his new wife back to California, and raised a family. In 1890, on an extended visit to his son in Idaho, Charles finally mined the real treasure of his Gold Rush experience — his memories. He began to compose a memoir in an energetic vernacular style that recalls Mark Twain.
“WHILE residing in the village of Kingston … in the silver mining regions of northern Idaho during the winter of ’87-’88, and being compelled to remain within doors in consequence of the great depth of snow and intense cold, in order to pass away the time I amused myself by writing an account of scenes and incidents that occurred in California in early days in the mining regions. These events are written entirely from memory. As to the the correct description of events, I ask the remnant of that band of sturdy Argonauts who laid the foundation of a great State to bear me witness.”
The thing I love about Gold Rush reminiscences like this one are the vivid picture they reveal of what that era was actually like; not a dry-as-dust historical analysis, but the memory of one human, full of individual insight and quirky perspective. I read you one of these several months ago — Sparkletack #32 — and I plan to periodically return to first hand accounts, hoping that you enjoy them as much as I do.
This podcasts consists of two chapters from Haskin’s 1890 “The Argonauts of California”, lightly edited, in which which our intrepid Argonaut arrives in San Francisco, heads up river to Sacramento City, and then makes his way to the mining camp of Hangtown. Enjoy!
For further edification:
» “The Argonauts of California” – 1890
» “The California Gold Rush of 1849″ – Coloma.com
» Early goldmining methods and how-to! – Sierra Foothills Magazine
» Placerville (Hangtown) – Wikipedia
» Military Governor Mason’s report to President Polk – August 1848, SFMuseum.org
» San Francisco Virtual Museum’s “Gold Rush” documents – SFMuseum.org
- #32: Letter from the Gold Rush, 1850
- Emperor Norton Day: “Le Roi est Mort”
- SFist — mark twain torched lake tahoe?
- San Francisco Timecapsule: 03.09.09
- book review — “River of Shadows: Eadweard Muybridge and the Technological Wild West”