The California Gold Rush
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The California Gold Rush - As seen on public television
Narrated by Oscar-nominated and Emmy-winning actor John Lithgow
Previously viewed on public television
From a 4-time Emmy-winning producer
Features frontier women, winners and losers, the birth of San Francisco, and more
The American Dream
Gold come and get it. The California frontier called to thousands of young American men who were hungry to be their own boss, to make a quick fortune instead of toiling away for years for someone else. Men left their wives and children, farmers walked away from fields, soldiers abandoned posts and merchants deserted shops to head west for California gold.
But just getting there was a test of endurance that involved either sitting on a disease- and pest-infested ship for up to six months with little-to-no food and water, or walking 2,000 miles along the treacherous Oregon-California Trail. Visions of rivers filled with gold kept them going.
A World Event
Turns out the American dream appealed to people from around the world hopeful men and women arrived in San Francisco from China, Chile, Ireland, France, Turkey and many other nations. The California frontier was packed with young, adventurous miners and entrepreneurs, who depended on them. Everyone quickly got a lesson in supply and demand.
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Apparently, their fact checker had this day off.
The video contains nothing new or interesting about the period. Instead, they spend an hour regurgitating the old myths. If you are a history buff of this era, you will be disappointed.
For example, it perpetuates the myth that Levi Strauss had an influence on the gold rush. Really? Now in their defense, our local school system teaches the same mistruths...... right here in the heart of the Mother Lode.
As a docent, I try and teach 4th grade students about Gold Rush, and daily, I get these questions about why I don't talk about Levi in my presentation. They have just been taught, by their teachers, that Levi was important. They generally are shocked and their teachers are embarrassed.
Neither a pioneer, nor an entrepreneur, Levi Strauss was trained, financed and instructed by his older brothers in the dry goods business, then sent him to California to be an agent for Strauss Brothers and Co. They had developed a good reputation back east, so Levi was able to guarantee shipments would be accurate to the locals. So he set up shop (as Levi Strauss and Co) in 1853 and did just that, along with hundreds of other merchants in San Francisco.
Now I admit that there is disagreement about how long the "Rush" lasted. It's my opinion that, for the individual, striking out to make their fortune, it was all but over by 1854. The gold production hadn't peaked, but all the mines were now owned by companies. The best you could do is go to work as a laborer in a camp for about $8 per day.
In 1872, a tailor in Reno named Jacob Davis was getting requests for a tougher work pant that wouldn't tear at the stress points. He started experimenting with rivets at the stress points. To his surprise, his customers loved the idea so much, that other tailors in the area were starting to copy it. Davis knew he had something big on his hands and to protect his idea he had to patent it... soon! He had been buying his raw materials from Levi Strauss, so he sent him a letter offering a "shared" patent if Levi could help him with $68. Unfortunately, Mr. Jacob Davis never "shared" in the fortune Levi made off his idea. The year was 1873 when the shared patent was issued,... 25 YEARS after the discovery in California.
All of the "Miners" had moved out of California long before then to chase other strikes to the East and North.
Rather than Levi selling pants to the miners in the California rivers, the truth is that Jacob Davis was selling his pants in Nevada and likely to Silver Miners.
This myth is most likely traced back to when Levi Strauss and Co. was running constant TV adds in the 1970's, showing ol' Levi down by the river helping miners, and selling them his pants. This false advertising claim ran for so long that the legend became "truth" in the general publics eyes. This effectively buried Jacob Davis in history. But he wasn't treated badly, Levi hired him to run his main manufacturing division. Not bad for a small time Tailor from Reno, but not what he deserved.
I wanted to think that maybe Levi did something to the jeans he called his own,... I thought maybe he put the little stitching on the pockets, but no, that was Davis too. So Levi travelled in opulence, spreading philanthropy and his controversial views on society, while Jacob did the work.
There are other Myths in this video as well, but none so blatantly wrong as this story.
I continue to correct this when I'm teaching groups about the California Gold Rush... much to the teacher's embarrassment. The school books are wrong, right here in Gold Country, and should be fixed.
What he did to Davis was technically legal, based upon patent law of that time. Whether or not it was ethical, is my question. The best answer you'll get from Levi Strauss and Co., regarding the financial arrangement between the two, is that any records of such an agreement would have been lost in the great fire of 1906.