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Separating Grit From Gold

California looks for nugget of wisdom in celebrating gold rush.

On a morning perhaps like this one, with an early mist melting from the hollows of this softly-contoured valley, carpenter James Marshall scanned the icy pool just downstream from his sawmill and plucked a nugget of gold no bigger than a pea.

Unlike Mr. Marshall, California today is having trouble so neatly distinguishing the grit from the gold even as it commemorates the carpenter's landmark discovery 150 years ago.

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In a state famous for self analysis, this is the mother of all couch sessions.

The discovery of gold in this valley of Ponderosa pines nestled between Sacramento and Lake Tahoe was a defining event of the American West. It put a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow of America's expansion. It also generated behavior that for the past 150 years has been celebrated to mythic proportions: the pioneer spirit of independence, courage, and individualism.

But the pioneer had an evil twin, as it turns out, one that Californians are now getting to know courtesy of a fuller historical record and a more candid conversation prompted by this commemoration.

"This is a turning point in many ways," says Gray Brechin, a University of California at Berkeley geographer who says the Gold Rush wreaked more havoc than anything else.

You won't find Californians debating the Gold Rush at the coffee shop. At least not the one of 1848. Yet as the state lurches through another of its historic booms there are clear echoes of the past. One of today's dynamos, the high technology sector of Silicon Valley, is itself a celebration of individualism. And as the state braces for a massive population explosion over the next 25 years, the cost of growth is an acute concern.

"California is changing so fast its own residents aren't able to assess what the state is, much less what it's been," says Phil Mumma, of the Oakland Museum of California, which is hosting a series of programs on the Gold Rush over the next six months. It will include lectures on the ethnic and environmental consequences of the Gold Rush.

That's not a pretty picture. Discrimination against Chinese, Africans and Latinos by Anglo miners was rampant. Treatment of the native Americans was nothing short of genocide, says James J. Rawls, a historian at Diablo Valley College in Pleasant Hill. "There was attempted, intentional elimination of an ethnic group," he says, resulting in the murder of at least 4,000 native Americans by Anglo miners between 1847 and 1870, many of whom received bounties for their deeds.

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Inexperienced miners poured in from all over the world, the major onslaught not occurring until the year after the discovery and earning the early gold seekers their famous handle, "forty-niners." The San Francisco Bay mud flats were thick with abandoned ships as crews and passengers headed for the hills. Gold recovery lent itself to technological ingenuity. Pans gave way to sluice gates, which gave way to hydraulic mining, which washed away mountains of soil and rock, filling rivers and San Francisco Bay.

In 1884 a federal injunction was issued against the largest hydraulic mine and soon the practice was stopped. The catastrophe is credited by some with the start of organized efforts to protect nature. "The environmental movement really starts here, in response to the mining ethos," says Mr. Brechin.

Kevin Starr, the state's official historian, admits it's not an easy job to convey the meaning of the Gold Rush. Seated in his Sacramento office, he explains: "In trying to raise money for these [commemoration] events, donors kept telling us we needed a clear message. We don't have one. It's a time of affirmation and lament."

Historian J.S. Holliday says the only thing a more contemporary look at the Gold Rush hasn't shaken is its importance. "It's up there with the Civil War and the Great Depression."

When California marked the 100th anniversary of the discovery of gold in 1948, this small town was overrun with 60,000 people. The festive occasion was marked with parades and a series of speeches. It was a celebration fueled by postwar nationalism.

About 20,000 people came through the usually quiet, narrow streets of Coloma over the last weekend of January to remember Marshall's Jan. 24, 1848 discovery. They filled the handful of small restaurants along Highway 49, and visited the Marshall Museum.

"We took tremendous pains to make sure we acknowledged all ethnic groups that made a contribution," says Rosanne McHenry, chief park ranger here.

Just as history attempts to explain events fixed in time, the vantage point of the viewer constantly changes. "It's true of the Revolutionary War, the Civil War, and of Thomas Jefferson. In the 1990s our sensitivities are so alive and active that we are seeking to see in the past what we are sensitive to in the present," says Dr. Holliday.

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