Here’s a song you’ll recognize, and yet… it’s a side of American history you’ve likely never heard: The melody is Stephen Foster‘s first big hit, “Oh Susannah” (1847), ubiquitous in its time and still common in the “folk song” tradition over a century and a half later. Foster’s original composition features two world-changing technologies of the day: telegraphy (patented in 1837 by Morse) and steamship travel, while this anonymous rewrite repositions the song in the California Gold Rush (1848-1855) to reflect a slave’s experience of forced migration along the lines of the nation’s fast-growing telegraph network.
The white folks all am crazy wid nuffin’ in dar mouth,
But do mines ob California — whose a gwan Souff?
It wasn’t just the “white folks” who came to California looking for gold; prospective miners arrived from all around the world to compete in the search for precious nuggets in the gold fields.
In the crowded, fast-growing tent cities of the new republic, many newcomers patronized blackface minstrel shows. (Bayard Taylor’s memoirs recount nightly shows whose popularity took business away from the gambling dens nearby!) While blackface music and lyrics certainly did not always accurately reflect social and economic realities of their times, in this case our example indicates a lesser-known effect of Gold Rush displacements — the migrations (forced or otherwise) of African Americans to the West in search of gold.
On 29 January, 1850, Jefferson Davis rose on the Senate floor to espouse a racialist view of the ongoing Gold Rush:
It was to work the gold mines on this continent that the Spaniards first brought Africans to the country. The European races now engaged in working the mines of California sink under the burning heat and sudden changes of the climate, to which the African race are altogether better adapted. The production of rice, sugar, and cotton is no better adapted to slave labor than the digging, washing, and quarrying of the gold mines.
[Source: Papers of Jefferson Davis @ Rice.edu >>]
While California did enter the union as a free state in 1850, the legal environment was not altogether hospitable for the thousands of black miners already at work in the gold fields. Frederick Douglass proudly outlined African American activities in the Gold Rush and sundry other pursuits around the world:
For the present, it is enough to affirm the equal manhood of the negro race. Is it not astonishing that, while we are ploughing, planting and reaping, using all kinds of mechanical tools, erecting houses, constructing bridges, building ships, working in metals of brass, iron, copper, silver and gold; that, while we are reading, writing and cyphering, acting as clerks, merchants and secretaries, having among us lawyers, doctors, ministers, poets, authors, editors, orators and teachers; that, while we are engaged in all manner of enterprises common to other men, digging gold in California, capturing the whale in the Pacific, feeding sheep and cattle on the hillside, living, moving, acting, thinking, planning, living in families as husbands, wives and children, and, above all, confessing and worshipping the Christian’s God, and looking hopefully for life and immortality beyond the grave, we are called upon to prove that we are men!
— Frederick Douglass, “5th of July” Speech (1852)
at Corinthian Hall, Rochester, NY
For more on such issues, see also: “Key Points in Black History & the Gold Rush” from the CA Dept. of Education >>
We should point out that the narrator must travel to California via Mexico; overland routes through “Indian Territory” (across central North America) were possible, but extremely difficult and dangerous. About half the early prospectors arrived at California by sea, many crossing over the Central American Isthmus via the transit route at Nicaragua. (See also: “Forty-Niners” @ wikipedia >>)
The final verse invokes several other popular songs from the minstrel stage:
Den Daniel Tucker neber want for supper any more; [“Old Dan Tucker”]
We’ll take de old man back again to old Virginia shore [“Carry Me Back to Old Virginny”]
And dearest Mae, take care yourself, and farewell, Mary Blane– [“Dearest Mae” & “Mary Blane”]…