Montana Historical Society

Big Sky ~ Big History

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'When a Person Gits to California It Is Hard to Say or Tell When He Gets Away': Why the Forty-niners Were Reluctant to Come Home to the Families They Loved

By Malcolm Rohrbaugh

Download and read the article in PDF format.


The California gold rush as "the great nineteenth-century American adventure"

The miner's phrase "seeing the Elephant"

The concept of "home"


1)    What comparisons does the author make between preparing for war and the rush to search for gold?

2)    How did "the response to the opportunity for the new and sudden wealth of the gold rush suggest much about how limited were the lives of many ordinary working American families at mid-nineteenth century?"

3)    What curiosities and wonders did the sea-going and overland miners encounter?

4)    How did miners fanaticize their homecomings would be?

5)    What expectations were placed on men heading West to the gold fields?

6)    During the first few years, what did miners base their decisions on when they were debating about going home?

7)    What types of disputes sometimes arose at home when miners struck it big? When types of disputes erupted when they didn't make a strike?

8)    What money problem was most common among miners?

9)    How were the veteran Argonauts different from the youthful and inexperienced miners?

10)    How did the seasonal nature of California mining affect men's decisions to return home?

11)    What compelled miner John Fitch to stay in California?

12)    How did the miners' letters to home contradict what historians know happened in mining camps?

13)    What were the "Miner's Ten Commandments?"

14)    How did the miners deal with failure?

15)    When the miners did return home, what did they find?   What was it like?   How did it compare to their fantasies?   How were they changed?

16)    When a miner decided to put down roots and stay in the West, what implications did it have for families in the East?


 -    Pretend you are a miner who has left his family behind and traveled to Virginia City, Montana to try his hand at placer mining.   Write a two-page letter to your family back home and tell them all about your journey to Montana and about life as a miner in Virginia City.

-    Using the "Miner's Ten Commandments" as a guide, have the students create a set of rule for them to abide by while in the classroom.

-    Write a thought paper on the following quote: "The California gold rush separated life experiences of those who went to the goldfields from those who stayed home."