Roaring Camp by Susan Lee Johnson Book Analysis

‘Roaring Camp’ is set in the Sierra Nevadas’s foothills within the timeframe of the 19th century. In this book, Johnson depicts a multiracial event that included Mexicans, Chinese, French, Chileans, Indians and African Americans all of whom were brought together by the gold mining activity at the Sierra Nevadas’s foothills. The cultural conflict brought about by the coexistence of the different cultures often led to criminal activities as well as humorous conflicts. Some criminal activities related to culture can be seen when Joaquin Murrieta, a Mexican prospector, was physically assaulted and evicted from his mine by white miners who felt intimidated and jealous[1]. In what was later called the Gold Rush, a comical cultural conflict occurred when the Chinese miners stood mythically to watch their white colleague struggle with the use of chopsticks.

The limited number of women within the mines complicated relationships within the mines. Consequently, all the men within the mine were forced to reassess gender roles particularly within the confines of their culture as well as ethnic hegemony. For instance, the Anglo miners developed the tendency to perceive the French and the Chinese men as feminist since they were engaged in activities such as cooking and laundry that were largely associated with the feminism in the Anglo culture. The book interrogates the impacts of such social pressure on the habits and behavior of miners irrespective of their race, gender and culture.

Johnson relied on several primary sources that informed the chronological flow of events in the book as it were in history. The major primary sources that she relied on were the letters, memoirs, as well as diaries belonging to the forty-niners. These primary sources provided firsthand information about the flow of events during the Goldmine. The communications through the letters and the memoirs indicated the actual activities are taking place at given timeframes during this period[2]. Newspaper reports also formed a significant primary source for Johnson because they provided specific report information during that period. The fact that the newspapers were dated helped her to develop a chronological flow of events during the period equally. Government reports and court records are another set of primary sources that Johnson relied on while developing the chronological events of this book. These sources equally provided useful information that informed her development of events as they took place in historical times and helped Johnson to develop a coherent story. He also relied on periodic fiction, which provided information about this chronological flow of events.

Johnson also relied on Kirk Ankeney’s book entitled ‘Bring History Alive’ while writing her book. Ankeney’s book contains a chronological flow of events during the gold rush and discusses the impact of a multiethnic existence within the gold rush. As such, the book provided primary information to Johnson that helped her to develop a chronological flow of events in her book. Secondly, National Center for History in the Schools equally provided primary information that helped to shape the chronological flow of events in the book[3]. The center has provided primary information about history particularly in California that aims at helping teachers undertake historical based thinking and develop narratives that are chronological with respect to specific historic events.

Johnson’s main argument in this book is that the diggings of gold within the mines reshaped the conventional ways in which identity was defined among the different cultures represented in the gold mines. Whereas bodily markers that fitted perfectly into the bodily definitions of men and women back at home could mark gender distinctly, the gold mine presented a unique scenario in which such markers of gender were largely based on cultural and racial differences. For instance, Johnson’s paints the Mexican and French men as feminists based on their cultural willingness to undertake household chores[4]. The Murrietas undertook laundering activities after mining. Such activities were considered to be feminist from the Anglo cultural approach. As such, the Mexican and French men were considered feminist.

Johnson argues that the lifestyle of the foreigners living and working within the goldmines challenged the Anglo opinion of gender identities. While the Anglo perspective of the male gender was largely tied to gender roles, the observation of such roles among other cultures greatly redefined the European outlook on issues of gender roles. The Mexican and French men who were involved in roles that were conceived to be feminine challenged the ideology that ties gender and sexual identity of the people[5]. As such, a cultural coexistence among the different cultures in the area led to the redefinition of the aspect of identity and gender roles both from a cultural perspective as well as from a gender perspective.

One of the secondary arguments that Johnson presents in this book is the fact that while cultural conflicts led to clashes among the different cultures, the understanding of the different cultures ultimately led to the development of peaceful harmonious and vibrant societies. She discusses how Joaquin Murrieta a Mexican prospector was assaulted and driven from the mine due to cultural conflicts. However, as the story progress, Johnson depicts a more harmonious society where cultural differences are only depicted through humorous conflicts[6]. The different cultures that coexist seem to understand each other and hence coexist harmoniously. She argues that the harmony and peaceful coexistence come after several misunderstandings and conflicts among the different cultures of the prospects.

Some aspects of Johnson’s arguments seem contentious and may lead some readers to disagree with her perspective. For instance, her assertion that gender roles were largely redefined in consideration of the different cultures’ perspective in contentious. The book notes the limited number of women within the gold mines. As such, the perceived gender roles were largely associated with the limited number of women who would otherwise have undertaken what seemed as the feminist roles within this society. For instance, the reader could hold the view that the Mexican men who undertook laundry tasks did so because there were no women to undertake such tasks. As such the men undertook the tasks not out of cultural obligations but out of necessity owing to the lack of women to undertake such tasks. From this perspective, cultural differences associated with gender roles that could potentially redefine gender identities among the people existed

Secondly, a reader can disagree with the point of view that the peaceful coexistence among the people was largely because of an understanding of the different cultures that worked within the mines. The reader could hold the point of view that the existing laws during the time compelled the people to bear with each other’s cultural difference. This differing school of thought proposes that the consequences of any unlawful conflicts were well stipulated within the criminal justice system[7]. As such, they offered a deterrence effect on any potential conflicts that could potentially arise from their cultural differences. From this perspective, some readers could disagree with the argument that peaceful coexistence arose from cultural tolerance and understanding

In summary, Susan Lee Johnson offers great insight in this book that is valuable in understanding the American West. While different narratives have been developed about the gold rush, Johnson offers an in-depth narrative that brings out the historical realities of the gold rush. Her major point of focus through this historical excursion is to demonstrate the dynamic social world in which the prospectors in the gold rush found themselves. She uses real historical events in the gold rush during the mid-19th century in the development of a chronological flow of events in a factious story that helps to visualize the exact happenings of the entire Gold rush period in history. Through such factious characters, Johnson succeeds to present an argument about a historical happening.

The major contribution in the historical understanding of the American West that Johnson makes is the social dynamics of identities among the potentials during the Gold Rush. Through the book, she confines herself majorly to dimensions of socially contracted identities and how they related to cultures. She points out those different cultures have different social identities that relate to gender[8]. Most importantly she points to the perception of gender roles and how differences in such roles led to conflicts among prospectors from different cultural backgrounds. Moreover, she demonstrates how the prospectors navigated their cultural differences in order to create a harmonious community. Therefore, Johnson contributes to the development of the American West history by depicting the historical events that shaped social identities within the region. Her use of primary sources such letters, diaries, memoirs and newspaper reports among others giver her historical perspective authenticity. Therefore, she makes a valuable contribution to this growing body of historical knowledge.


Johnson Susan Lee. Roaring Camp: The Social World of the California Gold Rush. W.W. Norton, 2001.

[1] Susan Lee Johnson. Roaring Camp, 12.

[2] Susan Lee Johnson. Roaring Camp, 18

[3] Susan Lee Johnson. Roaring Camp.

[4] Susan Lee Johnson. Roaring Camp.

[5] Susan Lee Johnson. Roaring Camp.

[6] Susan Lee Johnson. Roaring Camp.

[7] Susan Lee Johnson. Roaring Camp.

[8] Susan Lee Johnson. Roaring Camp.

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