Seventy years ago, Pacific Historical Review published one of the journal’s first “special issues,” looking back on the California Gold Rush. The special issue came at a significant transitional moment in the study of the Gold Rush. In the late 1940s, historians had begun to turn away from nationalist and celebratory accounts of the Gold Rush and toward more critical perspectives. The influence of the World War II was acute, particularly in encouraging a more international perspective on the Gold Rush. (The full text of the 1949 special issue, “Rushing for Gold,” is available at http://phr.ucpress.edu/content/18/1 .)
The mid-nineteenth century territorial growth of the United States was complex and contradictory. Not only did Mexico, Britain, and Native Americans contest U.S. territorial objectives; so, too, did many within the United States and in some cases American western settlers themselves. The notion of manifest destiny reflects few of these complexities. The authors argue that manifest destiny was a partisan idea that emerged in a context of division and uncertainty intended to overawe opponents of expansion. Only in the early twentieth century, as the United States had consolidated its hold on the North American West and was extending its power into the Caribbean and Pacific, did historians begin to describe manifest destiny as something that it never was in the nineteenth century: a consensus. To a significant extent, historians continue to rely on the idea to explain U.S. expansion. The authors argue for returning a sense of context and contingency to the understanding of mid-nineteenth-century U.S. expansion.
In 1832, the United States began an extensive program to vaccinate Indians against smallpox. The program reached roughly 50,000 Indians both friendly and hostile to U.S. authorities. The program was far-reaching because more than they feared Indians, Americans feared the smallpox virus. Their terror was palpable in narratives published in the 1830s. In addition, as narratives from the period make clear, rather than thinking of diseases such as smallpox as providential scourges that would clear the way for U.S. settlement, officials offered the smallpox vaccine to Indians in an effort to win their goodwill, and detach them from alliances with Britain or Mexico (both of whom also offered vaccine to the Indians). Finally, as the U.S. began its tentative first moves into the West, narratives about vaccinating Indians helped Americans convince themselves that they were not simply conquerors but healers.