Beyond the Gold Rush
American History, grades 4-8
Expansion and Reform, 1800-1860
Common Core Standards Addressed:
Writing Standards K-5
Tim Hahn (2004)
“Seeing the Elephant” is a colloquialism spawned during the Gold Rush to describe the intense curiosity generated by the opening of the West and the discovery of gold in California. This metaphor was later modified in ironic fashion by miners in the gold fields to describe the overwhelming challenge involved in extracting enough gold to make the venture worthwhile. As a result, this song gained many new verses over the Gold Rush years.
The song was first performed in San Francisco as the title piece of a musical show by “Doc” Robinson in 1850. It later appeared in Put’s Original California Songster. See “Sweet Betsy from Pike” (VAT 3.72) to learn more about John Stone a.k.a. “Old Put.” The tune is a Daniel Emmett minstrel song, “De Boatman Dance.”
“The Old Settler’s Song,” also known as “Acres of Clams,” has enjoyed a more enduring place in the American folk repertoire, having been recorded by Pete Seeger and other modern balladeers. The words are attributed to one Frank Henry, an Oregon pioneer. The tune, according to Oscar Brand, originated as a 17th century Irish harp tune. If so, it later reappeared as the tune for the British music hall song, “Rosin the Bow.”
This song is rare in portraying the wanderlust that turned some miners into drifters once they had played out their claims in the California gold fields. It shows as well the role they played in the eventual settlement of the Pacific Northwest.
Songs used in this lesson:
Introductory learning activities:
Song discussion questions and activities:
Share the Indian story of the elephant and the blind men, each of whom experience an elephant in a different way, depending on which part of the beast they touch.
Follow-up learning activities:
Introductory learning activity:
Create individual profiles for a panel of student “miners” who will discuss their life options in the years following the California Gold Rush. Others students propose options for the miners or offer them news based on historical developments that may influence their decisions.
Song discussion, questions, and activities:
Share “The Old Settler’s Song.” Briefly explain the various mining techniques mentioned in the song. Discuss and clarify the meaning of other unfamiliar words.
Extending the Lesson
When I left the States for gold, ev’rything I had I sold:
A stove, a bed, a fat old sow, sixteen chickens and a cow.
So leave, you miners, leave;
oh, leave, you miners leave.
Take my advice, kill off your lice,
or else go up in the mountains.
Oh, no, lots of dust,
I’m goin’ to the city to go on a bust!
Off I started, Yankee-like, and soon fell in with a lot from Pike;
The next group was some durned “Whoa-ha’s,” a right smart bunch from Arkansas.
The poor coyotes stole my meat, then I had nought but bread to eat
It was not long till that gave out, then how I cursed that Truckee route!
On I traveled through the pines, till at last I found the Northern Mines;
Stole some food and ate my fill, then away I went to Marysville.
Because I would not pay my bill, they kicked me out of Downieville;
I stole a mule and lost the trail and then fetched up in Hangtown Jail.
When the elephant I’d seen, I’m durned if I thought I was green.
And others say, both night and morn, they saw him comin’ round the Horn.
I’ve wandered all over this country,
prospecting and digging for gold;
I’ve tunneled, hydraulicked and cradles,
and I have been frequently sold.
(The first line of each chorus is the second half of the last line of the previous verse. The second line of each chorus is the entire second line of the previous verse.)
And I have been frequently sold;
yes I have been frequently sold;
I’ve tunneled, hydraulicked and cradles,
and I have been frequently sold
For one who gets riches by mining,
perceiving that hundreds grow poor,
I made up my mind to try farming,
the only pursuit that is sure.
So rolling my grub in my blanket,
I left all my tools on the ground;
And started one morning to shank it
for a country they call Puget Sound
Arriving flat broke in mid-winter,
I found it enveloped in fog,
And covered all over with timber,
thick as hair on the back of a dog.
As I looked on the prospect so gloomy,
the tears trickeled over my face,
For I felt that my trouble had brought me
to the edge of the jumping-off place.
I took up a claim in the forest
and set myself down to hard toil;
For two years I chopped and I loggered,
but I never got down to the soil.
I tried to get out of the country,
but poverty forced me to stay
Until I became an old settler,
then you couldn’t drive me away.
But now that I’m used to the climate,
I think that if man ever found
A spot to live easy and happy,
that Eden is on Puget Sound.
No longer the slave of ambition,
I laugh at the world and its shams;
And I think of my happy condition,
surrounded by acres of clams.
I’ve traveled the mountains all over,
and now to the valleys I’ll go;
And live like a pig in the clover,
in sight of huge mountains of snow.
Same pattern as “The Old Settler’s Song”
I’ll marry a rich senorita
and live on a ranch in the west;
Have forty young greasers to greet her,
and fifty if put to the test.
I’ll wear a right pert standing collar
and smoke cigaritos, of course;
And when I run short of a dollar,
I’ll try and obtain a divorce.
I’m greatly in favor of mining,
with me, though, it does not agree;
I’d rather be gently reclining
with Beauty upon a settee.
I’m not much in favor of thieving,
at all events, just as I feel;
But never will work for a living,
so long as I’m able to steal.
Seeger, Pete. Singalong, (Sanders Theatre, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1980), Smithsonian Folkways CD SF 40027/8, Washington, DC, 1991.
Put’s Golden Songster; music from Minstrel Songs Old and New. Oliver Ditson & Co., 1882.
Brands, H.W., The Age of Gold: The California Gold Rush and the New American Dream. New York: Doubleday, 2002.
Marks, Paula M., Precious Dust: The Saga of the Western Gold Rushes. Lincoln: University of Nebraska, 1994.
Arlen, Karen, et al, ed., Days of Gold: Songs of the California Gold Rush. Oakland, CA: Calicanto Associates, 1999. Includes sheet music and two CD’s.
Silber, Irwin, ed., Songs of the Great American West. New York: Dover, 1967.
Copyright 2011-2012 Center for American Music, University of Pittsburgh Library System