A Big "Humbug" (or Just a Blend of Fact and Fiction)
The term "humbug" was widely used during the days of the California Gold Rush (1849-1855) to describe something that was false, questionable, or just plain not right. Today, instead of "humbug" we use the term "bullshit" to describe people, places, or things of questionable value. So I'm somewhat saddened and very much chagrined that my recent posts on passages from Argonaut Alfred Jackson's "diary" are based on a big "humbug." Read on to find out more.
Egg on My Face
Thanks to Don from Oregon, one of my readers and supporters, I've been apprised of the fact that the diary of purported '49er Alfred Jackson is not real but a concoction of fact and fiction perpetrated by one Chauncey Leon Canfield of...get this...Litchfield, Connecticut. Hmmm...remember? Miner Alfred Jackson was from Litchfield as well. Canfield was about seven years old at the time that Alfred Jackson was supposed to be writing his diary of life in he California goldfields. Canfield's father brought him to the goldfields of the Southern Motherlode Region near Mariposa some time later, where he gained-first-hand knowledge of the life and times of the '49ers. Now Don didn't want to cause problems for you or I by revealing this information, but I'm glad he did despite the fact I've got a bit of egg on my face. I'm always harping about doing your homework (research) and this is a glaring instance where yours truly should've followed his own advice. So my apologies to one and all for publishing Alfred Jackson's diary passages as authentic when in fact his diary is little more than a big "humbug," albeit an interesting one from a reader's standpoint. (And Don, don't feel bad for cluing me in brother. You did the right thing. When I say or do something that ain't right I am compelled to correct the course and extend my apologies to all concerned.)
As a young man in California, Canfield came into contact with an old-time miner named Hanchett and often listened to his stories and tales of daily life in the Northern mines during the Gold Rush. Remember, Canfield's experience of the mines was in the Southern Region. So Hanchett's memories filled in the gaps that Canfield knew little about concerning Nevada City, Rock and Brush Creeks, the Yuba, and so on. Canfield encouraged Hanchett in this regard and had an assistant take shorthand notes of Hanchett's reminiscences. These notes would later form the core of the fictional Alfred Jackson diary. Now Canfield was no stranger to writing fiction. In 1888 he published a volume of his own short stories and then began work on the diary of a "real" '49er, the fictional Alfred Jackson. And here's where fact gets woven together with fiction, with partial thanks due to the old timer, Hanchett and a lot of emphasis on Canfield's fiction writing talent. The upshot? In October 1906, Alfred Jackson's diary was published as The Diary of a Forty-Niner and went to print as a "true" account of life as a '49er in the Northern Motherlode.
Despite my getting fooled by Canfield's fiction writing skills I guess I'm not alone. It took a while for others in the early 1900s (perhaps not until 1920?) to figure things out as it stood with Alfred Jackson's diary. Still, it's an interesting read...fictional aspects notwithstanding. I noted in this series of blog posts that I was a bit amazed at the literacy inherent in the diary. That should've raised a red flag of sorts because I've studied the history of the California Gold Rush long and hard and I have read numerous diaries and letters from that period. NONE of those diaries or accounts have come anywhere close to Alfred Jackson's diary in terms of literacy and overall readability. Those other diaries and accounts are typically rife with bad grammar, poor spelling, and a writing style that is often "tortuous." There's just no other way to put that. I can't blame the authors of those other diaries and accounts though. Many were illiterate or nearly so and their main focus of the time wasn't about being "good" writers...it was about getting the gold.
("Humbug" or not, Canfield's fake diary takes nothing away from these fine gentleman.)
So I have to tip my hat to Chauncey Canfield. He did one hell of a job with Alfred Jackson's diary, despite the fact it turned out to be just another big "humbug." Sorry about that.
Take care all.
(c) Jim Rocha 2018
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