Media Life: 160-year-old daguerreotype is Auburn’s iconic image

By: Gus Thomson, Reporter/Media Life columnist
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Media Life’s Gus Thomson can be reached at Also hear Thomson most Fridays at 6 p.m. on Dave Rosenthal’s drive-time radio show on KAHI 950 AM. He’s also a regular guest on Capital Public Radio’s “Insight.” And you can catch up with Thomson on Twitter at AJ_Media_Life.



AUBURN CA - Some 2,700 miles from Auburn, visitors to the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C. are getting a glimpse into a California community’s rich golden past.

The glimpse comes courtesy of a daguerreotypist who was at work in the gold fields of Placer County in 1852 and captured some of the earliest and most resonant images of the people who toiled anonymously for an elusive fortune.

Perhaps Auburn’s most well-known image, the photo is one of three daguerreotypes attributed to New York native Joseph Blaney Starkweather. Curators at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History chose it for the museum’s current “On the Water” exhibit.

The daguerreotype shows a group of seven unsmiling gold seekers looking up from their diggings in what is described as the “head” of the Auburn Ravine.

 What gives the photo some added visual appeal is that while three of the all-male group are Caucasian, the other four are Chinese. And in a display of unintended symbolism that opens up the issue of Chinese mistreatment by whites in Placer County at the time, a “long tom” sluice box provides a barrier between the two groups.


The lure of gold

The Gold Rush attracted a global village, with fortune hunters coming from all 31 states and at least 25 other nations. Southern China was actually closer by sea than any East Coast U.S. community. The Smithsonian notes that 20,000 male immigrants arrived from China in 1852 alone.

The Smithsonian’s exhibit details the nation’s seafaring past and includes a section on “To California by Sea.” The world rushed in to California after James Marshall’s Jan. 24, 1848, discovery of nuggets in the sand and gravel along the American River at what would soon become the boom town of Coloma. In May 1848, Claude Chana would discover gold in the ravine on a swatch of land what would soon become the boom town of Auburn.

The faces in the daguerreotype of the Auburn Ravine – and two others, showing Spanish Flat gold workers near Auburn and another group of miners in Auburn Ravine – are not pleasant, romanticized imagery. Because of the spontaneity of the scenes and their rarity, they’ve become some of the most iconic photos of California taken during that period.

There is some doubt whether Starkweather was the actual photographer. He exhibited the photos in 1880 in San Francisco. But his presence in the Auburn area in 1852 is still questionable. According to modern-day research gathered in the book “Pioneer Photographers of the Far West,” Starkweather was a daguerreotypist in Roxbury, Mass. from 1850 through 1852. In 1853, he was again in the Boston area, working as a fancy goods dealer.


Mystery on photographer

The Smithsonian exhibit describes the journey to California from the Eastern U.S. as a sailing trip of five to seven months around the tip of South America at Cape Horn for most. Only the most wealthy could catch a steamer at Panama to save precious time.

On those numbers alone, the timing suggests Starkweather may not have been in California in 1852.

He was in California, though. Starkweather started a new photo studio in San Francisco in 1867 and continued there until 1904, when no further records exist of the man who may have provided Auburn with a lasting portal into its beginnings.

The Auburn Gold Rush images were owned up to 1947 by the state Division of Mines, when they were acquired by the California State Library.

Go online and you can buy posters, T-shirts and even coffee mugs emblazoned with a facsimile of “Head of Auburn Ravine, 1852.” The original, however, is not easy to access.

The Smithsonian is exhibiting the original nugget James Marshall found in 1848 but the Auburn image it’s using in the exhibit is a copy. The image itself is a popular one for reprint requests at the library because of the continuing interest in Gold Rush books and its use to illustrate that time, California History Section Supervising Librarian Kathleen Correia said.

The daguerreotype itself – held in its original velvet covered case and framed in gold – is not on display because of its fragility in light, she said.


Beloved Buttes

On a clear day, in many parts of Auburn that are endowed with a sweeping view of the Sacramento Valley to the north, the Sutter Buttes are an object of awe and mystery.

While visits and hikes to the Buttes in Sutter County are a reality these days, thanks to groups such as the Middle Mountain Foundation, the Oakland Museum of California has also taken notice. The museum has been revamping its Gallery of California Natural Sciences and will re-open the space May 31 with a look at the Buttes.

The natural history and ecology of the Sutter Buttes will be one of seven areas of intense focus in the newly transformed gallery. Other spaces are devoted to Mount Shasta, Yosemite, Cordell Bank National Marine Sanctuary, the Tehachapis, Oakland and Coachella Valley.

Media Life’s Gus Thomson can be reached at Also hear Thomson most Fridays at 6 p.m. on Dave Rosenthal’s drive-time radio show on KAHI 950 AM. He’s also a regular guest on Capital Public Radio’s “Insight.” And you can catch up with Thomson on Twitter at AJ_Media_Life.