The Unanswered Call for Transnational Mining History

“[…] professional historians have left mining history to an army of keen but near-sighted local historians […]” —John McCarty (1968)[1] 

Forty-two years after McCarty leveled the above critique, Keir Reeves, Lionel Frost, and Charles Fahey responded with a transnational/transoceanic argument about the global gold supply called “Integrating the History of the Nineteenth Century Gold Rushes.”[2] Yet—with notable exceptions—few have replicated the ambitious geographic reach of Reeves et. al.[3] Why?

It will be news to no one that state-based explanations for the past just don’t fire the historical imagination like they used to and that environmental historians have been at the forefront of a transnational shift.

There’s a lot to recommend transnational mining history: Massive migrations of people, science, and commodities across continents, a commodity that moved readily around the world as part of a global financial system, geological formations don’t follow political boundaries, a powerful modern industry regularly scandalized by environmental and human justice issues abroad.

Geologic Map of North America (U.S. Geological Survey I-2781).

In some ways mining history got an early jump on the transnational trend (especially in Australasia): Phillip Ross May, a New Zealand historian of mining, wrote comparative mining histories way before it was cool.[4] And, founding father Geoffrey Blainey acknowledged the role of international forces in Australia’s mining past in 1963.[5]

But for the most part, mining history has been national history. After all, what Blainey was really interested in was how mining history created a foundation for the rise of the Australian state. In 1964, Rodman Paul told us that the mining frontiers of the far west left America with a legacy of a disorderly, geographically scattered society characterized by instability.[6] In 1972, Ronald Genini used the Fraser River gold rush to characterize the history of British Columbia as non-violent, stable, and organized compared to its predecessors.[7] These internally-focused framings see mining as a condition for the unique cultural, political, and economic character of the nation-state.

Foot of Rocky Mountains, William Hind, 1862.

Since the 1970s, mining history (in general) reversed the old celebratism while holding on to the old geographic scope. In the hands of modern scholars, mining became a symbol of America’s “failed marriage” with nature, Australia’s environmental awakening, and Canada’s industrial transformation.[8] Note that I don’t think there’s anything wrong with these studies, nor that they are at all (as McCarty seemed to suggest) near-sighted. On the contrary they have made enormous contributions to the field.

By way of conclusion, I see two (related) barriers to transnational histories of mining.[9] First, transnational mining history increasingly looks like it needs to be rooted in the global south. Mining historians often wave vaguely to “El Dorado” and the shiploads of precious metals that travelled between Latin America and Spain as part of the mining history’s backdrop—but few take the idea that mining stories might begin (and end) outside of the global north seriously.

Second, transnational research might expose uncomfortable internal contradictions inherent in the claim that mining simultaneously defined the unique characteristics of fundamentally different colonial and settler states. It’s possible we’ve shoved diverse mining stories into comfortable tropes based more on shared values rather than historical evidence. In states where settler identities rest on stories about rugged individualism on mining frontiers, transnational mining history risks running up against the powerful force of identity and nationalism.

Mining in Potosí, an engraving from Theodoor de Bry in Historia Americae sive Novi Orbis, 1596 (Wikimedia Commons).

[1] John W. McCarty, “Suggestions for an economic history of North American mining in the nineteenth century,” in N. Harper, ed. Pacific Circle: Proceedings of the Second Biennial Conference of the Australian and New Zealand American Studies Association (St. Lucia: University of Queensland Press), 90–111.

[2] Kier Reeves, et. al., “Integrating the Historiography of the Nineteenth-Century Gold Rushes,” Australian Economic History Review 50 (2010): 111-128.

[3] My favourites are Simon Chapple, “Law and Society Across the Pacific: Nevada County, California, 1849-1860 and Gympie, Queensland, 1867-1880,” (PhD diss., University of New South Wales, 2010), and John McNeill and George Vrtis eds, Mining North America: An Environmental History since 1522 (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2017).

[4] Phillip Ross May, On the Motherlode (Christchurch: University of Canterbury Press, 1971) or Origins of Hydraulic Mining in California (Oakland, CA: The Holmes Book Company, 1970).

[5] Geoffrey Blainey, The Rush That Never Ended: A History of Australian Mining (Parkville: Melbourne University Press, 1963), 1-2.

[6] Rodman Paul, Mining Frontiers of the Far West 1848-1880 (New York, NY: Holt, Rhinehart, and Winston, 1964), 2

[7] Ronald Genini, “The Fraser-Cariboo Gold Rushes: Comparisons and Contrasts with the California Gold Rush,” Journal of the West 11 (July 1972).

[8] Kent Curtis, Gambling on Ore: The Nature of Metal Mining in the Unites States (Boulder, CA: University of Colorado Press, 2013); Susan Lawrence and Peter Davis, “The Sludge Question: The Regulation of Mine Tailings in Nineteenth-Century Victoria,” Environment and History 20 (2014); Liza Piper, The Industrial Transformation of Subarctic Canada (Vancouver, BC: UBC Press, 2009).

[9] Beyond the problems of funding and risk—although this idea appears elsewhere, I read about it most recently in Kristine Alexander’s blog post “Disciplines and Disciplining: Canadian History and/as Transnational History.”