Through careful looking and reading a painting for information, students will better understand the journey out to California via the Isthmus of Panama during the California Gold Rush.
Going to California: Crossing the Isthmus
Time Alloted45 Minutes
State Content Standards
4th Grade - California : A Changing State
4.3 Compare how and why people traveled to California and the routes they traveled
What skills do you want the students to know and be able to demonstrate?
- Collaborative learning
- Drawing conclusions from observation
- Creative writing
- Drawing and illustration skills
Begin by looking carefully at the image Crossing the Isthmus as a group and record all comments on chart paper. Ask:
Where does this painting take place? Describe the environment.
Are there people in this painting? What are they doing? Why are they there?
Is this painting a celebration of this environment or a warning about how dangerous it is? Why?
What time period is this image portraying, what are the clues about the historical period? What do you see that makes you say that?
Discuss student observations. Explain that the painter, Albertus del Orient Browere made the journey out to California during the Gold Rush twice. The first time he went by sea around Cape Horne (have students point this route out on a map). This journey by sea took 4 months. The second time he went across the Isthmus of Panama (have students point this out on the map) by mule and was at his destination in only a few weeks. Both trips were arduous. Other people journeyed by land (point out the trail west overland).
Individually, students take a 5-minute written “journey” into the painting. Ask students to answer the following questions: If you could enter the painting, what would it feel like? What is the temperature? What do you hear? Smell? Touch? See? How does it make you feel?
Explain that students will be creating a written advertisement with illustrations as if they were selling themselves as a carrier to potential immigrants to California during the Gold Rush. How will you convince people to choose this route as opposed to over land or by sea around the horn? Use captivating language and try and woe people to join you on your expedition. What will they see or experience in Panama ? What can this journey offer them?
As a whole class, share the advertisements. Are they similar? Different? What strategies did students use to convince people that they should take this challenging journey?
Browere made two trips to California : one from 1852 to 1856 and a second from 1858 to 1861. The reason for his first trip is unknown, although, like so many others, he was probably lured to California with the promise of wealth. He made the trip to California via a four-month voyage around Cape Horn . He was listed as a carriage painter in San Francisco in 1852, earning enough money to buy supplies for a trip to the Sierra foothills. While residing in San Francisco , he met Charles Christian Nahl. His early mining paintings manifest the influence of Nahl paintings and illustrations.
By the summer of 1854 Browere had settled in Columbia , California , and set up a business as a sign and ornamental painter. During this first California sojourn Browere painted genre (everyday) scenes of the miners – he had realized that the heyday of mining was nearing an end and wanted to record his observations. Browere was also impressed with the distinctive geography of the Mother Lode and painted topographic landscapes with incidental figures. Most of these paintings returned East to Catskill with Browere at the end of his stay in 1856.
In 1858 Browere returned to California , this time via the Panama route. He may have returned in order to replenish his studies for Gold Rush paintings he would later create exhibitions in the east. Shortly after arriving in California , he may have painted two scenes of the Chagres route, which he had just traversed. Crossing the Isthmus , one of the two, shows the verdant tropical foliage that so impressed the Eastern emigrants, as Lucilla Brown described in her bungo boat ride up the Chagres River in 1849. “The luxuriant jungle… with flowers, birds of gay plumage flying hither and thither, the chattering of monkeys, the scream of parrots. I am delighted.” Browere again returned to Columbia , where he painted portraits, landscapes, and decorative paintings.
In 1861 Browere left California for the last time and returned to Catskill , New York . He continued to paint signs and register boards until 1886. He died in 1887. A.D.O. Browere was an innovative painter of California landscapes and genre scenes of mining life at a time when many Easterners had little respect or interest in the gold miners. Browere's activity predates and anticipates the flowering of California landscape and romanticized depictions of Gold Rush subjects in the 1870s and 1880s.
The main Panama Route began in New York , when a passenger boarded a steamship bound for Chagres , Panama . There passengers disembarked and took a bungo boat (a hollowed-out log used as a boat by native Panamanians) to Gorgona. From there, they hired mules to carry them down steep mountains into Panama City , where they hoped to connect with a Pacific Mail steamship. One intrepid mule traveler wrote about his experience. “After being jolted to almost paralytic unconsciousness on the mules, alternately burned by the tropic sun and soaked by the tropic showers, and liberally bespotted by the mosquitoes and other nameless visitors of the previous three nights, the Argonauts hailed Panama (City) with delight . ”
Ancient Panama City was not prepared for the hordes of travelers, who descended upon it waiting for a steamer, which might not come for over a month. Due to the unsanitary conditions and lack of preventive medical knowledge, severe outbreaks of cholera, yellow fever and malaria occurred in Panama City . As the steamers left Panama , they piled as many passengers as possible on the boats and picked up more on various stops along the way. On board the crowded steamers, the diseases the passengers contracted in Panama City reached epidemic proportions; food and water was in short supply. There were stops along the way, such as at Acapulco for provisions, and then on to the final destination in San Francisco . As the steamer approached San Francisco , some sailors, caught up in the “gold fever,” began to “jump ship.” Over time, as steamship schedules improved and a railroad across the isthmus was built (completed in 1855), the Panama Route became faster and more comfortable.
The horrors described above are unimaginable in the serene painting Crossing the Isthmus . Browere probably made his trip on the newly completed railroad across the isthmus, when the trip was much more comfortable. Browere romanticized the trip in his painting by depicting an earlier time when the traveler traversed the isthmus on a mule. However, the realities of the arduous trip are overshadowed by a landscape full of luxuriant, tropical plants, a towering tropical mountain and a calm flowing river. No sound appears to break the silence of this idyllic scene; except for the rider and his three pack mules in the lower left. They are but small specks in this paradise-like landscape.