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  • Writer's pictureCheryl Anne Stapp

Bruff's Gold Rush Hysteria

Joseph Goldsborough Bruff is a well-remembered participant in the California Gold Rush. A committed diarist and talented amateur artist, he left reams of hand-written observations and sketches of his experiences, starting with his departure from St. Joseph, Missouri, in 1849. Unlike most of his gold-fevered companions, Bruff was no greenhorn traveler. After resigning from West Point circa 1822, he found travel and adventure on a merchant sailing ship bound for northern Europe. Bruff sailed the Atlantic Ocean for five years, developing an aptitude for sketching landscapes in the foreign shores he visited. Afterwards, he worked as a draftsman at the Norfolk, Virginia naval yard for the next ten years, until he was invited to join the newly formed, elite organization of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers as a civilian contract specialist. His duties included drawing all the plates for the three volumes of Cavalry Tactics, rigging designs for ships, swords, uniform insignias, seals and medals, and “working up” exploration maps of John Fremont’s western travels. One of his motives for going to California, besides the chance to find a fortune in the gold fields, was that he might earn royalties by writing a trail guidebook of the phenomena he termed “gold rush hysteria.” This, however, was not to be. Bruff‘s manuscript was rejected by various publishers, and upon his death in 1889, his beloved journal became family memorabilia with sections stored by different descendants. Through the efforts of 20th century rare book collectors and dealers, the separated work was retrieved and published as a two volume set titled Gold Rush: The Journals, Drawings, and other Papers of J. Goldsborough Bruff, April 2, 1849 – July 20, 1851, now out of print and rare outside of libraries. Disappointed while alive, posthumously Bruff is a successful author whose observant prose is quoted by most modern writers of gold rush history.

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