What made ECV Work?
(A monograph on the social environment of Gold Rush California)
by Gene “Dickhead” Duncker, PXP
Let’s take a moment to examine what it was about the California Gold Rush that made it so agreeable to the spread of E Clampus Vitus. Why did it take root, blossom and spread so well in this new land? What made it work? For better or worse, here’s my analysis.
When men came to the gold fields of California from all corners of the world, they were met with a social void. Notice, I said men, because there were very few women among the early emigrants. The society they left behind was restrictive and conservative, whether they came from the eastern United States, the Sandwich Islands, Asia, South America or Europe. Generally, the towns and villages that they called home were rural and agricultural. But, that’s where the rules of life were learned. It was where your family, church, business associates, schoolmates and neighbors taught you to behave.
On the other hand, restrictions in California were scarce. The Mexicans had little government to speak of before the war. And, since its victory over Mexico, the U.S. had no time to establish a new order before the rush began. Agencies that today we take for granted (post offices, fire departments, police, roads, libraries, schools, courts, etc.) were non-existent. Law was enforced by your fists, knife or gun. Probably fewer than 50 U.S. regular Army soldiers were in the entire region. Our Navy, what here was of it, was all at the coast.
None of the entities that bind us together as a society were anywhere near here. The closest thing to Western civilization was either Salt Lake City or Oregon. Wives, mothers and children, who had previously acted as restraints on the natural inclinations of men, were somewhere else. Churches, except for a few Catholic missions, were nowhere to be found in this new place. Everyone you had known at home was still there. You could be whomever you wanted, and do whatever you wanted. Testosterone flowed like the mountain streams in spring. Was this the unbridled freedom and adventure of the Jeffersonian Utopia, where a man could improve his life without societal restrictions? Or, was it a precursor of Golding’s “Lord of the Flies”, where man’s base natures erupted from his primitive past? Either way, this was the soil in which the seeds of our Order were planted. It was the perfect place for Ephraim Bee’s practical joke to take root and flower into illustrious fruition. I will attempt to explain why.
Man, being gregarious, enjoys the company of others. And, the more they have in common, the more congenial the society. In Gold Rush California there was a unique blending of three common factors that I believe made it the perfect incubator for E Clampus Vitus.
First, there was the commonality of gender. The almost all-male society of early California made the idea of a fraternity of manhood easily accepted. Since prehistoric times, men have been grouping together as men. Hunter’s societies, warrior bands, gentleman’s clubs all have one thing in common – MEN ONLY. Even as young boys, our clubhouses often had signs proclaiming, “No girls allowed!”. It is only in that purely masculine atmosphere that we are truly comfortable with our surroundings. We can let our hair down, tell dirty jokes, complain about the wife or girlfriend (or both), handle complicated finances, discuss sports and brag about our conquests in business, battle or bed.
It’s where we can eat what we want, as much as we want. Then, we can burp and fart, without having to be genteel and apologetic. Language and other expression are much freer when there are no women around. We can beat our chests, gamble, spend freely, ogle females and act silly, all without social repercussions. In short, we can do all those things we’re not allowed to do in polite society because there are no women to restrict us. California, in those days, was truly “a man’s world”.
Next, there was the commonality of purpose. Men came here for one reason, and one reason only – to get rich quick. Sure, there was a spirit of adventure among the 49′ers. But, adventure could have been found on the high seas, in the army, exploring other continents, on religious pilgrimages, or anywhere away from your home. Only in California could you make your fortune! You could leave your poor farm or small shop as a common man, and return home in a year or so as a man of great substance. You could be set for life on just the nuggets you found laying on the ground, or so they dreamed. No need for education, risky investments or the whims of nature. Gold, the purest form of wealth, was there for the taking.
Whether your plan was to mine the gold or “mine the miners” by selling them necessities, it was still a plan to make money, and lots of it. And, there were no taxes, restriction on profit margins, business ethics or “rules of engagement” to interfere with your dreams. It was pure laissez-faire capitalism at its best, (or worst). But, all were of the same mind, and all were aware of how the game was to be played. Like sharks in a feeding frenzy, there was the common mindset to get everything you could as quickly as possible.
Finally, we have the commonality of fun. Men relieve stress by having fun. After all, you’ve been panning gold and shoveling gravel, up to your waist in cold mountain streams all week. That’s hard, taxing work. Because of the physical exhaustion, sports were out of the question. What better way to relax and celebrate your new life than to have few drinks with your buddies? How better to welcome the new guys into camp than by inviting them to join your group, and playing some practical jokes on them? Better yet, let’s get them to buy the drinks for the rest of us. Once they realize we’ve all done it, they’ll really feel like one of us!
Yes, it was the chance they would never have in their home towns. Nobody back home would ever know what they did or how much they spent. They could drink to excess and use foul language. They could gamble and dance wildly, maybe even hook-up with a dark-eyed Indian or Mexican girl. Hell, they didn’t have to get up for church in the morning. It was, in today’s language, therapeutic. Those men were allowing their “inner child” to have expression, long before psychologists even considered such an idea.
So, why did ECV prosper so in the gold fields? It is fundamental knowledge that nature abhors a vacuum. E Clampus Vitus was the precise remedy for the unnatural state that existed at that time in California society. Its tripod of masculinity, comradery and frivolity fit into the societal void as if it had been engineered to do so. It became the cog that made everything fit together, to move, to produce, to satisfy. It was the only society available to those pioneers for the first few years of that era.
Hopefully, for many years to come, E Clampus Vitus will continue to work and grow. As it has evolved, ECV has changed a bit. But it still has that magic tripod of commonalities that worked for our Brothers of the olden days. It’s up to each of us to keep it on that solid footing.
I invite your ideas, comments, criticisms and discussions of these ideas and this work. But, let’s do it when we’re both sober – OK, Brother
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