Ophir, California (1850)

Adopting the name Ophir for a California Gold Rush town makes perfect sense. In the Bible, Ophir was the source of King Solomon’s famous wealth (1 Kings 9:26-28; 10:11;  22:48;  29:4;  8:18; 9:10, and Job 22:24; 28:16;  45:9;  13:12).  [1]   No wonder that Ophir was a popular choice of name for mining towns, adopted in New South Wales (Australia), as well as several US states such as Colorado, Utah, and Nevada. 

The Ophir in California, located just west of Auburn on the North Fork of the American River, was evidently named in 1850 by one in a recently arrived cadre of gold seekers from Ohio calling themselves the “Buckeye Rovers.”  One of these Ohio gentlemen, Charles Giles, “made a speech on the occasion of showing this to be the land of Ophir, and thought it but fair to name at least one place with the ancient name, so Ophir it is.” [2] 

At least one place.  Giles seemed surprised that no settlement had yet been so named. After all, the press had been referring to California as “our Ophir” since the earliest reports of gold discovered there.  In 1849, the periodical Scientific American published an article theorizing that the mystery of Ophir's actual location had been solved: “California is the ancient Ophir.”  [3]  

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More than a mere biblical analogy, naming Ophir addressed Anglo Protestant anxieties about race and religion in California on the one hand, and aspirations about about its natural resources, on the other.  Why else but for inscrutable Providence (i.e., manifest destiny) did the Spain and later Mexico not unearth California's riches? Many theorized that Ophir (qua California qua gold) had been occluded until such time as Providence saw fit to reveal its hidden riches to a white and Protestant people. [4]  How else to explain why Spaniards had controlled the area for hundreds of years, while “the enterprising Anglo Saxon had needed only three months” to find gold? [5] 

Providence and race were rhetorically linked to great effect as Anglo American leaders sought to frame the discovery of gold as confirmation of a divinely ordained errand.

Naming Ophir implicitly foregrounded Anglo Saxon entitlement to California’s gold. California, referred to in the press as “our Ophir,” quickly took the starring role in the infinitely adjustable biblical story about a covenanted people arriving at the Promised Land. 

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[1] Ophir is also listed as the name of one the sons of Joktan in the Table of Nations (Gen 10). 

[2] Howard L. Scamehorn, ed., The Buckeye Rovers in the Gold Rush (Athens, OH: Ohio University Press, 1965), 140.  See also Erwin Gudde and William Bright, eds., California Place Names: The Origin and Etymology of Current Geographical Names, 4th Ed. (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2010), 270; Erwin and Elizabeth Gudde, California Gold Camps: A Geographical and Historical Dictionary of Camps, Towns, and Localities Where Gold Was Found and Mined; Wayside Stations and Trading Centers (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2009), 252-253. 

[3] Author unknown, “California the ancient Ophir,” Scientific American, New York, Vol. 4 No. 20, (Feb. 1849), 155.

[4] It was a frequent observation that “Providence had held the gold in readiness for just the right historical moment,” and just the right historical people, viz., white Protestants.  See the comments cited in David Goodman, Gold Seeking: Victoria and California in the 1850s (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1994), 30-32. This idea preceded for many that actual finding of gold, as Laurie Maffly-Kipp’s study of religion in frontier California points out. “Between 1796 and 1845, thousands of mome mission societies, located primarily in the northeastern states, embraced the notion that the settlement of vast territories to the west played a crucial role in the divine plan of salvation.”  Laurie Maffly-Kipp, Religion and Society in Frontier California(New Haven: Yale University Press, 1994), 14. See especially chap. 2 in this volume for discussion of how Protestants engaged the concept of providence to filter and frame the discovery of gold and its effects.

[5] David Goodman, Gold Seeking: Victoria and California in the 1850s, 31.