It took less time to travel from California to eastern Australia than to make a trip across the American continent from New York to its east coast, but the number of Americans who made their way to the Victorian diggings was comparatively small (around 6,000 arrived in the 1850s). However, this group of migrants had a big impact on the social and cultural life of the goldfields – like the Cornish diggers, American migrants made an important contribution to gold mining in Victoria due to the mining heritage and history of their home country.
Most of the Americans who came to Australia had already lived through the gold rushes in California (which commenced 1848) and brought with them experiences, knowledge and products that became an influence on mining practices and everyday life in Victoria. Particularly influential in the development of more sophisticated mining practices than those used by small parties of diggers during the alluvial rushes, the Americans were involved in the introduction of techniques such as hydraulic mining, steam-driven crushing and advance separation of the ore.
Then, as they are now, Americans in the mid-nineteenth century were an enterprising bunch and contributed to many industries besides mining. Freeman Cobb, who established Cobb and Co., was an American, as were the transport company’s first four stagecoach drivers. Examples of new American products and inventions introduced to Victoria include alarm clocks, rocking chairs, iceboxes and kerosene.
Many Americans were quick to recognise the potential of the fast-growing market in Victoria as an opportunity to open up trade between Australia and the United States. In early 1853, an editorial in the New York Herald foresaw that Australia’s ‘social, commercial and political’ importance would ‘advance with rapid strides,’ as would trade between the two continents.
Aitchison writes of some other notable American contributions to colonial life in Victoria:
A Boston water-cart began laying the dust in Melbourne streets. Americans won the contract to build the Hobson Bay Railway Pier at Port Melbourne. Others supplied Melbourne with firewood and fresh fish. American settlers also brought new ideas and improvements to rural industries, including orchard irrigation, windmill water pumps and barbed wire. The ringbarking of trees was an American innovation.
American diggers also became involved in local politics, alongside disgruntled miners from many other countries; two Americans, John Josephs and Charles Ferguson, were charged with treason following the battle at the Eureka Stockade.
A notable American visitor to Australia during the 1850s was George Francis Train, who recorded his impressions of the country in An American Merchant in Europe, Asia and Australia, published in 1857, and in his letters from Victoria, which appeared in the Boston Post between 1853 and 1855. Train soon became an important player in the Melbourne business scene, and was actively involved with the Chamber of Commerce. The Argus farewelled him in 1855, writing that Train’s ‘energy, spirit, and restless activity have had an effect, not fully appreciated we believe, in stirring up a spirit of emulation amongst his brother merchants … it would be difficult to trace the full effect of his example in vitalising our whole commercial system.’
Some wild claims have been made about Train’s time in Victoria, including one that the miners at Maryborough wanted him to run for parliament (indeed Train later ran for the American presidency against Lincoln in 1864, and again in 1872). His travels around the world are thought to have inspired Jules Verne’s novel Around the World in Eighty Days.
In Train’s impressions of Melbourne, his cultural baggage as an American is always evident. He first saw Melbourne through American eyes, stating in a letter home, on 23 June 1853, that ‘Collins street is the Broadway and Flinders lane is Wall street'. He divined that ‘Melbourne, though situated so far out of the way, cannot fail to be a great city … We must introduce a sprinkling of Yankeeism here and teach the residents the meaning of despatch!’
His letters in the American press provided detailed analysis of Victorian politics, including the events at Ballarat in late 1854. On 28 October, following the riot at Bentley’s Hotel, Train wrote: ‘[t]he diggers have felt their power, and are not likely to fall back for a handful of soldiers;' and on 1 January 1855, he declared that
Politics have grown twenty years in a single month … the miners of Ballaarat raise an independent flag and the country thrills with the purport of expected change. The love of liberty that is convulsing the shaking thrones of the old world has touched the giant chieftain of the Australias, and the ‘southern cross’, three-fourths of the people say, must be the flag of the southern El Dorado.