The Outcasts of Poker Flat

The Outcasts of Poker Flat Study Guide

Welcome to the LitCharts study guide on Bret Harte's The Outcasts of Poker Flat. Created by the original team behind SparkNotes, LitCharts are the world's best literature guides.

Brief Biography of Bret Harte

Bret Harte was born in Albany, New York in 1836. By age 13, he was working full-time to support his family and was no longer attending school. He eventually moved to California, where he worked his way through a series of unrelated and odd jobs, including a gold prospector, drugstore clerk, schoolteacher, and stagecoach guard. After working in the printing business for a time, he turned to writing. In 1868, he was appointed editor of a new regional magazine called The Overland Monthly. It was in this magazine that Harte published “The Luck of Roaring Camp” and “The Outcasts of Poker Flat,” two of his best-known short stories. After landing a lucrative contract with The Atlantic Monthly, Harte moved to the East Coast and was immediately welcomed into the literary scenes of Boston and New York. However, Harte’s fame soon became debilitating, and he found it extremely difficult to come up with new content. After losing his writing contract because of his poor output, Harte worked as a U.S. commercial agent in Germany and then as a U.S. consul in Scotland. In 1885, he moved to London, where he spent the remainder of his life. He died of throat cancer in 1902.
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Historical Context of The Outcasts of Poker Flat

The core story of “The Outcasts of Poker Flat”—a group of travelers get stranded in the snowy mountains, rations run low, and nearly everyone dies—feels reminiscent of the story of the Donner Party, a group of American pioneers who made the long trek to California from the Midwest via a wagon train. Unfortunately, the group found themselves trapped in the Sierra Nevada mountains—where Harte’s outcasts also set up camp—in the winter of 1846–1847. With their food supplies waning, some of the members of the group took off on foot to find help. Meanwhile, many remaining members of the group resorted to cannibalism, eating the bodies of those who had died from starvation or sickness in a desperate attempt to survive. Rescuers arrived in February of 1847, but by then, only 48 of the 87 members of the party were still alive. Writing 20 years later, Harte was likely familiar with the Donner Party’s plight, as it was—and still is—one of the greatest tragedies in California history. The story also briefly alludes to the California Gold Rush in its mention of Uncle Billy as a potential sluice-robber. A sluice is a kind of sliding gate that controls the flow of water and filters out gold and from dirt and other debris. The California Gold Rush began in 1848 when a man named James W. Marshall found gold at Sutter’s Mill in Coloma, California. When news of Marshall’s windfall spread, over 300,000 people flocked to California to try their hand at finding gold. This influx of people allowed California to enter into statehood in 1850. Population growth was enormous, as San Francisco transformed to a modest settlement of several hundred residents to a town of 36,000 people in less than 10 years. However, the Gold Rush negatively impacted indigenous populations, as Native Americans often found themselves faced with violence or pushed off of their own lands.

Other Books Related to The Outcasts of Poker Flat

Like “The Outcasts of Poker Flat,” Harte’s “The Luck of Roaring Camp” features a group of rough-and-tumble characters who are bound together by a common purpose—though rather than being exiled from the town for bad behavior, the characters of “The Luck of Roaring Camp” try to collectively clean up their act. “The Outcasts of Poker Flat” directly mentions Roaring Camp, too, in referencing it as Oakhurst’s hometown. Both stories also feature terrible tragedies born of natural disasters, highlighting the unforgiving nature of the Old West. Through the character of Piney Woods, “The Outcasts of Poker Flat” alludes to a book called Piney Woods Tavern; or Sam Slick in Texas (1858), written by a well-known humorist named Samuel Adams Hammett. Hammett was known for his tall tales, many of which were set in Texas. Other notable writers who brought the American West to life include Willa Cather, whose novel My Antonia is set in the fictional town of Black Hawk, Nebraska, based on Cather’s own hometown of Red Cloud, Nebraska, as well as John Steinbeck, whose novel Cannery Row illustrates life on the coast of Northern California. As for poetry, many of Robinson Jeffers’s poems, such as “November Surf,” highlight the wildness and brutality of the Western landscape that appears throughout the pages of “The Outcasts of Poker Flat.”
Key Facts about The Outcasts of Poker Flat
  • Full Title: The Outcasts of Poker Flat
  • When Written: 1868-1869
  • Where Written: California
  • When Published: January 1869
  • Literary Period: Realism
  • Genre: Short Story, Western, Local Color
  • Setting: The Old West settlement of Poker Flat and the Sierra Nevada mountain range
  • Climax: After Mother Shipton dies, Oakhurst urges Tom to try to get to Poker Flat and get help, even though the odds of saving Piney and the others are slim.
  • Antagonist: Uncle Billy and Poker Flat’s moralizing secret committee
  • Point of View: Third Person

Extra Credit for The Outcasts of Poker Flat

Big Bucks. Harte was one of the highest-paid American writers of his time. In 1871, he signed a $10,000 contract with The Atlantic Monthly, agreeing to produce 12 stories a year for them. In 2019’s currency, this is close to $210,000.

Fame is a Fickle Friend. When Harte moved east for his job with The Atlantic Monthly, the Eastern literary scene welcomed him warmly—perhaps too warmly. Harte was so idolized that he began to feel pressured and paralyzed by his newfound status as a celebrity. His writing suffered greatly, and he only managed to eke out a handful of stories between 1873 and 1876.