I was at first disappointed in this book because it wasn’t more about the gold rush and less about California politics in the early years before and right after statehood. I guess I should have read the reviews first. Still it’s was enjoyable.
Richards’ discussion of the effect of the gold rush is fascinating. How so many people rushed to the gold fields that San Francisco was, for awhile, a ghost town. How ships would come into the harbor and find hundreds of other ships—from China and Peru and Australia as well as the US and Europe—deserted by their crews. How the resulting gold increased the world’s supply of gold by a significant factor. How California gold helped finance the Civil War and how stopping the ships from California to Washington, usually carrying at least a million dollar’s worth of gold, was a Confederate priority. I don’t remember reading that in my Civil War history books, but maybe I just wasn’t paying attention.
Among the people who came to California for the gold rush were many who had been politicians, even elected officials, in the States they left back East. A significant number of them were from the South. At that time, the southern wing of the Democratic Party was the strongest. The Whig party was fading, and the Republican Party (Lincoln would be its first President) was just beginning. California came into the union as a free state—and that was the basis of the political battles because a significant number of the powerful politicians in California at the time were Southerners. The fights in California—and they were fights, with duels and even murder as tactics—were between the southern wing of the Democratic party, represented primarily by William Gwin of Mississippi and David Broderick of New York, representing the northern (Stephen Douglas) wing of the party.
They battled over changing the constitution to ban slaves. Southerners argued that if ever there was appropriate work for black men it was gold mining. Northerners argued that the wealth from California gold should go to hardworking white Americans. There was talk of dividing California into two states, with Southern California entering the Union as a slave state called Colorado. There was talk of California seceeding in 1861, not to join the Confederacy, but to declare a separate country—which seems scarily realistic considering how far it was from the contiguous states at that time. They battled over the route of the transcontinental railway—Southerners wanted a southern route ending in Southern California, arguing that the weather was better and there were no mountains.
The book has interested me in that 10-15 year period before the beginning of the Civil War when the US was expanding westward and Southerners, many with exhausted plantations in the East, sought to extend their way of life West, as of course did Northerners. There’s a sense in which the “battle for hearts and minds” over slavery occurred during those years primarily in the West, where there were few abolitionists.