§ion=&combo2=&text1=&text2=&SocNetUsername=&SocNetPassword=&authCode=& 7th Decade Thoughts: The Age of Gold: The California Gold Rush and the New American Dream

7th Decade Thoughts

Thoughts about books, politics and history (personal and otherwise), pictures I've taken and pictures I've edited.

Wednesday, June 04, 2008

The Age of Gold: The California Gold Rush and the New American Dream

Earlier this year I read another book on a similar subject; it had less than I really wanted to know about the Gold Rush and more than I wanted to know about California politics. It did, however, cause me to recognize what a huge part the West played in the battle over slavery in the years before the Civil War.

Brands’ book covers the same time period and some of the same material but there’s a lot more on the Gold Rush per se and on its consequence—not just the political fallout. There are excellent early chapters telling the story of James Marshall who ran the mill at Coloma where gold was first found and his partner, John Sutter, a Swiss national who was the power figure in the area as well as on the wide range of people who came to the gold country and, even more interesting, how they got there. They came by sea, around Cape Horn from NY and the East Coast, though some went to Chagras in Panama and overland to Panama City hoping to pick up a ship on the Pacific and cut the time to San Francisco. The Panama crossing before either canal or railroad was deadly and the wait in Panama City was often prolonged since ships coming up the coast of South America were already full up with gold diggers. Ships came from Europe around Cape Horn too and across the Pacific from Australia and China and Japan. San Francisco harbor was soon full of empty ships—whole crews having deserted to the gold fields—but then the city—such as it was then, newly renamed from Yerba Buena—was deserted too. Brands picks 4 or 5 who came to San Francisco by ship and detailed their journeys, from France, from Chili, from Australia and China as well as from the US (like Jesse Fremont with who traveled with her infant via Panama). He does the same with several who came by the much more arduous route overland. At the time, there was no “beaten track” to California, only the Oregon Trail which took one far to the north. It wasn’t too hard to get to Utah where the Mormons were settling in but getting past that great desert and over the Sierras before snowfall was tricky. Brands follows one party that went too far south and ended up in Death Valley; they survived but many didn’t.

Brands goes on to develop the technology and the economics of gold mining, the social consequences for the individuals he followed to the American River, as well the politics. He profiles other well known characters of the period such as John Fremont, the first Republican candidate for president, Leland Stanford, who “built” the transcontinental railroad, William Tecumseh Sherman, Mark Twain (don’t forget the jumping frog of Calavaras County) and others.

Brands, like the late Stephen Ambrose, is an academic historian who writes exciting tales that happen to be readable history. This is the second of his I’ve read and will look for more.


Blogger Janine & Steve said...

Hi SuLu
When did the person who came from Australia? Was there much Australian gold migration? Over here, we often hear that gold seekers from California then came here to Australia, but not so much the other way around. Edward Hargreaves, who is one of the people creditted with early gold finds, is said to have noted the similarity between landscapes in California and Bathurst in NSW, and that observation prompted him to search for gold there.
I don't know much about the timing of the Californian rush- the Australian ones were from 1850 onwards, but after about 5 years it was moving towards company mining. There was a rush in Queenland in the 1870s (I think) and in Western Australia in the 1890s. Did the Californian and Australian gold fields compete with each other for goldseekers? Was there much traffic between the two?

6/05/2008 09:30:00 PM  

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