That the reading of American history can be engrossing as well as entertaining is proved by this well-documented historical assemblage, which reads like a good, adventurous, even suspenseful yarn. From its lively title to its scholarly appendixes, this eyewitness account of the California gold rush experience is packed with information, description, and statistics which show us an era when rugged individuals set out in a spirit of optimism and adventure literally to seek their fortunes in new territory.
Decades of painstaking research went into J. S. Holliday's presentation of this unusual document, which combines the journals and correspondence of an articulate upstate New York farmer, William Swain, with selections from the journals, letters, and artwork of others who, remarkably, either traveled directly in company with Swain or traversed his route within days, sometimes hours, of Swain's doing so. Since the year 1849 saw 89,000 men make the journey to California, 39,000 of them traveling overland as did Swain, this research is impressive indeed.
The reader who is entirely unacquainted with this period in history will find this book as appealing as the history buff. Holliday provides commentary filled with factual and statistical surprises, written in an animated style that holds the reader's interest while setting the historical, geographical, and social scene for each chapter in Swain's narrative. Wisely, Holliday is careful not to upstage Swain, whose experiences are the mainstay of the volume, creating a personalized, subjective view of a historical period.
A likable and observant eyewitness, Swain treats us to descriptions of landscapes, geological features, adventurous episodes, the routine of life on the trail or in mining camps, and concern for his loved ones, very often providing striking, even humorous, detail which make many scenes particularly memorable. For instance, he describes a scene of thousands of ox-drawn wagons stretching from horizon to horizon, and he makes notes that geological landmarks are covered with graffiti carved by the westward travelers. While he shares in the excitement of his first buffalo hunt, he deplores the killing of more animals than are needed for food. And he indicates the severity of a hailstorm by noting that the miners had to put cooking pots on their heads to protect themselves from sizable hailstones.
Swain also captures the spirit of the '49ers, the sang-froid that some retained in the face of adversity. At one point his group discovered that they had traveled hundreds of miles out of their way while the onset of autumn's cold mountain weather threatened their very lives. This ''intelligence,'' Swain remarks, ''made many of the company very uneasy.'' Their spirit of exploration is revealed when Swain casually notes that, at times, after traveling long and hard all day, some would ''tramp'' several miles to a viewpoint or landmark just for the pleasure of an expanded view or recreational sightseeing.
Throughout his adventure, ''duty'' and concern for his family impelled Swain to keep a remarkably steady and complete record, including letters posted from the far-flung forts or cities he reached. A loving family, the Swains preserved all correspondence concerning this period, including the letters Swain received from home. Letters sent in both directions indicate a lively concern with the study of the Bible as essential to maintenance of moral character and courage throughout Swain's arduous travels.
Somehow even the occasionally overformal (to the modern reader) language used by Swain has the power to move us and reveal a thoughtful, awe-inspired perspective on another America. In Swain's words: ''The grandeur of these boundless plains can only be realized by the thoughtful eye traversing their bosom. . . . The extent and grandeur of the scene will forcibly remind you of the almighty source of creation and evoke the thought that you yourself are but a speck in the midst of the grand scene.''
By the conclusion of the narrative, one is most concerned about this individual who comes to value his home more than material fortune. There is also a strong sense of suspense in discovering whether or not this man of remarkable perspective returns safely to his loved ones.