49er Diaries Take Glitter Off Gold Rush

Days of Gold: The California Gold Rush and the American Nation

By Malcolm J. Rohrbough

University of California Press

353 pp., $29.95

The California Gold Rush helped settle the American West. It shaped what later became the nation's most populous, and in many ways most innovative, state. It enriched American folklore and myth. And it left environmental scars still visible on the flanks of the Sierras.

But for the people who made up their minds to venture west from 1849 through the 1850s, the Gold Rush was above all an intensely personal drama. It's this individual experience of events, rather than their monumental impact, that Malcolm Rohrbough meticulously sifts through in "Days of Gold: The California Gold Rush and the American Nation."

How did the wives and parents left behind in the East weather the mad scramble for riches in California? How did the average 49er, toiling knee-deep in freezing waters trying to wash out a few dollars in gold each day, rationalize his decision to jettison family responsibilities? What was daily life like in the mining camps?

Rohrbough, a professor of history at the University of Iowa, answers these questions through the diaries and letters of 49ers themselves.

He has done his own careful mining of such material to find nuggets of insight, buried in the semi-literate writings of men who fled humble circumstances to play California's giant "lottery," as many came to know the search for gold.

Typical is Noah Gebhart, who left a farm and a large, needy family in Iowa. He laments: "I got in debt and had to turn out to work by the day to get money to live while I am prospecting. I never lived harder and worked harder...."

Hard work and hard living were the common currency of men who came West with dreams of scraping a "raise" together quickly from California's lodes and returning home a hero.

Debts left behind were compounded by debts accumulated in the gold fields. Supplies were costly, and many an enterprising argonaut switched from mining to merchandising to make his "pile."

Few of the hopeful streaming in from New England, the mid-Atlantic, the South, and the Midwest struck it rich. There's not a single account of instant wealth in Rohrbough's book. Rather, many managed moderate profits - better than they could have done on the farm back home - but had a struggle holding onto them. And they kept coming, right through the decade, even after the race for gold evolved from individuals or small teams with picks and pans to large-scale deep-shaft or hydraulic operations.

The romantic 49ers soon reverted to common laborers. Readers looking for the color and adventure of Gold Rush days won't find it in Rohrbough's book. They'd better stick to Mark Twain and Bret Harte. Rohrbough tells the story straight from the mouths (or pens) of those who lived it.

Often it's a dreary account of average people hoping for their big break, and finding, instead, that life's burdens stayed the same, even in the gold-laden hills of California.

* Keith Henderson is a Monitor editorial writer.

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