America's golden history

Flecks in a river bed ignited the California Gold Rush

For H.W. Brands, the California Gold Rush was an accumulation of "hundreds of thousands of small stories of the men and women who traveled to California in pursuit of their common dream." The author of bestselling biographies of Benjamin Franklin and Theodore Roosevelt has now assembled those stories in a dazzling setting that conveys the world-changing effects of this era. Those who survived the journey "would never forget the trials they endured, the challenges they met, the companions they lost. They would tell the story of the journey to their children and their children's children."

As Brands sees them, those hundreds of thousands of small stories begin quite casually in late January of 1848, when James Marshall – checking on the progress of his sawmill near Coloma, on the American River – discovers, in the tailrace for the mill, several flakes of gold-bearing quartz.

It's almost a non-beginning. Marshall and his crew "had moved thousands of cubic yards of dirt and sand and gravel in that same location during the previous several months, and this was the first sign that those thousands of yards contained anything but dirt."

Sam Brannan, owner of a general store at Sutter's Fort, changed that perception dramatically when he purchased enough American River gold dust to fill a jar, traveled to San Francisco, and paraded about the town shouting, "Gold! Gold! Gold from the American River!"

Everywhere people heard the news, they "dropped what they were doing" and headed for California in search of gold, "by the tens and hundreds and thousands, and then by the tens of thousands and hundreds of thousands, by sailing ship and steamship, by horse and mule and ox and wagon and foot."

Brands assembles a colorful collection of people swept into this craze from around the world. Most are unknown, like Vicente Peréz Rosales, with four brothers, a brother-in-law, and two trusted servants, from Valparaiso, Chile. Others are still famous, like Samuel Clemens, who "lit out for the territories in 1861" and adopted the nom de plume of Mark Twain.

Brands's well-documented study presents a compelling argument that those thousands of small stories record "a seminal event in history, one of those rare moments that divide human existence into before and after."

Before 1848, Brands notes, "the search for gold had been a haphazard affair, with lucrative finds so rare as to prevent all but the most desperate or deluded from making a habit of the hunt." The California Gold Rush taught the rest of the world "what gold geology looked like." The 25,000-square-mile Sierra Nevada batholith underlying the states of California and Nevada contains gold veins with concentrations 20 million times higher than average.

After ratification of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo in 1848, the assumption was that the peopling of California would be as slow a process as the peopling of territories acquired earlier had been. The Gold Rush changed that overnight. By the end of 1849, California contained more people than many existing states, and those people demanded admission to the Union. They got what they demanded, but not without setting off a fight in Congress and in the country at large that shook the republic to its foundations. Brands believes that the Compromise of 1850 (by which California was made a state and New Mexico and Utah were made territories without prejudice regarding slavery) set up "a straight, if tortured, path to southern secession and civil war."

Beyond politics, the gold of California and Nevada lubricated the gears of the nation's industrial machinery. Between 1849 and 1860, "California's mines ... produced more than $600 million in gold. During the four years of the war, another $130 million. Not all of the gold went east right away ... but most, eventually – during the war, quickly – wound up in the banks of New York or with the Treasury at Washington."

Economically, perhaps the most significant result of the Gold Rush was the transcontinental railroad, the largest construction job of the age and the creator of "the largest unified market in the world, the market that allowed the American economy to grow into the colossus it became by the beginning of the 20th century."

Ultimately, Brands argues, the Gold Rush "shaped history so profoundly," because it established, for those hundreds of thousands of gold-seekers, "a new template for the American dream." Success in the goldfields "could come overnight, and signified not virtue but luck.... The entrepreneurial spirit had never been absent in American history; every immigrant to America was an entrepreneur of sorts. But in the goldfields the entrepreneurial spirit took flight, freed from the inherited fetters of guilt and blame." Of course, not all of the gold-seekers realized that new dream, and there are plenty of sad stories here of hopes dashed.

Brands, like any master storyteller, knows that the end is in his beginning. He closes this landmark narrative of a turbulent era with a quiet image: the statue of the almost forgotten sawmill carpenter, James Marshall, on its stone pedestal above the Middle Fork at Coloma. "The general scene isn't much different than it was on that sunny, cold morning in 1848, when the carpenter's eye fell on the glittering yellow flakes that set the heart of the world aquiver."

• Robert C. Jones is editor of the Mid-America Press in Warrensburg, Mo.

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