More than 150 years on, the Gold Rush conjures the images of golden flecks lurking in rivers and ragged forty-niners babbling about you-know-what in them thar hills.
But there's a whole lot more to this story then sun-burnt prospectors. Thanks to historian Edward Dolnick's fantastic new book "The Rush: America's Fevered Quest for Fortune, 1848-1853," we can now get a fuller glimpse of the stunning chaos in action. As Dolnick reveals, an amazingly diverse collection of people headed west, putting their lives on the line even though lots of them had never before cooked outside and couldn't begin to figure out how to fix a broken carriage wheel.
They all shared the American dream of getting rich quick. Some would never get to the Golden State as the wrenching cross-country trip took its toll. Others traveled by ship, a journey that could be just as agonizing and deadly.
Once they arrived in California, these men – they were almost all young men – would discover if they'd really found America's very own America: A place of dreams and wonder where anyone can begin again, at least in theory.
Dolnick, a former newspaper reporter who's previously written books about topics like art theft and Isaac Newton, is a rare breed among popular historians. His prose isn't only smart and lively. It's also just plain fun to read thanks to his wit and appreciation for masterful storytellers. He leaves much of the narrative in "The Rush" to the words of several 19th-century Americans – both men and women – who took the trip West themselves and left remarkable diaries of their experiences.
In an interview, Dolnick talks about the role of women in the Gold Rush, the huge gamble that Americans made when they went West, and the amazing legacy of the eager dreamers who heeded the call of California.
Q: How did so many Americans lose their skepticism and become willing to take a giant risk by going west?
A: "The single most surprising thing in doing the research for this book was catching on to how new this was in American life.
There was a notion that life went on: There was drudgery in the way your father lived and his father before him. Now things were new, and you could break out. Once these gold seekers took that on board, once they allowed that belief, they were astonishingly vulnerable."
Q: Why did you focus on how people got to California?
A: "You think you know something of the story, about Sutter's Mill and all that. I had no idea about how far and how hard it was to get there, how slow and tedious it was if you went by sea, how much of an ordeal it was. I'd missed that giant part of the story.
If you've driven across the country or flown, it's a big country. It's a big country at 70 mph in an air-conditioned car, and it's an astonishingly big country at 2 mph on foot, which was the typical pace for the overland travelers. It was hard and it was long."
Q: And many of these people had no idea how to live outdoors, right?
A: "That was another one of the surprises. These were not hairy-chested he-men. They were the counterparts of today's cubicle workers, city folk, a lot of them, the counterpart of modern office workers who'd have trouble knowing to get a tent pitched, how to not burn up dinner, how to get the fire to start when it's soggy.
They had very few of the skills they needed. They set out with high hopes and no knowledge and quickly ran into trouble.
Even if you were hardy and strong, this is a 5-month camping trip where you bring your own food, and the water is hard to find and vile if you do find it.
To make matters worse, the farther you go, the harder it gets by geographical happenstance. As you get closer to the goal, you're getting weaker, and the obstacles are getting more formidable."
Q: What role did women play in the Gold Rush?
A: "They were hugely outnumbered. By the standards of the mid-1800s, this was not a fit venture for a women, unless a whole family set out.
California in the early days was a giant boys club with all the worst aspects of that, a kind of perpetual fraternity party. It was filthy, it was rowdy. There was constant violence and bragging and every kind of one-upmanship.
There were few lone respectable women – which meant they were not prostitutes – and a fair number of prostitutes. There were so many young lonely men it was a good place for them to make a living."
Q: What was the work like once people got to California and started digging for gold?
A: "It was astonishingly hard. It was essentially ditch-digging, and at the bottom at your ditch you'd find a nugget or flake of gold. It's incredibly demanding physical labor. You're working day after day, and only the strong have a chance.
The food that's sustaining you is all that you and your fellow 'frat boys' can cook. It's flapjacks, burned bread. It's campfire coffee. The work is hard, the conditions are brutal, and it's unlikely that you'll make a fortune. Somebody will make money, but you'll probably have to watch them celebrate."
Q: How did Americans see California at that time?
A: "Everything that Europeans dislike about Americans – that we're too loud, too pushy-pushy, too crass, too much in a hurry, that notion of American brash – is how California compared to the rest of America.
This was a society where the whole point was to get rich. That's what you were there for, to have a chance you couldn't have elsewhere, a place where things are bigger and faster and bolder, and the payoff is better than anywhere else, a place where nobody cared where you were from, who your father was.
That made California enticing and thrilling to Americans, the way America was seen in Europe. This was a place where something new could happen."
Q: What's the legacy of all this for California and those of us who live here?
A: "It continues to this day, the idea of how California is where the future happens first.
The rest of try to fight down envy with a certain amount of disdain: You're shallow, and you're prone to fads, which is a bitter way of saying you're not in a rut of what happened yesterday.
It's such a virtue to take a chance, and if that chance fizzles, you'll take another chance tomorrow. That's a notion that still hasn't taken hold in the rest of America. Failure is more of a stigma elsewhere than in California, where Silicon Valley has made a cult of failure: If you're knocked down five times, you get up six.
Part of that reason for that difference is that California was founded by the most starry-eyed, optimistic, ambitious, dream-propelled seekers. The doubters and the glass-half-empty types stayed behind."
Randy Dotinga, a Monitor contributor and second-generation Southern California native, is president of the American Society of Journalists and Authors.