Thursday, July 20, 2006

The Age of Gold

The California Gold Rush and the New American Dream
H.W. Brands

Nonfiction, History

Any California schoolchild learns about the Gold Rush in class. Marshall finds gold in the American River in Coloma at the mill he is building for Sutter, Sam Brannan publicizes the claim, and thousands of would-be millionaires make the journey to the fledgling state.

But there are a lot of things that grade school skips over. The Gold Rush not only affected California; it affected the rest of the U.S. and the world. The rush to make California a state delayed and amplified the Civil War; the hope of suddenly striking it rich superceded the dream of one day owning a farm. The gold injected into the economy fueled America's growth into an economic superpower, a title it has not relinquished in the more than a century since.

This eminently readable history from H.W. Brands goes into great detail about many things that the simplified history skips over, not the least of which is the international component of the Gold Rush. (One Australian argonaut, Edward Hargraves, spent several years in California, and eventually realized that the terrain of the gold fields was identical to some he'd grown up in. He announced to everyone that he was going to find gold in Australia, was laughed at, and was, in fact, successful in finding gold and starting Australia's Gold Rush.) The international argonauts had to not only deal with the difficulties of finding gold, but the unfettered racism of the time.

California's rise to statehood took place in a very short period of time, and the mechanisms were not in place to deal with that. So the Californians created their own constitution - an anti-slavery one - that led to impassioned debate in Congress, deepening divisions that eventually led to the fracturing of the Whig party and the rise of the anti-slavery Republican party.

Any mildly interested student of history will recognize many of the names that pepper this narrative, from the somewhat wild explorer John Frémont, who became the first Republican presidential candidate (Abraham Lincoln was the second), to Mariano Vallejo (whose city still lies at the place of its founding), to William Sherman, who is not referred to by his full name - William Tecumseh Sherman - until the middle of the narrative, to Sam Clemens, more commonly known as Mark Twain, to Leland Stanford and George Hearst (father of William Randolph), names that would acquire significance in the decades following the rush.

Similarly, several places gain resonance as a result of the Gold Rush. A group of emigrants who swung too far south named Death Valley, the lowest place in the U.S. Another exploration almost reached the Grand Canyon but turned around because of a local's description of the hazards of trying to follow the river. Donner Pass had already earned its name and fateful history, yet thousands still used that route. And in the years immediately following, that distance became shorter and shorter as first stagecoaches and then trains crossed the deserts.

This is a history book for those who find history boring. The book itself, while rather daunting, is broken into accessible chunks, and adequately makes its argument that the California Gold Rush changed everything.


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