The Age
Of Gold

The California
Gold Rush
And the New
American Dream

H. W. Brands
We all know that some 150 years ago or so several old salts were putzing around in the hills of California at a place called Sutter's Fort, saw a glittering mite, said "Eureka" --- and the rush was on. People came from all over the world to dig holes in the ground and go home rich.

We also know that in the gold-rush towns there was endless drinking, whoring, and general hell-raising --- that shooting guns was an indoor and outdoor sport, that miners often exchanged a bag of gold for a bag of flour, and a sack of gold for a night in the sack with a blonde floozy.

And, even if we aren't very good at our geography nor our sense of historical time, we think GOLD and recite,

    When, out of the night, which was 40 below,
    Into the din and glare,
    There stumbled a miner straight from the creek,
    Dog dirty and loaded for bear.

    He looked like a man with a foot in the grave,
    And scarcely the strength of a louse;
    But he tilted his poke of dust on the bar,
    And called for drinks on the house.

For most of us, that's probably it in the gold-rush department. And unless we have read H. W. Brands' The Age of Gold, we would never know better. For example,

  • That California, just stolen by the United States from Mexico, was considered a backwater, an endless expanse of land good for little more than rustling and hiding from the law;
  • That one of those involved in the early history of California was William Tecumseh Sherman --- later of Civil War fame --- who went into the banking business in San Francisco, and, ultimately, flunked out;
  • Along with most of the people of that state, Sherman didn't think much of blacks. He wrote his brother-in-law that all political issues were being reduced to "the nigger question;" and said of southerners in California, "if they design to protect themselves against Negroes, or abolitionists, I will help;"
  • That Leland Stanford, the founder of an august university that bears his name, also didn't think much of blacks; indeed, when he was nominated for governor in 1860 by the Republican party, he announced "I prefer white citizens to any other class or race. I prefer the white man to the Negro as an inhabitant of our country. I believe its greatest good has been derived by having all the country settled by free white men." (Our author comments that Abraham Lincoln "took much the same line in his debates with Stephen Douglas.")
  • That once gold was discovered in California, the problem for the "Argonauts" was getting there. There were three routes. By boat around the Strait of Magellan, where you could get drowned; by cart, across the Central American isthmus, where you could get malaria; or by wagon across what would become the United States, where you could get cholera, or --- more likely --- die of exposure in the thankless wastes known as The Great Sink and The Great Basin;
  • And once you got to gold country, chances of surviving were not much better. It was cold, wet, lawless, disease-ridden, dirty, without even the simplest of comforts --- like shelter or food;
  • Then, if you were lucky and were able to stake your claim, it was sheer luck that you would find something; the chances were much higher that your efforts would be in vain, that you would end up working for one of the early claimants at miserable salary, under miserable working conditions;
  • That many of the heroes of the day were nothing but opportunists and scoundrels, one of the worst being John Frémont, who, for example, declared war on Mexico long before the U. S. was prepared to do so;
  • That the ultimate and lasting benefit of the discovery of gold in California was the building of the transcontinental railway line which forged our vast post-Civil War prosperity. As Brands states so succinctly,

    The secret of America's ascent to economic primacy was neither the cleverness of its inventors (England's were as smart) nor the richness of its resources (Russia's were richer). Rather the secret of America's success was its vast domestic market, the largest single market in the world. The Constitution of 1787, by forbidding interstate tariffs, established the legal framework for the American market; the railroad of 1869, and the lines that followed it, by speeding traffic across the length and breadth of the continent, laid the physical framework.

"The results were little short of miraculous," he concludes.

    Between 1869 and the end of the nineteenth century, the American economy grew as no economy had ever done before and very few did after. From a laggard in the race to industrialize, trailing Britain, Germany, and France, the United States became the leader of the pack, with a manufacturing output that, by 1900, surpassed the three European powers combined."

§     §     §

The pleasure of The Age of Gold lies in these myriad interesting and improbable facts. As well, there are many diversions, obscure tales --- such as the reality of crossing a country that was practically barren (certainly barren of places to sleep, eat, and find drinking water).

Then there's the lusty, scandalous history of early San Francisco; the wrangling that was necessary to get California to statehood (the question of slavery being a great stumbling block); life in the mining camps for the 250,000 people who actually got to Sutter's Fort; the effect of $730 million in newly-mined gold on the free markets of the time (it was probably key, Brands states, in the Union's victory over the Confederacy).

Most enlightening are the specifics: what it was like to cross Central America; how Californians inveigled their way into the Union; the shenanigans of James Fisk and Jay Gould and how they caused the stock market to collapse on September 24, 1869 (thereafter know as "Black Friday"); and, most wonderfully, how to mine gold by means of one of the four techniques available --- placer mining, river mining, hydraulic mining, and quartz mining.

In the hands of a lesser writer, all this information might be enough to put one into extreme dropsy, but the author makes it fascinating by digging through newspapers, letters, journals, and reports of the time --- proving that he is something of an Argonaut himself.

This from a correspondent who descended into a "quartz" mine, dressed in an India-rubber suit:

    Stooping, or rather half lying down upon the wet rock, among fragments of quartz and props of wood, and streams of water, with pick in hand, and by a dim but waterproof lantern, giving out a very dim and watery light, just about bright enough, or rather dim enough, and watery enough, as Milton expresses it, "to make darkness visible," a man was at work, picking down the rock --- the gold-bearing rock --- and which, although very rich, was very rotten, and consequently not only paid well, but was easily quarried, and easily crushed; and although this rock was paying not less than three hundred and fifty dollars a ton, we could not see the first speck of gold in it, after a diligent search for that purpose.

Imagine a newspaper reporter in our own day being able to write so adroitly, much less being able to quote John Milton.

§     §     §

What sets Brands off, makes him so different from the dozen other historical writers whose plodding works we have to plod through every plodding year, is a key fact: he knows how to put words on paper, make them sing.

For example, this on the deadly nature of the journey that brought so many to California --- and then the bitter irony of making it all the way, only to die of cholera just before getting to dig: "Hugh Heiskell conquered The Great Plains, the Rocky Mountains, the Humboldt River, the Carson Desert, and the Sierra Nevada," but he died "at the very entrance to the goldfields."

    Fate is often arbitrary, but Heiskell's death epitomized the unusual arbitrariness of life in Gold Rush California. A man could surmount every challenge of the two-thousand-mile trail and still be felled at the mouth of the mines. All he had to show for his courage and perseverance was a stone over his grave; all his loved ones had, if they were lucky, was a letter recounting his final moments.

Or this on the strange fates of those 49'ers who arrived hoping to make their fortunes:

    None of those who traveled to California in search of gold had any inkling, before January 24, 1848, of what was in store for them. Their lives, about to become threads in a grand --- a golden --- tapestry, were still distinct, wound on spindles separated by oceans and continents and gulfs of culture and mountain ranges of history. And they would have remained distinct, in nearly all cases, if not for James Marshall's discovery. But starting on that day, a powerful engine --- the engine of fate, or perhaps merely of human nature --- began winding them all in.

Brands' style is simple and winning, often funny, sometimes sad, always to-the-point, easily quarried, never watery. Most of all, there is a great deal of gold in it.

--- Ignacio Schwartz

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