The Age of Gold: The California Gold Rush and the New American Dream
by H. W. Brands
Argonauts of the West
A review by Martin Padget
For H. W. Brands, the Californian Gold Rush transformed the United States. The
discovery of gold by Mormons working with James Marshall at Coloma, on the American
River, in 1848, and the subsequent influx of gold seekers and merchants from around
the world to California marked the beginning of the key two-decade period in which
the United States moved from agrarian republic to modern industrial nation. The
completion of the first transcontinental railroad, at Promontory, Utah, in 1869,
paved the way for the domestic American market to become fully realized. And further,
through the access that railroads gave to the West's vast natural resources, so
too the United States developed a manufacturing output that was greater than that
of Britain, France and Germany combined by the end of the nineteenth century.
Between these two key dates, Brands also argues that the mass influx of people
into California and its rapid transformation from a territory conquered through
war with Mexico between 1846 and 1848 to a state in 1850 acted as a catalyst to
the ongoing sectional crisis between the North and the South that culminated in
the Civil War a decade later.
Brands is the author of nineteen books: in addition to numerous academic assessments
of American foreign policy, he has written more popular historical books that
include biographies of Benjamin Franklin and Theodore Roosevelt and studies
of the American 1890s and, most recently, the Texas Revolution of the 1830s.
It is into the second category that The Age of Gold naturally falls.
Certainly, Brands brings a colourful cast of characters to the attention of
his readers. Beginning with Marshall, and his employer the Swiss settler John
Sutter, his experience as a biographer is evident as he narrates the voyages
of a number of emigrants (or argonauts as they become known) to San Francisco.
Tom Archer and Jean-Nicolas Perlot embarked from Sydney and Le Havre, respectively,
while many Americans endured Cape Horn Snorters, sixty-foot waves that tested
the faith of the strongest seafarers as they sailed from North-eastern ports
to the West Coast. When William Manly embarked on the emigrant trail from Missouri,
he had little idea that his long journey west would result in his party being
stranded in the hot, arid landscape that has since become known as Death Valley.
The rather better-known Jessie Fremont, daughter of Thomas Hart Benton, the
Senator for Missouri, and one of the great advocates of westward expansion,
took two journeys by ship and a near-perilous trek across the Central American
isthmus to meet her husband in California. The public profile of John C. Fremont,
who had earned considerable renown as a pathfinder to empire in the early 1840s,
had become somewhat sullied as a consequence of a court martial. Further mixed
fortunes would characterize Fremont's later life. He went on to serve as one
of California's first two Senators and the first Republican nominee for the
presidency, in 1856. But by 1870 most of the personal fortune that he had derived
from being the owner of gold-rich land in Mariposa had gone, squandered as he
tried to set up a rival railroad to the Central Pacific.
As a consequence of his attempt to write about what the Western enthusiast
Horace Greeley labelled "the age of gold" rather than simply about
the Gold Rush, less than a quarter of Brands's book is devoted to the actual
experience of emigrants in the gold fields. Nevertheless he creates a vivid
image of the practicalities of mining, noting how quickly the individual's wash
pan gave way to the team operated Long Tom and then to elaborate systems of
dams and chutes that facilitated hydraulic mining through which whole hillsides
were washed away in a matter of hours. With the onset of quartz mining, the
search for gold became all the more capital-intensive. By 1861, California's
mines had yielded gold worth over $600 million.
In the early years of the Gold Rush the state's immigrants quickly grew to
250,000, vastly outnumbering the largely dispossessed Mexican population. The
Native American population, by contrast, experienced a precipitous decline from
an estimated 300,000 before the onset of Spanish colonization of California
in 1769 to a mere 30,000 in 1860. Conscious as Brands is of the human cost of
the Gold Rush, not only to native peoples and Mexican Californios but also to
the many gold seekers who died of cholera and other diseases, he characterizes
the entrepreneurial drive that lay at the heart of the mass movement of emigrants
to California as "an enormously creative force". Here one may quibble.
Effectively Brands plays down the negative aspects of unbridled capitalism in
mid-nineteenth-century California in order to conclude that "America's
enthronement of individualism magnified the impact of the gold discovery"
and "elevated the pursuit of happiness to an inalienable right". Other
historians have taken a rather more critical view of the social, economic and
environmental consequences of the forces unleashed by the Gold Rush. Whichever
interpretation one prefers, today we are all becoming uncomfortably aware of
what it means to live in a global environment in which the forces of materialism
and commodification that H. W. Brands sees lying at the heart of the Gold Rush
continue to dictate the exploitation of ever-diminishing natural resources,
with potentially hugely damaging consequences.
Martin Padget is the author of Indian
Country: Travels in the American Southwest, published last year. He teaches
in the Department of English at the University of Wales.