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Times Literary Supplement
Sunday, May 15th, 2005


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.

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