The Age of Gold by H.W. Brands
Having read and very much enjoyed Brands’ history of the Senate’s great triumvirate of Henry Clay, John C. Calhoun and Daniel Webster, I couldn’t wait to dive into his narrative history of the California Gold Rush. And what a history it is.
This sweeping, multi-faceted and thick volume is jam-packed with riveting and heartbreaking accounts of the adventures, trials, sorrows, triumphs and struggles of the millions that came to California from every part of the globe in search of the treasure that could change their lives forever.
The discovery of gold on the American River by James Marshall at Sutter's Mill in Coloma, California unleashed a tidal wave of change that would forever impact America.
But the book is more than just the story of the forty-niners and gold-diggers of American legend. It’s truly the story of an era. So we’re also treated to explorers like John C. Fremont, his brilliant wife Jesse Fremont, future icons like William Sherman and Samuel Clemens, railroad tycoons Leland Stanford and Charles Crocker, Archy Lee, a slave fighting for his freedom, and filibustering pirates like William Walker.
We witness Yerba Buena’s transition from seaside frontier outpost to bustling, lawless San Francisco complete with its outlaws and shysters. We ride alongside the so-called Argonauts as they make their way to fortune, whether it’s desperate families crossing the continent by ox and wagon or young bachelors on the make from Australia and China. We even follow the harrowing journey of Jesse Fremont and her young daughter Lily as they make their way across the Atlantic, the disease-ridden Isthmus of Panama, and finally up the Pacific to California itself.
The book’s second-act details what happens when the world’s fortune seekers arrive at the gold fields. Some have turned up too late and have to make their way panning for scraps. Others have already set up extensive mining operations, from water-blasting whole mountain sides to get at the precious and elusive veins, to rerouting rivers, to digging deep into the earth to extract as much of the valuable metal as their hired hands can carry.
Brands also details the unique culture that grew up around the gold mines from the bars and brothels to the ramshackle settlements that went up quick and burned down quicker.
But the California Gold Rush also had deep and powerful ramifications for the nation as well, specifically in regard to the Compromise of 1850. And Brands details how the discovery impacted sectional politics between the North and South as well as international diplomacy between the US and Mexico.
Of course, we also see how all of this created a state this is, even today, thought of as a place apart, a culture unique in America, that still seems to be moving one step ahead of the rest of the nation. Brands even ends the book with a discussion on Silicon Valley and its parallels to the Gold Rush era.
This is a big, beautiful book that is hard to capture in a single write-up as there is A LOT contained within its dense 592 pages. I enjoyed nearly all of it, though there were times that I felt it could have been trimmed a bit. All in all, a wonderful adventure and a terrific read.