For H.W. Brands, the California Gold Rush was an accumulation of
"hundreds of thousands of small stories of the men and women who
traveled to California in pursuit of their common dream." The author
of bestselling biographies of Benjamin Franklin and Theodore
Roosevelt has now assembled those stories in a dazzling setting that
conveys the world-changing effects of this era. Those who survived
the journey "would never forget the trials they endured, the
challenges they met, the companions they lost. They would tell the
story of the journey to their children and their children's
As Brands sees them, those hundreds of thousands of small stories
begin quite casually in late January of 1848, when James Marshall -
checking on the progress of his sawmill near Coloma, on the American
River - discovers, in the tailrace for the mill, several flakes of
It's almost a non-beginning. Marshall and his crew "had moved
thousands of cubic yards of dirt and sand and gravel in that same
location during the previous several months, and this was the first
sign that those thousands of yards contained anything but dirt."
Sam Brannan, owner of a general store at Sutter's Fort, changed
that perception dramatically when he purchased enough American River
gold dust to fill a jar, traveled to San Francisco, and paraded
about the town shouting, "Gold! Gold! Gold from the American River!"
Everywhere people heard the news, they "dropped what they were
doing" and headed for California in search of gold, "by the tens and
hundreds and thousands, and then by the tens of thousands and
hundreds of thousands, by sailing ship and steamship, by horse and
mule and ox and wagon and foot."
Brands assembles a colorful collection of people swept into this
craze from around the world. Most are unknown, like Vicente Perez
Rosales, with four brothers, a brother-in-law, and two trusted
servants, from Valparaiso, Chile. Others are still famous, like
Samuel Clemens, who "lit out for the territories in 1861" and
adopted the nom de plume of Mark Twain.
Brands's well-documented study presents a compelling argument
that those thousands of small stories record "a seminal event in
history, one of those rare moments that divide human existence into
before and after."
Before 1848, Brands notes, "the search for gold had been a
haphazard affair, with lucrative finds so rare as to prevent all but
the most desperate or deluded from making a habit of the hunt." The
California Gold Rush taught the rest of the world "what gold geology
looked like." The 25,000-square-mile Sierra Nevada batholith
underlying the states of California and Nevada contains gold veins
with concentrations 20 million times higher than average.
After ratification of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo in 1848,
the assumption was that the peopling of California would be as slow
a process as the peopling of territories acquired earlier had been. …