'The Age of Gold': Everything changed

August 18, 2002|By Edwin O. Guthman | By Edwin O. Guthman,Special to the Sun

The Age of Gold: The California Gold Rush and the New American Dream, by H. W. Brands. Doubleday. 499 pages. $29.95.

When a carpenter, James Marshall, on an icy morning in January 1848 at Coloma in Northern California spotted a few sparkling pebbles in the bed of a mill race, he suspected they were gold, but of course could not imagine the impact his discovery would have on his workers, his partner, John Sutter, or California and the world.

It was, historian H. W. Brands writes in an eminently readable, detail-filled book, The Age of Gold: The California Gold Rush and the New American Dream, "one of those rare moments that divide human existence into before and after.

"When news of the discovery floated down the Sacramento [river] to the more populated regions of California it sucked nearly every free hand and viable arm to the gold mines. As the golden news spread to the outside world it triggered the most astonishing mass movement of people since the Crusades."

But it did more than draw hundreds of thousands of men and women to the golden West, whose adventures, hardships and accomplishments Brands reports in gripping detail. Interwoven are full accounts of how Marshall's discovery propelled America's slide toward the Civil War, spurred construction of a transcontinental railroad and "echoed down through the decades to the dawn of the third millennium."

Brands details the gold rush era's many failures and corruption as well as its successes and incredible creativity, interspersing a very thoroughly researched historical account with quoted segments from letters, diaries and memoirs that vividly report the agonizing hardships endured by argonauts on land and sea, or the struggles for potential gold sites or the colorful growth of San Francisco from an obscure settlement called Yerba Buena.

Many of the figures who move through the book -- the explorer John C. Fremont and his courageous wife, Jessie; Mark Twain; soldier and landowner Mariano Vallejo; George Hearst, the discoverer of the Comstock Lode and father of William Randolph Hearst; Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman; Bret Harte; Horace Greeley; and Gov. Leland Stanford -- are familiar. But many are not, and their stories are gripping.

There's Sarah Royce, whose son Josiah, then unborn, became a famous Harvard professor, and who survived a very perilous crossing of the continent by covered wagon with her husband and daughter. Or a Belgian, Jean-Nicolas Perlot, 25, "caught in a threadbare craft growing thinner by the day," who decided to leave Paris for California.

The host of little-known persons includes William Walker, who sought to expand slavery to California and then led two abortive expeditions to Mexico and Nicaragua, or another Southern sympathizer, Asbury Harpending, who was convicted of treason after his plot to help the Confederate cause by refitting a coastal vessel to privateer was betrayed.

Readers are likely to get so involved with the principal characters that they will yearn to know what happened in later years, and Brands comes to the rescue, reporting in the last chapter what happened to James Marshall, Jessie and John Fremont, Sarah Royce, Jean-Nicolas Perlot, William Sherman, John Sutter, Mariano Vallejo and the others.

"They went to seek individual happiness," Brands writes in conclusion.

"Some found it; some didn't. The men and women of the Gold Rush hoped to change their lives by going to California; in the bargain they changed the world."

Edwin O. Guthman, a professor at the University of Southern California school of journalism, was editor of The Philadelphia Inquirer from 1977 to 1987. Before that, he worked at the Los Angeles Times, The Seattle Times and the Seattle Star. He was press secretary to Robert F. Kennedy when R.F.K. was U. S. attorney general and when he first ran for the U.S. Senate. He has edited and written several books, including We Band of Brothers in 1971.

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