On April 11, 1849, William Swain, of Youngstown in upstate New York, ""rose early. . . preparatory to leaving home on my...


THE WORLD RUSHED IN: The California Gold Rush Experience

On April 11, 1849, William Swain, of Youngstown in upstate New York, ""rose early. . . preparatory to leaving home on my long journey"" to the California gold-fields; for 203 days he faithfully kept his diary--leaving off still short of his destination--and, then and thereafter, wrote long letters home. From these accounts, the letters Swain's family wrote to him, and other, supplementary firsthand sources, Holliday has reconstructed the total experience of the goldseekers--through their (often) empty-handed return home--in unprecedented, absorbing, illuminating detail. The impression is less of gold fever, more of American getup-and-go. Swain and the three friends who went with him were solid, churchgoing citizens: Swain's diary, Holliday points out, was a piece with his promised Bible-reading--""a reminder of family obligations and shared values."" Swain and his older brother (who assumed responsibility for Swain's wife and infant daughter) were also readers: Swain quite consciously traveled the overland trail in the wake of Fremont. Others he met up with wrote letters meant, as well, for their local papers (they are some of Holliday's supplementary sources)--so that one gets, here, an unusual, pre-mess-media sense of a shared, ramifying national experience. The journey is the greater part of the story in every sense. A mere 20 years before completion of the transcontinental railroad (the very notion of which one letter-writer pooh-poohs), Swain and his companions traveled from Buffalo to Independence in four stages by boat. Then, they purchased a wagon, oxen, and supplies; joined up with the Wolverine Rangers, a large, highly-organized Michigan group; and, somewhat late in the season--May 16--set out across the plains. Three days later, one of the party was dead of cholera, the prevailing scourge (two others had succumbed back in Independence). Swain writes often, early on, of being ""very sick."" (His wife writes regularly of ""poor health"" and ""poor spirits."") There are other westering travails--a freak hailstorm on the plains, no fodder in the mountains--but, until the last treacherous, late-season stretch, the men enjoy trail life. The sociability and adherence to convention surprise: the wagon-line stretches for many hundreds of miles (roistering, not loneliness, is a problem); the Fourth of July brings a planned celebration, each Sunday a sermon (and, usually, a day of rest); in his last, storm-bound entry, Swain writes: ""Making pudding and making dressing for breadstuffs is a problem with the material we have."" In the diggings, Swain fared poorly: instead of acquiring a $10,000 stake, he was fortunate to have return-fare across the Isthmus of Panama. But though he wrote his brother ""Stay home,"" though he spoke of ""the hellish mountains"" and called mining ""a dog's life,"" he also professed no regrets; and on her parents' fiftieth wedding anniversary, Swain's daughter told Holliday, her mother ""softly proposed a toast: 'To my '49er.'"" A remarkable labor of love for which Holliday is to be toasted too.

Pub Date: Dec. 1, 1981

ISBN: 080613464X

Page Count: -

Publisher: Simon & Schuster

Review Posted Online: N/A

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 1, 1981