An exploration of the California Gold Rush, which began as a dream, blossomed into rumor, and turned into a transcontinental frenzy.
“California was coveted by all who saw it,” western historian Walker (Bear Flag Rising, 1999, etc.) writes, not least by the Spanish conquistadors who scoured the Southwest for gold. They didn’t turn much up, perhaps for lack of appropriate technology, and their descendants developed an economy based on raising livestock. There was plenty of gold to be had in California, though, in the rich lode that ran nearly the whole length of the Sierra Nevada. The American conquest of California was spurred in part by reports of this treasure, Walker suggests, but the great strike at Sutter’s Mill was an international venture from the outset. “Neither the Spaniards nor the Mexicans discovered California gold,” he writes, “but a true irony lay in who did discover it: an American working in lands that had been granted by Mexico to a German who had named his domain New Switzerland.” That German was John Augustus Sutter, who carved out a little fiefdom for himself from the leftovers of the Spanish and Russian empires. (The guns at his fort, Walker notes, had been thrown down by the retreating Napoleonic army at the gates of Moscow and shipped abroad, a nice bit of recycling.) Though Walker treats Sutter with some sympathy, he acknowledges that the German had a cruel streak and when drunk—which was most of the time—was given to abusing any Indians he happened to meet. Walker’s tale takes in a broad range of characters, from well-meaning New England farmers seeking an honest fortune to deserters, bandits, and riffraff from all nations; the narrative is swift and accurate, and the author does a good job of bringing musty historical figures to life.
Very capable, though outclassed by H.W. Brands’s The Age of Gold (p. 780), which covers the same ground more thoughtfully.