The pandemonium of the California gold rush in every particular--but without much dramatic or thematic shaping. Here, crisply projected and nimbly interwoven, are the events touched off by the discovery of those few flakes of gold in Sutter's tailrace in January, 1848; the personalities of the first, lucky, on-the-spot prospectors, of the merchants and promoters who quickly relieved them of their gold, of the forty-niners (solid citizens, most of them) lured to California from all over the U.S. Here is the tedium of the Cape voyage; the desperation of those stranded in Pan, ma, ""the clean-fingernails route""; the hardships and heartaches of the wagon travelers along the overland routes. Here is seamy, tacky San Francisco; drudgery and disillusion; the onset of violence; the dream fading, the myth surviving. Overall, the erratic, wildly oscillating fortunes of seignorial, Swiss-born Sutter supply the strongest continuing thread. The workings of prejudice are also intermittently in evidence (the annihilation of the docile California Indians, the confiscatory tax on Mexican miners); and this motif, along with the mass of detail, most distinguishes Jackson's account from its predecessors. (He is particularly weak on the political front--on the issue of California's admission to the Union as a non-slave state.) But where he does score is precisely in those telling details that are the true gold here: ""the American penchant for writing on any accessible hard surface"" (even their initials--as if, one traveler observed, ""everyone should know"" who A.S.S. was); ""the heterogeneous population in the mines"" to which the miners responded ""by stereotyping each other and creating stock regional characters."" So history buffs with boundless curiosity will find this entertaining and illuminating if also exhausting.