Historian Brands (The Strange Death of American Liberalism, 2001, etc.) crafts a rich study of Gold Rush–era America that enfolds the period’s bigger-than-life personalities and big ideas.
Levi Strauss, Leland Stanford, John Sutter, John Charles Frémont, William Tecumseh Sherman: all took part in the California Gold Rush, though most would become famous for other reasons. A supporting cast of dozens of other players enlivens the drama, from the famed Chinese prostitute Ah Toy (“the finest-looking woman I have ever seen,” one miner sighed) to the enterprising teenager James Folger, who made his early fortune selling coffee to thirsty gold-seekers. Rather than concentrating exclusively on these colorful characters, however, Brands (History/Texas A&M Univ.) addresses the sweeping effects of the Gold Rush, which not only opened the American West to settlement but also “helped initiate the modern era of American economic development” by forging the largest and arguably most efficient unified market in the world, a development that a few decades later would help the US to emerge as a great power. Perhaps less favorably, Brands writes, the Gold Rush also changed the national psyche: the old American Dream was a vision of “men and women content to accumulate their modest fortunes a little at a time, year by year by year”; the promise of instant wealth in the faraway hills of California yielded a widespread view that speculation and daring were at least as important as frugality and plain hard work. Combining this wealth of ideas with vivid biographies of actors great and small in the expansionist drama, Brands has produced a work that stands far above the tide of mostly forgettable titles that accompanied the 150th anniversary of the Gold Rush three years ago.
A lucid, literate survey of events that transformed the nation, for better and worse.