Our tendency to repeat history is on full display in The Rush: America’s Fevered Quest for Fortune, 1848–1853. Author Edward Dolnick doesn’t mention fracking. And yet, the parallels between the form of extraction that California is currently debating and those upon which the state was founded are unmistakable. The same goes for a host of other connections — including the condition of our environment and the shape of our cities — that bind today’s land of 38 million to the newly trammeled wilderness of the mid-1800s.
A science journalist with shades of Timothy Egan and Stephen Ambrose, Dolnick recounts the peak years of the California gold rush as a narrative history. The unfathomable expanse of the West lends itself to intimate portraits. Human-interest stories and details abound, right down to the golden motes that barbers harvested from their floors. Summaries and quotations from “’49ers” diaries and other writings form a lattice of first-person experiences of the journey to California.
The Rush comprises three sections: “Hope,” “Journey,” “Reality.” Very little of the story is surprising, since most Californians know the basic framework and images of the gold rush. But Dolnick’s recounting is important nonetheless for the way that it humanizes the legend. If personal comfort is any concern, it is best experienced secondhand.
The original “Eureka” that resounded through the Sierra foothills in January 1848 was a faint and uncertain whisper. When the coastal outpost San Francisco heard the news, “the town yawned.” While incredulous roughnecks pulled fist-sized nuggets out of streambeds on the property of egomaniacal oddball John Sutter — a self-proclaimed “captain” and leader of the country of “New Helvetia” — the lawyers, bankers, and other restless types who would one day head west knew nothing of the state’s fortunes. Newspapers were unreliable, and word of mouth moved slowly across what was then a very large continent. It was only when President Polk mentioned the strike offhandedly in his December 1948 State of the Union that the wheels of Manifest Destiny began to turn.
It’s nearly impossible for modern Americans to appreciate just how inaccessible California was at the time. While the country had been sensibly colonizing its interior by increments, gold-seekers had to leap over the entire unsettled territory to reach “the distant edge of that mysterious and still poorly mapped expanse.” Tierra del Fuego was literally easier to reach from New York than San Francisco. And yet, in 1849 alone, 90,000 Americans — one percent of the country’s population — embodied the observation of an Eastern newspaperman that “if hell lay to the west, Americans would cross heaven to get there.”
Surely more pioneers flocked to California than would ever find salvation. “It was the sheer size of the gold rush, above all, that set it apart from anything the world had seen since the Crusades,” writes Dolnick. “The throngs kept coming all through the early 1850s […] all of them racing toward a goal none of them had ever seen.”
The ’49ers faced two equally awful choices: travel by wagon over land, or travel by ship, with a hike across Panama. Dolnick trades off between descriptions of the two journeys, enhancing the illusion that travelers were enduring their passages simultaneously, each dreaming of the same destination, whether they were staring at the ocean or the rear end of an ox.
The overland option was slow, dusty, hot, and uncomfortable — and that’s before the migrants reached the Sierra Nevada escarpment. They endured the monotonous Great Plains, violently incredulous native tribes, the Rockies, and landscapes like the Humboldt, a slimy non-river in Nevada described as “nothing but horse broth, seasoned with alkali.”
The isthmus route was less complicated. It didn’t require migrants to disassemble their wagons, for instance, so they could be hauled up mountainsides. But it did deposit them in a tropical steam bath that diaries call “loathsome” and “pregnant with disease.” Migrants spent months in Panama City waiting for their connections.
The best writing came from the journeys, which were filled with the sort of uncertainty and morbidity that inspires contemplation. Surely not all ’49ers wrote like poets — their vulgarity is on display in many quotations — but Dolnick has a keen ear for those who did. Here are two examples: “I took food and water and found them bootless, hatless, ragged and tattered, moaning in the starlight for death to relive them from torture”; “it made one’s flesh creep to look up and see huge crags suspended […] wanting only the vibration of an echo to break the frail ligatures, and grind you into eternity.”
On this count, Joseph Bruff is the hero of Dolnick’s tale. Among all the diaries of the era, his were “acclaimed as the best and most thorough” for his meticulous observations of flora and fauna, including fellow humans. Bruff, who nearly froze and starved to death in the Sierras, had been offered the equivalent of $400,000 for his diaries — a relative pittance, depending on the buyer. To our great benefit, Bruff declined.
The riches that awaited these travelers in California were as staggering as they were ephemeral.
The early miners fanned out across the Sierra foothills, bonding from one strike of placer gold to another. As a result, California’s early settlements were moving targets. “California had ruins and abandoned towns almost from the start,” writes Dolnick. “The miners tended to slosh hither and thither without any pattern. […] [V]illages, towns, cities risking like Aladdin’s palace in a single night, vanishing at noonday, and forgotten at eventide.” For 166 years, California had been regarded as a temporary place. (Its native peoples were regarded as similarly disposable in the face of imperialism. Dolnick writes, “By the early 1850s, they were strangers in their own land, outnumbered two to one.”)
Dolnick offers glimpses into the state’s earliest great cities: Sacramento and San Francisco. A disgruntled Easterner described 1850s San Francisco as “steaming, boiling, seething, reeking.” The city had its share of debauchery, with bordellos and gambling dens lining the main streets, not tucked away in alleys. With a 30-to-1 gender imbalance — which would not equalize until 1950 — the state now known for sexiness and glamour was once overwhelmed by rich, rambunctious men. But the cities supported more than just vice. “California needed everything and had nothing,” so businesses that supplied the gold fields often made more money than did the miners themselves. Levi Strauss is but the most famous example.
As California’s urban economies sprang to life, miners wanted ever more — and had the funds to reach ever deeper into “pay dirt” once placer deposits were exhausted. Dolnick identifies the Gold Rush’s turning point as the moment when prospecting ceased to be an individualistic, artisanal trade and became exclusively a large-scale, capital-intensive corporate pursuit. The “hugely effective but startlingly wasteful” process of shearing through hillsides with water cannons was known as “hydraulicking.” If anyone thought it was a bad idea at the time, Dolnick cites no objections. (John Muir, observing several decades later, reportedly admired the miners’ geomorphic process for its “glacier-like” power; though he revered the high peaks, he regarded the foothills as fair game.)
The Rush says little about environmental policy, urban planning, or laws that governed these adventures — because there effectively were none.
Mexico ceded California through the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, signed nine days after Sutter’s Mill discovery. But it didn’t gain statehood for two more years — the very interval in which all hell broke loose. “California was open to all comers, a free-for-all competition with no rules, no authorities, [and] no taxes,” writes Dolnick. He describes some of the vigilante justice that sprang up among miners. But he does not explain how exactly the territory of California functioned, nor how mining claims were enforced. Freedom may have been California’s greatest commodity.
As ancient as the history of the Gold Rush may be — especially by California standards — parallels between contemporary California and infant California are eerily strong. Extraction maintains a prominent role in the state’s economy. (Several cities voted on ballot measures related to fracking just recently.) Meanwhile, Dolnick compares the daring of the prospectors to that of today’s Silicon Valley hopefuls. “In the East […] to fail in business was to suffer a humiliation that could last a lifetime.” California, then as now, is one of the few places in the world where failure commonly warrants celebration.
We can’t tell whether Dolnick’s gilded perspective on the state has been recolored by Google. But then he quotes an observer of post-rush California: “Nobody was bored […]. At twenty they are experienced in business, embark in vast enterprises, take partners as experienced as themselves, and go to pieces with as much splendor as their neighbors.” That was Rudyard Kipling, writing in 1890.
And it’s no wonder that a Briton like Kipling, or a German like Strauss, would have passed through California. By 1860, 39 percent of its population was foreign-born. It’s 27 percent today. Identities in California were no more permanent than the hillsides. The state’s culture bowed to none of the social strictures of the East Coast, partly because many who made the journey did so out of dissatisfaction with their lives back East.
A step beyond The Rush’s stories of adventure yields a disturbing question: has the genesis of any other place on Earth been so firmly grounded in the pursuit of individual wealth?
Absent the attraction of gold, the colonization of the continent would have continued its slow, incremental westward march, reaching California eventually. That slowness is where communities form. Instead, hurried people populated the Golden State for a specific reason. By definition, the ’49ers had no particular connections to their towns or cities. Bachelor-miners did not travel 2,500 miles for something as quaint as community building. How house-proud can you be when home is a tent and your town picks up and moves every few weeks? Miners certainly approached California’s landscape — however breathtaking and fecund — purely as a venue for their own enterprises. They each competed against the other, like actors all auditioning for the same role.
For all the encomiums to failure, the state was bound to disappoint many. Miners’ esteem for their adoptive state depended on the glimmers in their pans and sluices. For unsuccessful miners, California easily could have become a state-sized prison for everyone who went bust and couldn’t bear the trip back. There we have the paradox of the California dream: so much promise, but so much opportunity for despair.
Since the gold rush, countless waves of aspirants have followed those miners and, in many ways, amplified both their ambitions and their sense of mutual indifference to each other. Okies. Starlets. Programmers. International immigrants. For many, the California dream means seeking a place to hide until they get rich enough to buy happiness, but it does not necessarily entail an investment in the place itself. Surely Californians have built proud cities and impressive public works. And yet, even today, being part of a community and living in public space is too seldom a concern. We have McMansions instead of row houses, strip malls instead of town squares, and golf courses where parks could be. Real estate developers have mined the land just as carelessly as the ’49ers did.
Can the values of the gold rush really transcend generations? Of course they can. They travel from neighbor to neighbor and generation to generation. They are rooted in places, and they travel through stories. Just knowing about the gold rush invokes excitement and avarice. Values are just as likely to amplify over time as they are to fade.
The biggest change in California, then, may not be its land-use patterns or its culture but rather the magnitude of its successes. The gold that the ’49ers wrested from those remote creeks is mere gravel compared to the riches that are mined to this very day in the cities of the Golden State.
Josh Stephens is the former editor of the California Planning & Development Report and The Planning Report.