The Gold Rush was a mass, almost flash migration (1848-1855) that changed American history. By the 1860s, railroads had replaced covered wagons, Indians had lost their last sovereign native lands; anti-slavery unionists were benefiting from the staggering resources of the new, "free" state of California, and multiculturalism was the very fuel of American economic growth; half of the 90,000 people who moved to California in 1849 came by sea -- from Latin America, Hawaii, and China. The sum of it all: Manifest destiny had transformed the dream into reality.
"The Age of Gold: The California Gold Rush and the New American Dream" by H.W. Brands
Brands claims that gold fever changed the American mindset -- from work ethic to "win instantly." But most of the hundreds of thousands who trudged over the Sierras from the late 1840s through the mid 1850s did not get rich -- instantly or otherwise. Only a small percentage of prospectors turned a profit. The smarter businesses turned out to be dry goods, groceries, and -- of course -- saloons. Probably the most thorough history of the era, this book includes its bold-face names: John Sutter, on whose land gold was first found, to John Fremont, one of California's first senators -- along with colorful supporting characters like Ah Tye, a strong man for an organization that preyed on newly arrived Chinese immigrants.
"The World Rushed In" by J. S. Holliday
The heart of Holliday's book are the letters and diary of a forty-niner named William Swain. History professor Holliday also makes use of Swain's wife and brother's writings, as well as those of other 49ers. Swain was a remarkably dedicated diarist; he documented every single day of his overland journey, except for the three in which he was ill. It was an interesting journey full of new experiences: "Three of our boys forded the Platte with horses to chase the herds of buffalo we have seen all day. They brought one home this evening and we had our first buffalo meat."
"Assembling California" by John McPhee
The longtime staff writer for The New Yorker is an authority on all matters geological. Here, he takes on the very foundation of the Golden State, right down to its global plate tectonics. McPhee by no means limits himself to the Mother Lode foothills. With his geologist guide, Eldridge Moores, he leads us from the Donner Pass, to the Great Central Valley, to the wine country of the Coast Ranges, to the rock of San Francisco, to the San Andreas fault.
"The Shirley Letters: From the California Mines, 1851-1852" by Louise Amelia Knapp Smith Clappe
Although most of the prospecting and mining was done by men, many women joined the migration west and settled in California, too. The letters written by Louise Amelia Knapp Smith Clappe were published in a newspaper in 1851 and 1852 under the pseudonym Dame Shirley. In unflinching prose, she chronicled the descent of a mining community into a dark world of jealousy, greed and treachery. In July, 1852, she wrote that in one twenty-four day stretch, "We have had murders, fearful accidents, bloody deaths, a mob, whippings, a hanging, an attempt at suicide, and a fatal duel...I almost shrink from relating the gloomy news ... But if I leave out the darker shades of our mountain life, the picture will be very incomplete."