The Age of Gold: The California Gold Rush and The New American Dream

By H.W. Brands
Doubleday, 2002

Age of Gold book cover

(Doug Braudaway gave this presentation at the Val Verde County Library during 2003.)

I don’t know who this guy is, but he is doing great work in presenting history. He has written The First American about Ben Franklin and T.R. about Theodore Roosevelt.

Age of Gold is an excellent book combining the familiar with new material and using primary material in a narrative story-telling form. It is comprehensive in scope going beyond the Rush itself. I do like his section titles:

The Gathering of Peoples
From Vulcan’s Forge
American Athena
The Gordian Knot and the Pacific Connection
The New El Dorado

The Basic Story
1840s John Sutter was a landowner, farmer, merchant
Sutter’s compound called New Helvetia after his native Switzerland
Sutter and James Marshall building a lumber mill
Workman, mostly Mormons from the Mexican War, were hired to dig a mill race to power the mill
Mill constructed on el Rio de los Americans—the American River
Marshall found the first gold in January 1848
Word sent back to the President along with sardine tin with gold dust
President announced the find early 1849 and the Rush was on "the El Dorado of the Spaniards"

Brand also inserts other stories in the narrative to explain why things were there for people to discover or figure out.

Sierra Nevada batholith:
Normal Earth crust material has gold in five parts per billion
batholith material had concentrations at one hundred million parts per billion

Types of Mining:
Placer mining played out quickly and replaced by
Long Tom or sluice box
River mining diverting rivers to get at the river bed
Hydraulic mining blasted away mountainsides to get under them
Quartz mining followed the quartz

The book has a nice blend of “important people” with regular Joe’s
Major characters in the book
John and Jessie Fremont
The Associates of the Central Pacific and Southern Pacific
John Sutter
Mariano Vallejo
William Tecumseh Sherman
But also a Belgian, a Chinese, an Australian, and Americans we don’t see in the textbooks
There is also a story about a slave using the courts to win his freedom; he was not a miner but was part of the inrush of people
There were also guest appearances by a man named Levi (Strauss, page 345)
and another named James who realized the miners did not want to spend the time and effort roasting and grinding coffee beans (Folger, page 346)

Brand’s Rush was a worldwide event
10% of miner from Latin America 10% from China
10% from Europe
miners from Australia, Pacific islands
California Indians mined until they and other racial minorities forced out
They all had the Gold Fever: “No capital is required to obtain in this gold, as the laboring man wants nothing but his pick, shovel and tin pan, with which to wash the gravel; and many frequently pick gold out of the crevices of rock with their butcher knives in placed from one to six ounces.”
And people believed it.

The port of San Francisco became known as the black hole
ships went in but they didn’t come out because the sailors jumped ship, sometimes before they docked
one whole neighborhood was ships with masts cut and fill material added to bay to ground the ships
Fremont’s last expedition: “The final expedition of Fremont’s career lacked the grisly drama of some of the previous four. No one ate anyone else, although a one point of low rations Fremont swore everyone to abstinence from human flesh and vowed the shoot the first man who eyed his fellow hungrily.” Page 364

Brand also ties the gold story into other major American stories:

The issue of slavery
rapid growth led to statehood and constitutional convention without
Territorial stage or Congressional approval

The Civil War
many Southerners in California
but the area was incompatible with plantation cotton culture
a man got busted with others for treason and was found guilty
But Lincoln pardoned the man at the request of influential English uncle
The Uncle argued that Britain should not support the Confederacy

The pacific railroad
connecting Cal with US through sparsely
Populated Great Plains & Rocky Mountains

Gold rushes in other states and countries

Presidential contests and the formation of the modern two-party system
Fremont was new Republican Party’s first presidential nominee

Filibustering expeditions to Mexico and Central America
William Walker’s invasions of Baja California and later Nicaragua

The fact that the gold fed America’s industrial machine

The creation of Stanford University, a leading engineering school, which gave us
Herbert Hoover
William Hewlett and David Packard
Silicon Valley

Highlighted in interesting part of the American work culture
Failure is ok if a person keeps working
Gold might be there; it might not
Two men can work equally hard, but only one strike it rich
The man who doesn’t can (and should) try again; just keep working

Something I thought of based on one tiny comment Brand wrote—
The transcontinental railroad and the Suez Canal eliminated the Southern Hemisphere from American politics and business
There was no need for coaling stations or ports of call south of the equator because American and European ships (for the most part) did not have to go “Around the Horn” or past the Cape of Good Hope

A good story; fun to read; and very informative.
A good history book.