The World Rushed In: The California Gold Rush Experience

I have some major beefs with this book but overall it was worth reading, a deep dive into journals and letters from the overland journey to get to California in 1849 and the gold mining that ensued. The main story line is through William Swaine’s letters and journals, and his wife Sabrina and brother George’s letters back; this is augmented by filler quotes from other journals/letters/accounts that close the gap on the same journey.

As I was reading about the frenzy in 1849’s California with its grasping and greed and cutthroat antics, I looked out my window on a San Francisco 170 years later that retains many of the same characteristics: (mostly) men washed onto its shores looking for their mega-payout from tech, still paying people to wait in lines (in 1849 it was for the mail, people selling their place at the front of the line for $10-$25 which was $300-$800 in today’s dollar), still acting like children (great quote from a letter where a man tells his wife he wants to send something back to their children but nothing is available since “everything here is for grownup children.”)

The editor, Holliday, flashes his misogynist card early, letting you know that the main attraction for him to this story was that it was “an escape from the moral authority of mothers and wives, from the constraining traditions and Sunday admonitions that had ruled for generations.” A few pages later: “Within hours of their last goodbyes, the men felt a new sense of themselves, a slipping free from the past… for the first time in history, thousands of men were released by mutual consent from their filial or other social obligations…”

As Holliday sets the scene for us, he explains why William left his wife behind with brother George, saying “someone had to stay home to watch over Sabrina and her baby…” and that William wrote his diary for Sabrina “so that she would know how her husband, though absent for so long, had suffered and struggled for her well-being.” ARGH! I tried not to slash lines through my copy of this book while I read. Besides this, Holliday takes some extreme liberalities in assuming thoughts and feelings for his subject: “Swain experienced some of this freedom, but he felt constrained by his sense of obligation to George, Sabrina, and Little Cub [his daughter] and by his mother’s admonitions to read his Bible.”

Women were affected by gold fever too, as in this quote from a sadly unnamed (and unmarried) woman: “It was with the greatest reluctance I gave up the idea of going to California…. I should have liked a few thousand of its glittering ore.”