"I have found it." These words, uttered by the man who first discovered gold on the American River in 1848, triggered the most astonishing mass movement of peoples since the Crusades. California's gold drew fortune-seekers from the ends of the earth. It accelerated America's imperial expansion and exacerbated the tensions that exploded in the Civil War. And, as H. W. Brands makes clear in this spellbinding book, the Gold Rush inspired a new American dream--the "dream of instant wealth, won by audacity and good luck."
Brands tells his epic story from multiple perspectives: of adventurers John and Jessie Fremont, entrepreneur Leland Stanford, and the wry observer Samuel Clemens--side by side with prospectors, soldiers, and scoundrels. He imparts a visceral sense of the distances they traveled, the suffering they endured, and the fortunes they made and lost. Impressive in its scholarship and overflowing with life, The Age of Gold is history in the grand traditions of Stephen Ambrose and David McCullough.
The gold rush of 1848, says Brands, was a watershed in American history, helping mold the country into its modern shape, transforming the wilderness and pushing the country into civil war. Noted biographer Brands (his life of Benjamin Franklin, The First American, was a Pulitzer finalist) makes good use of a sparkling cast of characters: George Hearst, Leland Stanford, Levi Strauss, even William "War Is Hell" Sherman, all raced to California to make their fortunes. For most of the hundreds of thousands who flocked to California, though, life in the mines of the Sierras was hard and rarely paid off. Yet the hopeful kept coming not only from the East but from around the world, with profound implications for California and the rest of the country. The question of statehood would California be a slave state or free? accelerated the onset of the Civil War, says Brands. He believes the gold rush changed the national psyche, pulling the country away from a Puritan ethic of "steadiness and frugality" and toward a new American dream of "instant wealth," the fruits of "boldness and luck." With solid research and a sprightly narrative, Brands's portrait of the gold rush is an enlightening analysis of a transformative period for California and America.
Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information, Inc.
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October 12, 2003
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