Days of Gold: The California Gold Rush and the American Nation, by Malcolm J. Rohrbough, Univ. of California Press, Berkeley and Los Angeles, 1997, $29.95.
“The California Gold Rush,” writes Malcolm Rohrbough, a professor of history at the University of Iowa, “ranks with the American Civil War as the most written-about, remembered, and recorded series of events in nineteenth-century America.” But no matter how much has been written about the subject in the past, there is certainly room for Rohrbough’s new book–a social history of an event that, he contends, touched “the lives of families and communities everywhere in the Republic.” In other words, the California Gold Rush, like the Civil War, was a shared national experience, even if California wasn’t officially part of the United States when James Marshall made the initial golden discovery on Monday morning, January 24, 1848 (California was ceded to the United States by Mexico on February 2, 1848). Rohrbough considers such issues as how the scarcity of women in the gold fields affected California society, what happened to the folks in the East who the Forty-Niners left behind, what the harsh realities in the gold fields were, and how the rush was disastrous for many families (a warm-up for the havoc that the Civil War played on families). Because of the size and complexity of the subject, Rohrbough calls his book “an introduction to the California Gold Rush.” But even for those people who already know much about the rush of 150 years ago, Days of Gold is a fine reintroduction.