With Golden Visions Bright Before Them: Trails to the Mining West, 1849–1852, by Will Bagley, University of Oklahoma Press, Norman, 2012, $45
So Rugged and Mountainous, Will Bagley’s history of the overland trails from their formation through the 1840s emigrations to Oregon Territory and the Salt Lake Valley, amassed an impressive collection of firsthand accounts, in effect allowing the emigrants to relate their own stories. In his novel approach Bagley culled numerous emigrant accounts of particularly important sites—the start of a cutoff, say, or a particularly difficult mountain passage—and presented them chronologically, thus relating a cohesive account of the march west and its associated hardships. Bagley’s skill at unearthing a variety of firsthand accounts has again born fruit in With Golden Visions Bright Before Them, the second volume in his planned three-part series on the overland trails. With Golden Visions details trail life during the California Gold Rush years 1849–52. The narrative inches along with the Forty-Niners, sharing their views on the passing geography, flora and fauna from the wide-open plains along the North Platte River to the death march of the Forty-Mile Desert and the harsh, forbidding peaks of the High Sierras.
The detailed, almost day-by-day description of the 1849 march of the gold-seekers is both the book’s greatest strength—especially for fellow researchers—and the greatest source of frustration for readers wanting a complete history of the Gold Rush. Bagley’s fixation on the trails eschews a more macroscopic view of the socioeconomic factors that propelled men and women to seek gold and the effects of the rush on Indian tribes and U.S. policy, beyond what may be contained in the journals and letters he quotes. After an exhaustive look at each major geographic barrier the westbound Forty-Niners faced, Bagley frustratingly halts his subjects’ narratives just when they reach the goldfields, while he doubles back to describe unwise cutoffs like the Lassen Trail and Hudspeth Cutoff. Still, Bagley’s fidelity to the gold rushers on the trail and dedication to relating their stories as they lived them, including both the banality and transcendence of their passage, makes With Golden Visions the most accurate and exhaustive history of the overland trails during the Gold Rush years.