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Gold: Firsthand Accounts From the Rush That Made the West, by John Richard Stephens, TwoDot, an imprint of Globe Pequot Press, Guilford, Conn., 2014, $18.95

In his introduction to this anthology of period recollections and select fiction from the California Gold Rush, author/editor John Richard Stephens provides a primer on the progression of mining techniques—from lone men with tin pans and shovels, to teams working sluices known as “long toms,” to larger partnerships with flumes, to corporate hydraulic mining operations, power-washing away entire hillsides in the search for gold. In the body of gold rush literature, Stephens’ offering lies somewhere between panning and sluicing, providing the greenhorn rich ground for further digging.

He opens, fittingly, with accounts from two men present for the starting gun: millwright James Marshall, who in 1848 plucked those first nuggets from the bed of the South Fork American River, and his employer John Sutter, who had hired Marshall to construct a sawmill on the river near Coloma, and who, in one of the great ironies of the period, was financially ruined by Marshall’s discovery of gold in the tailrace beneath that mill. Stricken with gold fever, Sutter’s labor force deserted him, leaving the mill unfinished and dooming his other business ventures. Thieves even took the millstones, selling them off to quartz-mining operations.

Stephens chronicles the inexorable rush with reports from the famous (William Tecumseh Sherman, Henry David Thoreau, Ulysses S. Grant, Mark Twain) and obscure or forgotten participants in what the author calls “the world’s most humongous treasure hunt,” though what might be more accurately termed “the world’s biggest gambling spree.” One account by Scottish physician J.D. Borthwick, who traveled the region from 1851 to ’53 and wrote about the experience in his book Three Years in California, deftly sums up the frenzy of the rush at its peak:

The everyday jog-trot of ordinary human existence was not a fast enough pace for Californians in their impetuous pursuit of wealth. The longest period of time ever thought of was a month. Money was loaned, and houses were rented, by the month; interest and rent being invariably payable monthly and in advance. All engagements were made by the month, during which period the changes and contingencies were so great that no one was willing to commit himself for a longer term. In the space of a month the whole city might be swept off by fire, and a totally new one might be flourishing in its place. So great was the constant fluctuation in the prices of goods, and so rash and speculative was the usual style of business, that no great idea of stability could be attached to anything, and the ever-varying aspect of the streets, as the houses were being constantly pulled down, and rebuilt, was emblematic of the equally varying fortunes of the inhabitants.

Indeed, what is evident as one pores over the recollections is that there were far more losers than winners, and that along with the global economic boost it provided, the gold also fueled the lowest forms of human depravity, from back-alley prostitution, acute alcoholism and rampant gambling to openly committed fraud, theft, armed robbery and murder. The general lawlessness and lack of authority in turn gave rise to quasi-legal though arguably effective vigilance committees. “[California] is on the verge of anarchy from the imbecility of its rulers,” wrote Forty-Niner merchant Alonzo Delano with uncanny prescience, “were it not for the stern determination of the honest part of community to rid the country of its hideous excrescences.” Order restored, the rush brought prosperity, infrastructure, investment and ultimately stability for an influx of new “prospectors” seeking the good life in the newly minted “Golden State.”

Stephens sifts some of the most informative and engaging accounts to relate the good, the bad, the ugly and many outright surprising aspects of the gold rush era, capping the anthology with classic short stories of the period penned by Jack London, Bret Harte and Nathan Urner. Like Sutter’s gold, the narrative treasures lie waiting to be found.

—Dave Lauterborn