Gold Dust & Gunsmoke: Tales of Gold Rush Outlaws, Gunfighters, Lawmen, and Vigilantes, by John Boessenecker, John Wiley & Sons, New York, 1999, $30.

It is an odd twist of history. Hollywood created the gunfighter myth and placed its heroes primarily in Texas, with overlapping gun-toting cowboys in Arizona, New Mexico, Nevada, Montana, Oklahoma and the Dakotas. Yet, when we think of California in terms of the Wild West, we usually think of someone salting a gold mine…period. It’s high time, on the 150th anniversary of the Forty-Niners’ rush to the far coast, to rethink Old California.

San Francisco attorney and historian John Boessenecker has done as much as anyone to change and illuminate California’s Wild West image. With intense research and fine writing skills, Boessenecker brings us gunfighters, thieves, assassins, gamblers and highwaymen, the likes of which one seldom reads about. And these are not just ordinary ruffians and ne’er-do-wells; these people stole from other folks in a wide variety of ways and made an art out of shooting and cutting up friends as well as enemies.

So while we have plenty of biographies of Billy the Kid and lots of reruns on the OK Corral, it’s refreshing that Boessenecker presents solid information on interesting but mostly overlooked California characters and events. The author says that the decade of turbulence and bloodshed that followed the discovery of gold “has not been equaled before or since in the history of peacetime America.” In the epilogue, Boessenecker presents some murder-rate figures that lend support to that statement. He concludes that the gold seekers’ ready resort to violence “left an enduring mark on our nation’s history.”

If you would like a good read (367 pages) about how gold fever ignited a rush not only of families, but of prostitutes, feuds, lynchings, duels, bare-knuckle prize fights, and vigilantes, then this is the place to start, the book to open.

Leon Metz