Two decades ago and a little more, I was awaiting Random House’s publication of my novel California Gold. I’d worked on it for two and a half years, researching it through books, newspapers and diaries, and by tramping up and down the Golden State. The novel was, and remains, my tribute to the American West, though admittedly with an ironic title.
The novel tells nothing of the events of 1849–1850 and thereafter, which you might otherwise expect. The story opens in the 1880s, ends in the early 20th century, and makes the point that no gold seekers got rich from Gold Rush claims, though others profited. It all began with the discovery of gold on John Sutter’s property in the Coloma Valley, but the real gold of California gushed in the form of oil wells (ah, those jaw-dropping photographs of
derricks in L.A. backyards), real estate development, citrus groves, movies, and finally,
When my wife and I made trips to research the novel, I remember walking and gazing at the Sacramento River, where boats of Argonauts had disgorged the aurum-nauts. We had grand meals at Frank Fat’s elegant restaurant, too, within sight of the capitol where my favorite Conan the Governor now presides.
I did all that digging and writing for one reason. In previous journeys around the world to flog books, I came to realize that two periods of American history are fascinating above all others to people outside our borders. One is our Civil War. The second is America’s westward expansion; or, as they liked to call it around 19th-century apple barrels, “Manifest Destiny.” It wasn’t exactly “manifest” to all the Native American tribes whose lands were overrun—double-talked out of existence—stolen, violently and otherwise.
For good and ill, “gold in California!” was a cry heard ’round the world. It drew all kinds of people from hard-working clerks to hardened criminals, principally American at first, but then from Europe, South America, the South Seas, and (my favorite) Hawaii. They came to swarm
and squabble and work themselves ragged and none of them made a significant fortune.
Many didn’t even find a single nugget in their pans. The profits went to those who benefited on the fringes, as it were—peddling commodities like shovels, sarsaparilla, and sex.
Sam Brannan, for example, was a canny emigrant from Maine (1846), a Mormon, and a man who knew how to carpe diem with the best. Workers had heard of miners paying store bills in old Sacramento with gold flakes, so Brannan got hold of a quinine bottle full of flakes, as the
story goes, and ran up and down San Francisco streets, like a town crier yelling: “Gold from the American River!” Predictably, this attracted a rush of men wanting to enrich themselves forthwith. But first, they would need picks, pans, and shovels, items that Brannan already had in stock. The gold seekers likely never found any, but gold found its way into his pockets.
Many, if not most, would be disappointed by the lack of fruits from their labors. Holiness didn’t help either. Not long ago, researching the California Gold Rush for an anthology of new short stories set in significant Western eras (my friend and colleague Dale Walker edited it), I made the surprising discovery that even Notre Dame University had heard the siren song. Facing a financial crisis, the university sent a party of priests westward in hopes of a big strike. Alas, history tells us, they struck out.
But certainly there was good cheer, and good old American optimism, among all those pilgrims, prelates, and laypersons. They were known to sing songs like “The Banks of the Sacramento,” a tune that has always thrilled me. It embodies the whole restless, roving adventure of those years. I’ve heard it performed many times and never more stirringly than by Dave Guard and the Whiskey Hill Singers from the soundtrack of How the West Was Won. I drive my wife crazy singing the song in the shower, at the lunch table, etc. I’m sure you know the important words:
And it’s blow, boys, blow,
For Californi-o,For there’s plenty of gold,So I’ve been told,
On the banks of the Sacramento.
Sources credit no composer, except “traditional.” The lyrics express the lure of the Gold Rush across a broad sweep of ocean: “Limehouse Docks to Sidney Heads.” But it wasn’t the only song sung, whistled, yodeled, or hummed on the way West and in the diggings. Stephen
Foster’s classic “Oh Susanna!” was, we are told, #1 on the Argonaut hit parade. Heaven knows how many other numbers have fallen into obscurity. In memory, I return to wandering
along the river, softly singing “On the Banks of the Sacramento”—forever the leitmotiv of a grand and glorious period of hope and hubris, frustration, and felonious claim jumping.
Many museums and historic sites bring it all back to life today. So do stories by Mark Twain and Bret Harte, and one of the grandest of all historical novels, Robert Lewis Taylor’s The Travels of Jamie McPheeters, a Pulitzer Prize-winner not to be missed.
Whatever your age, never forget the banks of the Sacramento. Don’t let this epic moment of American courage and hope slip from your mind. I know I can’t.
John Jakes’ novel California Gold was first published in 1989. Jakes is known as a master of historical fiction.