All that glittered in 1849; Gold Dust, by Donald Dale Jackson. New York: Alfred A. Knopf. $13.95
Relying heavily on diaries, journals, travelogues, and letters, Donald Dale Jackson offers a panoramic yet personalized account of the California gold rush of the late 1840s and early 1850s.
The sweeping, vivid narrative begins, not surprisingly, with James Marshall's discovery of gold at John Sutter's sawmill in the lower Sacramento Valley in January 1848. It depicts the spread of gold mania throughout the United States and abroad; the great trek of some 80,000 forty-niners (and of a larger number of 1850 emigrants) by land and sea to the new El Dorado; and life in the mining camps and associated boomtowns, particularly San Francisco and Sacramento. It ends with the disillusionment of the miners as they discovered that there was not nearly enough readily extractable gold to go around.
Jackson's strategy of drawing on firsthand accounts elicits the feel of the gold- rush experience. He imparts a vivid sense of the forty-niners' exuberant optimism, characteristic of Jacksonian America, that led them to accept the wildest stories about the abundance of gold in California.
Here, too, are ordeals of the gold rush, as his various chroniclers stagger across the Western deserts, plod through the jungles of the Panamanian Isthmus in transit from Atlantic to Pacific passage, and ride wind-buffeted vessels around Cape Horn.
Finally, "Gold Dust" portrays the hard work, primitive conditions, boredom, and violence of the mining camps, along with the miners' tumultuous pursuit of pleasure.
While Jackson's use of primary sources gives us the rich flavor of this extraordinary environment, his approach also has its disadvantages. Repetitiveness is one, since there is much overlap between the many experiences he relates. Donald Barr Chidsey's "California Gold Rush," although shorter and literarily inferior, provides more information on many points than "Gold Dust" does.
A more serious problem is that by staying so close to his sources, Jackson fails to provide enough critical perspective: He lays out testimony depicting the miners as totally selfish -- and remarkably generous. And his reliance on emigrants's recollections of frontier lynch law makes California a wilder, more violent land than it was in fact.