Gold Dust

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by Donald Dale Jackson Alfred A. Knopf Illustrations and maps 361 pages, $13.95

The California Gold Rush was not only a scramble for riches; it was also a national adventure. It had its anthem—“Oh, Susanna,” in dozens of cheerful and raucous versions—and its own terminology. Those taking the interminable sea routes to San Francisco referred to seasickness as “casting up accounts.” And when a forty-niner had endured great hardship, and learned from it, he had “seen the elephant.” For several hundred thousand young American males, the thought of missing the adventure was intolerable. “A man had to go, to take part somehow, lest he wonder forever what might have been,” Jackson writes.

There was plenty of gold to be had in 1848. In fact, to fail at the mines that year “required an extraordinary combination of ineptitude and bad luck.” But few of those who came in the next two years went home with bulging gold sacks, and many died of cholera before they ever got to the gold fields.

An astonishing number of the survivors kept journals about their experiences—a bonanza from which Donald Jackson has mined this lively history.