Saturday, December 6, 2008

Precious Dust

Precious Dust: The Saga of the Western Gold Rushes by Paula Mitchell Marks was originally published in 1994. My paperback copy is 448 pages, including the notes, bibliography, and index. In the opening of her book, Marks tells us that: "In tracing the impact of this experience on the seekers, the book also traces some of the broader implications of the gold rushes that galvanized western communities, whole regions, and the nation itself for over half a century....In addition, this narrative shows how the rushes both contributed to a distinctive frontier culture and exposed some of the tensions and paradoxes in American culture." pg. 14

There is also a special note about how Marks has chosen to organize her book:
"The first chapter provides a chronological overview of the rush decades. Then, because the journeys to the goldfields loomed large in many stampeders' experience, the next four chapters focus on the arduous 'getting there'; for clarity's sake in describing the various trails taken, I have made those chapter chronological as well."
" Chapter six...the general approach shifts from the chronological to the thematic in order better to explore the gold rushes as a whole in relationship to specific topics: The challenge of gleaning the gold and of life in the diggings; the growth of the gold rush urban areas; the problems of building communities...;the distinct treatment of and experiences of minorities; the complex home ties....and the presence, effect, and experiences of women in the rushes." pg. 16

The way in which the book is organized actually makes it much more interesting to the casual reader, although she has done a fine job writing material for the more scholarly readers as well, with the inclusion of notes and a bibliography. If you are interested in any of the gold rushes and their larger social implications, this book is highly recommended with a rating of 5.

Synopsis from cover:
The boom era began with the discovery of gold in California in 1848 and extended over fifty years to include the rushes in the Pikes Peak region in Colorado, the Black Hills of South Dakota, Alder Gulch in Montana, and the Yukon. Precious Dust humanizes the mad rush to these remote places.

" 'Put forth thy hand, reach at the glorious gold,' the Duchess of Gloucester urges her husband in Shakespeare's Henry VI. " opening sentence

"An estimated ninety thousand stampeders left the settled states for the California goldfields in 1849 alone. They were followed the next year by...and estimated eighty-five thousand." pg. 23

"Of the ninety-thousand gold seekers heading west in 1849, only and estimated forty thousand completed their journey to the Sierra Nevada mining districts. There most found the best claims already taken by the early comers of '48." pg. 30

"By one estimate, at least fifteen hundred cholera-stricken travelers died along the Overland Trail in 1849." pg. 56

"Of the thousands going by way of Cape Horn, only about fifty perished en route the first year, some by drowning, others as a result of scurvy and various illnesses." pg. 84

"...they experienced the truth of Robert Louis Stevenson's insight: 'To travel hopefully is a better thing than to arrive.' " pg. 97

"An 1854 'Miners' Commandment' warned men that they were not to 'grow discouraged and think of going home' to fifty-cent-a-day wages when they might 'strike a lead and fifty dollars a day,' thus retaining their 'manly self-respect.' " pg. 155

"Perhaps the worst aspect of gold town conditions was the utter disregard of sanitary practices by the largely transient population. Sacrament was 'one great cesspool of mud, offal, garbage, dead animals and that worst of nuisances consequent upon the entire absence of outhouses.' " pg. 203

"Repeatedly, observers attested to the prevalence of the every-man-for-himself mentality." pg. 224

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