Check It Out

Courier Article by David Locker
Sunday, February 2, 2003

New Books on Gold Rush Herald Its Importance

If it can be said that America has an empire, it is a land-locked one that stretches from sea to sea.

In 1842, when John C. Fremont embarked on his first expedition of the western frontier, the country's practical border ended at St. Louis, and the western territories were in the hands of the American Indians, Mexico or England. Though a trickle of settlers had been moving west on the Oregon Trail, the American presence in the West was confined mostly to a hardy band of mountain men.John Fremont did more than any other man to advertise the unknown and often hostile West. Written with the help of his wife, Jessie Fremont Benton, his widely read published reports of his expeditions popularized the idea of western settlement.

Fremont's reports paved the way for the explosion of immigration that occurred when gold was discovered near Sutter's Fort in 1848.

Pathfinder: John Charles Fremont and the Course of American Empire by Tom Chaffin (Hill and Wang, 2002).

Who, you may ask, was John Fremont? Though a household name in the latter half of the 19th century, he is little-known today. The reason for this is perhaps the disastrous course of the second half of his career.

The first half of Fremont's life was blessed with extraordinary luck. Men of influence and knowledge, who taught him the art of scientific exploration and wielded hefty political clout, befriended him. His great political ally was Sen. Thomas Hart Benton from Missouri, whose daughter he married.

Fremont was a dashing, Byronic figure who impulsively climbed mountains, rafted unruly streams and crossed mountain passes during the harshest winters. Not only an explorer, he was a leader of the Bear Flag Revolt in California, a general in the Civil War and the Republican candidate for president before Abraham Lincoln.

It was during the Civil War that his fortunes turned, and his rebellion against authority, perhaps a hangover of his illegitimate birth, resulted in a court marshal. An ardent abolitionist, his mistake was to rush into emancipation before Lincoln was ready.

Chaffin's biography reads well, though it is exhaustive in historic detail. Instead of debunking Fremont, as has been the fashion lately, Chaffin lets his record speak for itself. That is about as good as we can expect in this day and age, when all our heroes are portrayed with feet of clay.

A Newer World: Kit Carson, John C. Fremont, and the Claiming of the American West by David Roberts (Simon & Schuster, 2000).

When Fremont's luck was still holding, he happened to run into Kit Carson on a steamboat when he was hiring the men who would accompany him on his first expedition. This chance meeting not only helped ensure the success of Fremont's mission, but also propelled Carson into fame and immortality.

Roberts doesn't care much for Fremont, but he considers Carson a true hero of the West. Carson was a small, wiry man who was straight-talking, loyal and brave. A great shot, he was also a renowned Indian killer. It wasn't long after his appearance in Fremont's published reports that he became a dime-novel hero and folk legend.

The Age of Gold by H.W. Brands (Doubleday, 2002).

For those of you who are looking for a popular historian who can stand with David McCullough and Stephen Ambrose, look no further than H.W. Brands.

The author of The First American, a prize-winning biography of Benjamin Franklin, and T.R., a biography of Theodore Roosevelt, switches course a bit here and tells the story of one of America's most important events, the California Gold Rush.

This is historical storytelling at its best, with great characters such as Fremont, John Sutter and Leland Stanford. The Gold Rush was the inception of the American Dream, with its emphasis on immediate riches over the Puritan frugality of the past.

Eldorado: The California Gold Rush by Dale L. Walker (Forge, 2003).

Walker, a Spur Award-winning author of books on the American West, has produced another readable and well-researched history of the Gold Rush.

An author more in the popular mold of David Roberts than the scholarly Chaffin, he concentrates on the personal stories of the people involved and gives us a lively picture of the chaotic and lawless mining camps as well.

David Locker is a librarian with the Evansville-Vanderburgh Public Library. The opinions expressed in this column are personal and do not reflect policies or official recommendations of EVPL.