This week we begin a journey into California’s past, both the story and landscape of the gold rush. Spring is perfect for physical exploration, when it’s still cool and the rolling foothills of the western Sierra Nevada are abloom with wildflowers.
The story is worth diving into just about any time—especially if your guide is journalist and historian Carey McWilliams, who, to commemorate California’s first 100 years of statehood, in 1949 published his exceptional assessment, California: The Great Exception. If you’ve never read it, scare up a copy. (Mine is a paperback first issued by University of California Press in 1999.) If you have it tucked away on a bookshelf, find it and read it again.
You might think a book so old would seem irrelevant in the 21st century. Some facts and projections are woefully dated, true, but McWilliams’ book is still insightful, still prescient. Lewis Lapham, former editor of Harper’s, explained in his foreword that it “remains current because it proceeds from his appreciation of California as a temperament, a metaphor, a turn of mind.”
As McWilliams himself wrote: “In California the lights went on all at once, in a blaze, and they never have dimmed.” To his mind, the state’s exceptional geography influenced its equally exceptional history, agricultural enterprise—heck, enterprise of all kinds—and political poise, if not outright presumption. Not just one story, but many interconnected ones.
The constant, Lapham said, was “the dreaming energy of the California mind, its delight in metaphor and its wish to believe in what isn’t there, about the future as a work of the imagination and a past that came and went as abruptly as last year’s movie set or yesterday’s snow.”
And according to McWilliams, California still cannot accurately assess its place in the American scheme of things, because the gold rush isn’t over. The adventure continues, the chaos: “There is still too much commotion—too much noise and movement and turmoil.” Can’t argue that point.
That California “commotion” started with the gold rush of 1849, as we’ve discussed before, and as every fourth grader could tell you—maybe even show you, in the bargain, demonstrating how the old-timers panned for gold.
Yet Carey McWilliams’ version is a unique, explosive story, one that should cause even Californians to gasp and step back. Because, busy as we are, day to day, creating and re-creating the California dream, it’s hard to see it, to really see what it is we’re doing, together, writing and re-writing the California story. The bigger picture. McWilliams’ vision is clear—and his insights surprising. That clarity is all the more impressive 70 years later.
Next time we’ll start the story of the California gold rush as McWilliams tells it. To get ahead of the story on the ground, visit Marshall Gold Discovery State Park in Coloma, and, even closer, Sutter’s Fort in downtown Sacramento and the nearby California Indian Museum & Cultural Center. Then there’s Chaw’se Indian Grinding Rock State Historic Park near Volcano. Native peoples did not fare well when explorers and settlers rushed in.