Up The Road: To The Gold Country, Where Modern California Was Created

Mar 1, 2017

This week we head up the road in search of California’s creation story. Just how did the Golden State come to be?

This is how I look at it: California is a myth—a myth in the sense of a traditional tale told to impart truth and wisdom, and in the fanciful sense of some extravagant storybook fiction. Californians seem to like the quirky character of the state we’re in. California as myth is exactly why we’re here—because in California, even contradictions mean nothing. In California, almost everything is true and untrue at the same time. In California, people can pick and choose from among the choices offered—as if in a supermarket—or create their own truth. Attracted to this endless sense of creative possibility, California’s most universal creed, the source of the ingenuity the state is so famous for, people here are only too happy to shed the yoke of tradition, and traditional expectations, that kept them in harness elsewhere.

Californians tend to think life itself is a California invention, but “lifestyle” definitely is: people come to California to have one. Coming to California, novelist Stanley Elkin observed, “is a choice one makes, a blow one strikes for hope. No one ever wakes up one day and says, ‘I must move to Missouri.’ No one chooses to find happiness in Oklahoma or Connecticut.” And according to historian Kevin Starr, “California isn’t a place—it’s a need.” Once arrived in California, according to the myth, the only reason to carry around the baggage of one’s previous life is because one chooses to.

Native peoples had—and have—many explanations for how the land and life in California came to be. But it’s a stranger-than-fiction fact that California as a concept was concocted in Europe, by a Spanish soldier turned romance writer.

According to the 1510 tale of chivalry Las Sergas de Esplandian (The Adventures of Esplandian) by Garci Rodriguez de Montalvo, the rocky-shored island paradise of California overflowed with gold, gems, and pearls, was inhabited by griffins and other mythic beasts, and “peopled by black women, with no men among them, for they lived in the fashion of Amazons” ruled by the great Queen Calafia. With such fantastic images seared into the European imagination, it’s no wonder that Hernan Cortes and his Spanish crew attached the name California to their later territorial claims from Baja California north to Alaska. And though they realized that this “island” they discovered was, in part, a peninsula rather than an island, European maps continued depicting California as an island well into the 18th century. Old dreams die hard.

But California was an island, of a sort. It was so isolated geographically—cut off from the rest of the world by an ocean to the west, deserts to the south and southeast, and mountains everywhere else—that countless unique species of plants and animals evolved here, and only here.

California’s gold was also real. In 1849, when James Marshall found flakes of gold in the tailrace of John Sutter’s sawmill on the American River, hundreds of thousands of fortune hunters from around the world set out for California. The California gold rush—a phenomenal human migration—was largely responsible for “Americanizing” the West. Much of that history still stands, in attractive red brick Victorian towns full of museums, antique shops, very contemporary comforts, and nearby recreational opportunities.

Once you decide to go digging for the gold rush’s cultural nuggets the question arises: How best to explore such storied territory? There’s so much of it. California’s gold country stretches for hundreds of miles throughout the Sierra Nevada’s western foothills, roughly from Butte and Plumas Counties south to Mariposa and Oakhurst southwest of Yosemite.

So: You’ll need a strategy. Some suggestions next time.