November 30, 1999
With the financial miracles in Silicon Valley producing 30-something millionaires by the boatload, a modern-day “gold rush” is occurring in California. Somewhat forgotten in the ’90s rush to the bank is the original California Gold Rush, which 150 years ago offered the ambitious great wealth and set the stage for the economic growth of California.
Some, however, refuse to ignore the past.
Working from his tranquil studio in Carmel, Calif., J.S. Holliday, a 75-year-old author and former executive director of both the Oakland Museum of California and the California Historical Society, chooses to nurture his creations using an electric typewriter, typing and retyping and typing again his compositions, page by page. This process, he explains, sparks his creativity in a way that electronic cutting and pasting cannot.
After four years of arduous banging on his antiquated writing tool, Holliday has produced “Rush for Riches: Gold Fever and the Making of California,” his second historical treatise recounting the tale of California’s gold rush.
Employing the active voice along with frequent passages from miners’ diaries and letters, and period newspaper articles — ranging from stories doubting the existence of gold to editorials chastising mining townspeople for their lack of morals — Holliday breathes life and humor into the narrative.
Holliday steps back to 1849 — the year the intrepid 49ers rushed into California — to tell of gold’s role, not as an isolated historical event, but an innovative dynamic that shaped the future of a state.
“In California,” says Holliday, “there’s a freedom that allows people to be inventive and creative and risk-taking.
“California has projected an image into the world consciousness that was first projected during the gold rush, the image of immediate opportunity to make a fortune, or at worst, a living.”
Beginning in the late 1700s with the establishment of the Catholic missions in the California territory, Holliday sets the stage of a land languishing under distracted Spanish and Mexican rule. The indifference toward the California “wasteland” made the territory ripe pickings for the resourceful “yanquis” once James Marshall scooped the first flecks of yellow metal from the American River in 1848.
By the summer of 1849, the rush was in full swing. California became a territory of the United States that same year and a state the next. But the fledgling government had neither the manpower nor the resources to check the fortune-seeking hordes. The gold rush was a free-for-all.
Holliday paints California as a place to escape the tedium of routine and discover a new life. The gold rush represented freedom to farm boys in Kansas or clerks in Boston, who reveled in the Wild West lawless experience where drinking, gambling and houses of ill repute – as well as the not infrequent murder or lynching – were part of everyday life. Young men, away from the eyes of family and church, were “free from the 19th century for awhile,” says Holliday.
As one New York clergymen visiting Sacramento in 1849 observes in a diary entry appearing in Holliday’s book, “The present of this city is under canvas and the future on paper. Everything is new except the ground and trees and the stars beneath which we sleep. Quarreling and cheating form the employments, drinking and gambling the amusements, making the largest pile of gold the only ambition of the inhabitants.”
Fueled by what Holliday describes as an “enormous contagion of optimism” and “changing opportunity,” the gold rush mentality also drove other important industries in the state, including timber, oil and agriculture, and even Hollywood and Silicon Valley today.
“The inventiveness of these people,” remarks Holliday. “They came here with nothing, they didn’t have a god damn thing but this wonderful entrepreneurial drive. They were making money in so many ways. The result is that California had become a place of daring enterprises.”
Holliday’s first book concerning the gold rush, “The World Rushed In: The California Gold Rush Experience,” was published in 1981 and is considered a landmark account of the gold rush years. In fact, the San Francisco Chronicle pegged “The World Rushed In” at the No. 22 spot on its “Western 100” list of the 20th century’s 100 most important books about American Western culture.
Co-published by the Oakland Museum of California and the University of California Press, “Rush to Riches” serves as a major literary commemorative to the state’s sesquicentennial.