If you want a primer on gold rush California, you want this book. I’ve never read a clearer, more exciting account of the people and events surrounding the founding of CA than El Dorado. Bayard Taylor’s prose is sharp and concise, especially for a Victorian. See, for example, his account of his ship into San Francisco Bay in August of 1849 after a rigorous journey from New York, down the Atlantic coast, and across the Panamanian Isthmus, and up the Pacific coast:
We glide on with the tide, past the U.S. ship Ohio and opposite the main landing, outside the forest of masts. A dozen boats are creeping out to us over the water; the signal is given–the anchor drops–our voyage is over.
Probably part of the economy can be attributed to the fact that Taylor is writing for The New York Tribune, whose editor Horace Greeley has employed him to send an account of doings in the California diggings to a thirsty eastern audience. However, there are many more examples of conciseness than of the excess to which other journalists of his day were prone.
He is a remarkable observer, able to give equally lucid accounts of street life in San Francisco, the deliberations of the California Constitutional Convention, and the natural life of Monterey flora and fauna. Many of his predictions, of course, have turned out to be unfulfilled–the idea that the Sierra Nevada held enough gold to provide unparalleled riches for centuries to come, for example. However, his assessment of the agricultural future of the inland valleys has proved true even beyond his prognostications. I read wistfully of the abundance of wildlife. He pries abalone from shoreside rocks for an impromptu dinner. Grizzly bears still wandered the land from sea to mountains. Salmon choked the streams in the fall.
Most remarkable, I suppose, is his description of the enormous diversity of cultures, languages, and dress that proliferated throughout the state. Of course, the ravages of xenophobia and racism were present throughout the gold rush, and he is unstinting in his condemnation of such measures as the foreign miners act. However, he is equally unstinting in his praise of such a polyglot group to form a coherent and progressive form of self-governance so quickly. One that prohibited slavery and did not prohibit the entry of free people of color into the state. May not sound like much, but in 1850, it was no mean feat. I wish he was as progressive in his views of Indians, whom he regarded as stupid and shiftless, but I give him credit where due. And the English-only crowd would not be pleased to learn that the original constitutional convention appropriated funds for 1000 copies of the new constitution to be printed in English, 300 in Spanish.
This was by no means Tayor’s only work. He was quite a distinguished man of letters in his day. One who died too young, yet left quite a lot of fiction, non-fiction, and poetry in his wake.
A remarkably modern man for one who died in 1878. And a remarkably modern book for one written in 1850. Readable, informative, and entertaining history. Thank you, again, Heyday Books.