Now this is a memoir. Or narrative non-fiction as it’s come to be called. Herman Reinhart came west in 1851 as a boy in his teens looking for gold. Over the course of the next eighteen years, he followed gold strikes from California to Oregon to Wyoming to Idaho, to Utah. Virtually every major gold strike drew him to it like iron to a magnet. He filed a jazilllion claims, some of which made him money, but none of which made him rich. He, together with his brother, Charley, turned to supplying the miners’ needs for income while hoping their diggings would come in big. They had and developed an impressive line of skills. They’d build a cabin at the drop of a mining pan. Open a bakery. Or a bar. Or a bowling alley. (In all my reading of history from this period, I never knew bowling alleys were so common.) He’d farm. He’d buy, sell, and trade stock, haul freight and passengers over steep trails buried in snow and ice. So who is this guy?
The story in the foreword is that late in his life, after he’d settled down and raised a family in Kansas, the urge took him to record the story of his eighteen years in the west. He took a ledger book and commenced to write, from one side of the page to the other and top to bottom. No margin. It turned out he did it for himself. No one in his family read it or valued it. Some time after his death one of his daughters brought it to the attention of a neighbor, Nora Cunningham, saying that she was about to throw it out, but knew of Cunnngham’s history/literary interests, so offered it to her. Luckily, she knew just what to do with it, and this wonderfully edited volume was produced in 1962. I say “wonderfully edited” by Doyce B. Nunis, Jr. because he painstakingly tracks down names and details and locations to fill in the gaps or correct the garbling in Reinhart’s memory. You find out soldiers’ true ranks, or whether they were really soldiers or not. Who make the strike. Who hung or shot or stabbed who and why. All without a trace of Google at his fingertips, just pencil and notebook and turning page after page of books and newspapers and monographs. Very impressive.
Reinhart takes a straightforward, almost objective approach to his material–the events of his life. His memory is encyclopedic. He remembers over and over again how much he paid for a horse or a pig or a wagon, how much he got paid for them later on. How much his profit or his loss. This, apparently, without notes of any kind to refer to.
He remembers dates of killings, discoveries, trials, weddings. Though he is the subject of his own story, he doesn’t stint at telling also the tales of the men and women around him as he moves from Yreka, CA, to Jacksonville, OR, to Walla Walla, WA, to Salt Lake City, and hundreds of points in between. There are criminals and cheaters and violent hard cases all around him all the time. Even he is not above a little chicanery such as devising signal systems to win poker games or selling a faulty pistol to a man after condemning as a rogue the man who sold it to him.
It was a hard life he and his companions led. Few women. No luxuries. He did take pleasure in the purchase of a white buckskin coat once, but the Indians got that before he could wear it in public. And there was the gold-nugget stickpin he once admired, then lost interest in to the point he didn’t chase the man who cheated him out of it. Mostly, it was lots and lots of grueling work, bad weather, and failure. Dreams unfulfilled. But, at least from the vantage point of decades later, he bemoans nothing. Neither does he jump for joy.
Nor is there much about politics here despite the cataclysmic events of his era. He lived out most of the civil war in what is now Washington State, but which was a territory at the time. The area was filled with Rebel sympathizers, and as a union man he had to keep his head down. His brother talked him into voting for McCLellan in the election of 1862, but he was later glad he was thwarted from voting because of a residency problem. He recalls his feeling of pride in being an American on his arrival home after a lengthy sojourn up British Colulmbia’s Fraser River. (Yep, rumors of another gold strike took him there.)
Through it all, Reinhart plows ahead, struggling to put together an enterprise or a combination of enterprises that will get him established get ahead. Finally, sometime in 1868, he decides it’s been too long since he’s seen the east or his sisters, and 1869 finds him on an eastbound train. He never returns.
The Golden Frontier is an invaluable source of information, but even more, a superb place to find out what life offered the gold rush adventurer and how it felt to face and encounter and master the myriad challenges of a new and dangerous and bountiful land. Sure, Reinhart would have been glad to strike it rich, but mostly he was intent on getting on. Taking pride in using what he had as best he could and getting more–skills, land, animals, money. More. And if he couldn’t get as much as he wanted, to be happy in the trying. That’s my inference of course. Reinhart would never make a comment even that philosophical. He’s a rewarding guy to know, is Herman Reinhart, and his world an rewarding one to wander around in. The Golden Frontier gives a reader a chance to do both.