Excerpt from The Age of Gold by H.W. Brands, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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The Age of Gold

The California Gold Rush and the New American Dream

by H.W. Brands

The Age of Gold
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  • First Published:
    Aug 2002, 560 pages
    Paperback:
    Oct 2003, 560 pages

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Separate from the missions and the presidios were a handful of pueblos, or independent towns. Los Angeles was the most important of the pueblos; during the early nineteenth century it surpassed in size and economic activity all but a few of the missions.

In its heyday, the Spanish system in California constituted a pastoral empire of impressive proportions. Several of the missions boasted herds and flocks that numbered in the scores of thousands, barns bursting with grain and other produce, and the equivalent of tens of thousands of dollars in specie or precious plate. Indian "neophytes"--natives attached to the missions religiously and economically--totaled perhaps twenty thousand. They would have numbered far more if not for the introduced European diseases that ravaged the native populations even as they lent credence to the friars' assertion that repentance was in order because the end was near.

But the mission system was no stronger than the Spanish authority on which it rested, and when Mexico threw off Spanish control in the early 1820s, the California missions quickly declined. The new government of independent Mexico was republican and anticlerical; neither the power of the mission priests nor the subjection of the mission Indians sat well with those who now ruled California.

More precisely, the new regime claimed to rule California; in fact Mexican independence inaugurated an era of turbulence in California affairs. The friars preferred sabotage to secularization of the missions; they began to liquidate the herds and run down the farms. The Spanish-descended elites in California often disdained the mixed-blood mestizos of Mexico. The inhabitants of Monterey and the northern part of California fell out with the Los Angelenos of southern California. The small but growing contingent of foreigners, especially Americans, contributed a further element of restiveness and uncertainty.

Of all this, the large majority of Americans knew next to nothing until 1840, when Richard Dana published Two Years Before the Mast. Dana was heir to a tradition of distinguished Boston lawyers; his father had signed the Articles of Confederation and served fifteen years as chief justice of Massachusetts. The younger Dana was preparing for a legal career of his own when he contracted a bad case of measles. The illness especially afflicted his eyes, precluding an early return to his studies. Doctors suggested a sea voyage, perhaps a cruise to India. But the strapping young man, now returned to all but visual health, chafed at the thought of months in a deck chair; instead he chose to ship before the mast, on the brig Pilgrim, bound for the coast of California via Cape Horn.

The vessel left Boston in August 1834. After five months it reached Santa Barbara. Dana's first impression of California was decidedly unfavorable. "The hills have no large trees upon them, they having been all burnt by a great fire which swept them off about a dozen years ago, and they had not yet grown again," he wrote. "The fire was described to me by a inhabitant, as having been a very terrible and magnificent sight. The air of the whole valley was so heated that the people were obliged to leave the town and take up their quarters for several days upon the beach."

Dana's opinion of California gradually improved. He came to appreciate the climate and soil and scenery, and was fascinated by the polyglot mix of souls frequenting the coast: Polynesians, Russians, Italians, French, English. Yet he never learned to like the Californians themselves. They were "an idle, thriftless people," he said, unwilling or unable to make anything of the land they inhabited. A passenger who traveled aboard the Pilgrim from Monterey to Santa Barbara epitomized the type. Don Juan Bandini was descended from aristocrats, his family priding itself on the purity of its Spanish blood and its continuing importance in Mexico. Don Juan's father had been governor of California, and had sent his son to Mexico City for school and an introduction to the first circle of Mexican society. But misfortune and extravagance eroded the family estate, and the young Don Juan was now returning to California--"accomplished, poor, and proud, and without any office or occupation, to lead the life of most young men of the better families: dissipated and extravagant when the means are at hand; ambitious at heart, and impotent in act; often pinched for bread; keeping up an appearance of style, when their poverty is known to each half-naked Indian boy in the street, and standing in dread of every small trader and shopkeeper in the place."

Excerpted from The Age of Gold by H. W. Brands. Copyright 2002 by H. W. Brands. Excerpted by permission of Doubleday, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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