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
    Oct 2003, 560 pages

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Chapter 1
In the Footsteps of Father Serra

A less likely terminus of all these journeys could scarcely have been conceived. A principal attraction of California in the period before Coloma was that it was so far off the beaten track. John Sutter could hide there from his wife and creditors; James Marshall could hope to shake the failure that had dogged his steps since Missouri. At a time when long-distance travel averaged little faster than a man could walk--railroads were appearing in the most advanced countries, and promised to revolutionize transport, but for now they were primarily local or regional affairs--California was about as far from the centers of Western civilization as a land could be. The sea voyage around South America from New York or Liverpool or Le Havre required five or six months, depending on conditions off Cape Horn, which could terrify the most hardened unbeliever to prayer. Recently, intrepid and lightly laden travelers had begun to attempt the Central American isthmus, but the justifiably dreaded Chagres fever and the uncertain connections to vessels on the Pacific side deterred many who otherwise would have employed this shortcut. For those setting out from the American East, travel by foot or wagon was feasible, but hardly attractive. Since the early 1840s emigrants had been crossing the plains and mountains to Oregon; the journey required half a year and all the fortitude and stamina ordinary folks could muster. And it was essentially one-way: when people left for Oregon, they might as well have dropped off the face of the earth for all their relatives were likely to see them again. The trail to California was much less traveled, and far less certain, than that to Oregon.

In the time before Coloma, those few outsiders who did visit California fell into a small number of discrete categories. European explorers arrived in the sixteenth century. Spain's Juan Cabrillo in 1542 sighted the coast of Alta California--as distinct from peninsular Baja California--but promptly sailed away. The English sea dog Francis Drake scouted California in 1579, landing at some bay never since clearly identified, but probably Drake's Bay, below Point Reyes, and burying a plaque never since found, but staking England's claim to the region. Subsequently Russian ship captains, seeking provisions for their country's Bering Sea fur hunters, began appearing in the neighborhood north of San Francisco Bay.

The English and Russians eventually awoke the Spanish, who already controlled most of the territory from Tierra del Fuego to Mexico, to the wisdom of colonizing California. The Spanish monarchy in the late eighteenth century enlisted the padres of the Franciscan order, who set out to secure California for the king of Spain even as they secured the souls of California's inhabitants for the King of Heaven.

Junipero Serra, the Majorca-born missionary who headed the effort, and his small band of Franciscan followers built a chain of missions from San Diego in the south to San Rafael in the north. The missions were located a day's walk apart, typically near the mouths of the short rivers that ran from the coastal mountains to the sea. Each mission centered on a chapel, usually built of adobe but occasionally of stone. Adjacent to the chapel was the home of the resident priests (typically two per mission) and assorted other structures. Surrounding the mission proper was a large tract of land, a hundred square miles or more. In time the mission lands supported great herds of cattle and horses and flocks of sheep. Grain fields, vegetable gardens, and fruit orchards rounded out the farms.

Besides the missions, which were controlled by the Franciscans, were four presidios, at San Diego, Santa Barbara, Monterey, and San Francisco. These forts barracked soldiers of the Spanish army, who were assigned to protect the missions and inspire awe in the local Indians. The Indians were encouraged by this means to seek refuge in the vineyards of the Lord and the fields of the friars.

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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