Last week in one of his now infamous dissents Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia said that California does not count as part of the American West. He was a little more forceful than that. My initial response was, of course, “Drop dead.” Not in those words exactly, but you get the picture.
It’s a tired and somewhat racist view, this notion that the true America lies outside the cities, that California can’t really be a part of the American West because it doesn’t fit the mold. Too diverse.
But, truth be told, there would be no American West without California, there might not be an America. California’s gold is what paid for the Union victory in the Civil War and what made it possible for the country to recover afterwards without sinking into a devastating depression that might have lasted for generations. There was a lot of gold in them, thar hills. Then there was a lot of oil which not many Americans are aware of. Not to mention the fact that California is the reason why the country has fresh produce year round.
So, whatever Antonin. The history books almost never quote the dissenting opinions anyway.
I’m on this rant because this summer I’ve been slowly working my way through J.S. Holiday’s book on the California Gold Rush, The World Rushed In: The California Gold Rush Experience, An Eyewitness Account of a Nation Heading West.
The book is based on the letters of William Swain, one of the 49er’s. The letters he wrote home and the letters his family wrote to him make up one of the best, most complete accounts of what it was like to be a part of the gold rush of 1849 and 50. The subtitle A Nation Heading West is not much of an exaggeration. Swain writes about taking the wagons across the Missouri River at St. Joseph where some men waited three weeks for their turn on one of the two flatbeds taking wagons across though both ran day and night. Swain describes the men who made up his company before setting out across the prairie:
We now consist of sixty-three members, Americans, mostly eastern and some western men, but mostly smart and intelligent. There are among them two ministers and two doctors, one of whom is said to be well-educated and very successful in his practice. There are also blacksmiths, carpenters, tailors, shoemakers and many other mechanics. They are men of good habits and are governed by the regulations of life. They are not to travel on the Sabbath and are to have preaching on that day.
These men wrote letters, some, like Swain, on a nearly daily basis. Mr. Holiday uses these and over 500 other journals and memoirs to develop his book.
The journey to California was a dangerous one, but not in the ways you might suspect. Even before the company left St. Joseph several members, including one of the doctors, fall victim to cholera. Dysentery is a constant problem. Swain mentions having it himself several times in his letters so far. The physical hardships of the 100 day journey are rough but have not proven fatal. Swain and his fellows are worried about Indian attacks, especially from the Pawnee tribe, but so far there have been no incidents. Holiday mentions that by 1849 the tribes had largely been subdued or destroyed, but the area between St. Joseph, Missouri and California has become Indian Territory by this time, leaving the men in Swains company quite worried about attacks.
Holiday includes several passages from newspaper articles, letters and editorials written by James Pratt which explain how important the gold rush was to the westward expansion and illustrate how callous people were towards Native Americans in the mid-nineteenth century:
This California movement if it does nothing else cannot fail to open the eyes of the people to the vastness and richness of the land over which we move, and cannot fail to bring about a reconsideration of that policy of the government which restrains the white man from occupying and cultivating it.
The Indian in the course of years has either to become exterminated or else he is to be taught to cultivate the soil, read, write and pursue industrious and laborious occupations.
In other words, the land is too good and there is too much of it to let the Indians have it as a home. If they won’t learn to farm it, then we can kill them off. Which is basically what happened in the end.
Imagine living at a time when a man could openly call for genocide in the news media. Pratt is not alone in this opinion, nor is he the only one to say so in print. But it’s not something we mention much, like the way so many people have tried and continue to try to eliminate slavery as an issue in the days leading up to the Civil War.
The World Rushed In is ultimately a very intimate book, rather than a grand epic. The letters Swain sends home are full of worries for his wife’s health and for the well-being of the rest of his family back home. Their letters his family writes Swain are also full of concern for his health; fears of cholera and other illnesses that plagued the company during its journey west.
There are also lots of descriptions of food. Swain lists what he has for breakfast and for dinner in just about every letter so far. Breakfast on May 29, 1849 in the middle of Indian Territory: fried bacon, boiled rice, pancakes made of flour and Indian meal, nut cakes, pilot bread, flour gravy, apple sauce made of dried apples, sugar and coffee. Swain describes several breakfasts and a few dinners all of them featuring so much food that I suspect any time not spent moving was spent cooking. I’ve begun to think of these meal descriptions as the equivalent of Facebook postings. Telling people what you had for dinner is a very old American custom.
As I said, I am slowly working my through The World Rushed In so I may not finish it before the end of summer. Slow reading is a good strategy if you want to retain what you’re reading in a piece of non-fiction. I’m taking my time, annotating as I go, reading this book about a major part of the true American West, California.
And I don’t care what Antonin Scalia says otherwise.