Category Archives: California

Putting the History in the Historical Novel: The California Gold Rush

This is the seventh in a series of articles in which I share my methodology for crafting a story, which I hope is both interesting and informative. Last week, I wrote about kutsavi, an important trade good among the tribes east and west of the Sierra Nevada. This week, I turn to the California Gold Rush.

In my research of the Gold Rush, I consulted many historical texts: The Age of Gold, by H.W. Brands; The World Rushed In, by J.S. Holiday; Roaring Camp – The Social World of the California Gold Rush, by Samuel Lee Johnson; They Saw the Elephant – Women in the California Gold Rush, by Jo Ann Levy.

I immersed myself in the material to put myself in a position to give the reader a flavor of the period in the context of a story. New Garden’s main character, Jack Grier, marries the daughter of a wealthy Mexican after the Mexican War. Jack’s father-in-law funds a miners’ supply company, Sierra Dry Goods, which Jack operates in California. Very few miners prospered during the Gold Rush; a number of suppliers became very wealthy. Thus, the story sets up Jack for success. When he arrives in Monterey, California, he finds most of the locals have left to search for gold (New Garden, p. 93):

“All of the men have left for the gold fields.”

Father Jesus only slightly overstated the truth. The old men and young boys had remained in Monterey. Any able-bodied man with a horse or a mule headed northeast toward the Sierra Nevada. Others walked or rode with friends. The Presidio’s enlisted men, with no legal authority and under no legal obligation to serve in California, abandoned their posts. Their officers soon joined the gold rush.

Ship captains were warned to avoid the port of San Francisco for fear of losing their crews. It happened so often that many abandoned ships were converted to lodging or warehouses. Jack and his partner Eli worry about how gold fever will affect their prospects (New Garden, p. 99):

Jack and Eli could not manage the supply venture by themselves. Before leaving Mexico, Jack had recruited thirty-two American army veterans to work for Sierra Dry Goods in California. **** Cortes warned Jack that he might lose his men to gold fever. It was this fear, not the usual seasickness, that rocked Jack’s stomach as the ship docked in San Francisco.

Suppliers’ costs were high and their profits even higher. Once Jack’s venture gets underway, the story illustrates the miners’ desperation and begrudging acceptance of the suppliers’ high prices (New Garden, p. 103):

“That’s highway robbery, mister. I ain’t buyin’ what I don’t need.”

Delmar Reed, the same age as Jack, looked ten years older after a summer in the diggings. He wore the pale blue wool britches and matching shirt Jack recognized as a United States infantry uniform, with the private’s stripe removed. He had replaced his blue forage cap with a wide-brim straw hat after baking his neck half the summer under the California sun. Summer temperatures frequently hit one hundred degrees in the diggings. His hair and beard, coal black and gritty, reeked from dirt, grit, and sweat. The loose soles of his army-issue boots flapped whenever he walked.

“Suit yourself,” said Jack. “You don’t have to buy and I don’t have to sell. The prices will only go up the closer I get to Sonora.” ****

“I reckon I don’t have much choice, do I?”

Many miners gave up after losing everything, often relying on a loan or passage paid from a relative back home. In the story Jack recruits a skilled carpenter to come to work for him at his hacienda in Carmel Valley, but only after the man has exhausted all hope of gaining his fortune (New Garden, p. 107):

He had tired of living in squalor, chasing the whisper of the Gold Siren’s song: Just a little longer, Miguel. Just down the river, Miguel. Just up the creek, Miguel. Just over the hill. Others have found me and become rich. Why not you?

Please consider a longer read. New Garden is available on line from Amazon, Apple, and Barnes & Noble. Each website includes a “look-in” feature with the first few chapters of the novel. In Greensboro, NC, the novel is available at Scuppernong Books and the Greensboro Historical Museum Bookshop.

The stand-alone sequel, Trouble at Mono Pass, is available at the same locations. It is also available at the Mono Lake Tufa State Reserve (Lee Vining) gift shop, the Mono Lake Committee Bookstore (Lee Vining), and the Donner Memorial State Park Bookstore (Truckee, California).



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Yosemite Summer: First Impressions

This and several upcoming blog posts are about my recent month long visit to California and experiences in Yosemite National Park, where I served as a park volunteer.

June 11-13, 2015

The view up Tioga Pass the day before I start my volunteer duties.

The view up Tioga Pass the day before I start my volunteer duties.

Thursday, June 11

I left Murphey’s Motel in Lee Vining just after 10:30 am. I stopped at the Mobil for a block of ice for my cooler. My reporting instructions said I would be able to trade out water containers in a freezer, but I was not about to risk loss of food on that representation. I soon learned that the system works very well, and at five dollars for a block of ice, it proved well worth my time to schedule my showers around the same time I switched out bottles of water for bottles of ice.

I arrived at the Tuolumne Meadows campground just before noon. I proceeded to Loop D, most of which was reserved for Yosemite Conservancy (YC) volunteers. The campground road is full of potholes, many posing a threat to vehicle integrity. Due to recent heavy rains, the sojourn on the one-way road is a maze of solid ground interspersed with ponds and puddles. I saw a Volkswagen van at site D4 and decided to encamp on the neighboring waterfront property, site D3. I opened the bear box, a large rectangular steel box, intended to keep the local black bears from probing the campgrounds. I lined the box with a tarp and filled it with my recent food purchases from Costco and Walmart. With that task complete, I headed to the Visitors Center.

A month earlier, I had shipped my tent and other camp gear to the YC office in El Portal. I had also purchased a cot and topper from REI, which shipped the items directly to the El Portal office. The YC office in turn delivered all the gear to the Visitors Center (VC). Upon my arrival at the VC, the Rangers told me I needed to take the gear immediately, as the gear impeded their movements in their small office. I readily obliged.

Upon my return to my camp site, once again risking my rental car on the third world country road, I launched into setting up my 4-person tent. I had watched a YouTube video a month earlier and felt certain I had the IQ to handle the minor task. The tent parts are encased in a backpack, which unfortunately is devoid of meaningful instructions. But I remembered the body of the tent came out first and then all I had to do was attach the metal supporting structure, which consists of two separate sets of metal tubes which readily lock into each other.

I turned around and saw Woodlee, our team lead. (Volunteers will be identified only by their first names, except for Woodlee, who goes by his last name.) He asked if I needed help. Despite my gender, I am never one to decline assistance from someone who has experience in a task with which I have none. My role quickly evolved to that of veteran’s helper as Woodlee readily diagnosed the proper procedure. Within 30 minutes I had a solid looking REI Kingdom 4 tent in place. With a drizzle already underway, I would spend the night in a dry tent.

The rest I could manage. I had actually practiced assembling the cot at the Greensboro REI store. No problem there. But something was missing. I had my topper and my sleeping bag. But, wait, I had failed to buy a pillow (Well, you actually have to buy a pair.) at Costco. What the heck, I thought, I’ll just use a towel. That should do the trick. I’ll get a good night’s sleep.

Friday, June 12

My tent in Yosemite

My tent in Yosemite

I awoke very cold. Mountain morning temperatures hovered around 40 degrees. I had used the sleeping bag like a blanket rather than squeezing my six-foot large-size frame in the small to mid-size mummy bag. And without a pillow, a crick in my neck added to my misery. To top it off, I had a great urge to march 90 yards to our loop’s restroom. For a male over 60, that’s a long 90 yards.

The restroom visit resolved one discomfort, but I rotated my neck as far as I dare while I added a second fleece jacket and my Columbia parka. Rubbing my hands to get warm, I put together my breakfast of cold oatmeal, cashews, and almonds, soon to be followed with my meal-time ration of two Pepperidge Farm cookies. Not a coffee drinker, my beverages of choice were Diet Coke and bottled water.

I was too focused on preparing myself for the day to notice the comings and goings of my fellow volunteers, but I later learned they had come equipped with the gear they needed for hot meals.

That afternoon, I met my colleagues at Adrienne’s campsite. Adrienne had driven a well-equipped RV. I found it hard to conceal my envy. The YC had put a canopy with netting over the site’s picnic table and there we made our introductions. Suzy and Taryn, the volunteer coordinators, handed out binders, shirts, ID tags, and ball caps with the YC logo. Suzy went over regulations and expectations. We all made our introductions: Adrienne, with a background in advertising; Cassie, a university student; Cyndi, a school teacher; Dee, a divorce mediator; Susan, a former teacher and currently a counselor to students with learning difficulties; and Woodlee, a professional photographer and artist. I soon learned these volunteers know the park better than I do, so I would need to study to get up to speed. Dee lightened the moment by sharing a birthday cake her daughter had given her.

That evening, I struggled through another night without a proper pillow. This could not continue.

Saturday, June 13

Tioga Pass t-shirt

Tioga Pass t-shirt

Late Saturday morning, we headed to Parsons Lodge for further training. We had a lot of material to take to the structure, so Woodlee suggested that I drive. Five of us got in my car while two others walked. We drove a mile to Lembert Dome, then headed down the back road to Parsons. Woodlee unlocked the road gate where regular traffic is prohibited. I carefully headed down the road, but at one point we got stuck on a large granite rock. We had to “portage” (i.e., everyone but the driver had to exit the car so the car could proceed). Anyway, we ultimately reached our destination.

There, we met Ranger Margaret, who had spent childhood summers at the site when her parents ran a campsite that was disbanded in the 1960s. She feels a special relationship to the meadow, which has a short growing season. She emphasized the need for hikers to remain on the trails rather than trampling on the meadow.

Woodlee reviewed the protocol for opening and closing Parsons each day. Duties include properly disposing of any mouse droppings before visitors are allowed to enter the 100-year-old structure. The “lodge” was built by the Sierra Club as a gathering place for its members. The club later deeded Parsons and surrounding acreage to the National Park Service.

Later that afternoon, I revealed my pillow dilemma to several volunteers. Several wanted to go to Lee Vining due to its superior cell phone and internet access, so we headed down thrilling Tioga Pass Road. To my delight, we found a camping pillow at an outdoor gear store. The night promised to be much more restful. And none too soon. I would start my volunteer duties at the Visitors Center the next day.

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