By Irving Stone
Irving Stone tells the many stories that comprise the settling of what is now the western United States, primary in California, Colorado, Utah and Nevada. He covers the period from shortly before the gold rush (1849) to 1900.
Stone assembles hundreds of episodes both large and small, from the humorous to the bloody, the tragic to the heroic. Being born and raised in San Francisco and having lived in Colorado for the past 10 years made this book a bit more fun for me as I learned the source of many familiar names. The movers and shakers of the early west had streets and other public places named in their memory.
As a historical review of an extended period and large geographical area, this is not a neat or tidy story with a hero, a goal, a struggle and an outcome. Rather it is a mosaic of stories and events spread over decades, the result of which is realization of the manifest destiny.
The early days in California are covered, with descriptions of the Californios, who were Mexican citizens when what is now the southwestern U.S. was owned by Mexico, and had been owned by Spain just a few decades earlier. Mexico was not really interested in this territory, paid little attention to it and provided even fewer resources. To reach this area traveling west required a truly life-threatening journey across hostile terrain inhabited by sometimes hostile Indians. It was generally faster and safer to sail to Panama, cross that narrow land mass, then sail to California, or to sail all the way around Cape Horn.
Monterey was the seat of government back then, until gold was discovered in 1848, and mining began in earnest in 1949, bringing fortune seekers of every kind from around the world. This boom transformed San Francisco from a few sand dunes and tents into a thriving city in the 1850s. A few years later gold and silver were discovered in Nevada, transforming that area into a temporary boom community, and a bit later in Colorado.
There is much coverage of the Mormon settlement of Utah and their conflicts with the rest of the U.S. over the issue of polygamy. There were horrific violent episodes committed by both sides of this dispute, and it was not until 1896, some twenty years after the death of founder Brigham Young, that Utah finally realized its goal of statehood. To achieve this privilege they had to relinquish their legal right to polygamy.
The number of interesting and noteworthy characters are too numerous for this short review, though here are some of the more memorable ones: Collis Huntington was the one of the Big Four who owned the first transcontinental railroad (along with Charles Crocker, Leland Stanford and Mark Hopkins). He was a shrewd, ruthless business man with not a shred of charitable impulse and hellbent on acquiring as much money and power as possible until the day he died. He owned all California elected officials, most newspapers and many in the U.S. legislature. The outrage over his pattern of monopolistic behaviour led to the rise of organized labor and eventually to the trust-busting Sherman Act in 1890.
Charles Crocker on the other hand was a hands-on visionary who would stop at nothing to actually build the railroad, working side by side with his imported Chinese laborers, pick in hand, for over a decade to overcome every imaginable obstacle in linking the east and west coast. Some say the engineering and physical feat of this railroad is on par with the Great Wall of China.
In Colorado there was H.A.W. Tabor, a genial, hapless business man who started with nothing yet became among the wealthiest in the world from acquiring stakes in silver mines. He was as generous as he was lucky, though his sensible and conservative wife was profoundly unhappy with her husband’s wasteful spending, herself having no interest in the trappings of wealth. He divorced her and married a young beauty named Baby Doe who bore him two daughters. Baby Doe loved the furs and jewels and high life her husband provided. As often happens, the wealth began to unravel. So much silver was mined from the west in the mid-19th century that the country became over-supplied with this metal. Congress de-monetized silver in 1873 and suddenly Tabor’s wealth plummeted. He was forced to sell all of his holdings to pay debts and ended up living with his young wife and daughters in a small house for $35/month. He died shortly thereafter of a burst appendix. Most people assumed that the beautiful young Baby Doe would use her charms to attract another wealthy man, but she fooled them all. She continued to raise her daughters, and tried to resurrect one of her late husband’s mines by actually digging it herself. She spent 20 years in this effort and died poor.
The book is well-written and maintains a good pace. These are important qualities for a story with no main character and in which we already know the ending. Not exactly a page-turner, though still difficult to put down. Overall, an interesting portrait of the countless struggles endured by those who built a civilization in the western U.S.