How convenient that on January 24, 1848, James Marshall realized that his flash in the pan was gold. With the dust barely settled and the tombstones freshly inscribed after the Mexican-American War (a.k.a. Mr. Polk’s War or the U.S. Invasion of Mexico depending on whose side you supported), the ensuing gold rush gave California instant population. More than 90,000 get-rich-quick souls made the treacherous trek over land (where cholera weeded out the herd) or sea to lawlessly wreck the environment, steal land from the Californios and exterminate the pesky Indians for a fee.
Few got rich, many gave up and San Francisco morphed from a collection of tents to a “world class” port (complete with gang shoot-outs over turf and legal prostitution), paving the way for the Central Pacific Railroad once the 15,000 Chinese labourers (with only a 10% mortality rate) broke their backs before the last golden spike cemented the country. That remarkable achievement, fuelled by bribes from the Big Four (railroad barons Collis P. Huntingdon, Leland Stanford, Mark Hopkins, Charles Crocker) in both Sacramento and Washington, make the missing millions from Canada’s sponsorship scandals seem like petty cash.
All of this and much more can be gleaned from directors Rob Epstein’s and Jeffrey Friedman’s beautifully shot Gold Rush. The fascinating story of the allure of easy money comes alive with the first-rate mixture of archival images and present-day re-enactments. Seeing covered wagons lumber down the trail, stagecoach and team amble along dusty streets, and a refurbished steam engine huff and puff on the tracks gives a “you are there feel” that many other historical documentaries can’t match.
The interjections from descendants, historians, and authors—particularly J.S. Holliday—add extra background and interpretation that is long on fact but short on outrage at the death and destruction brought to America’s third-largest state by bullies from the East. Holliday’s description of California’s pre-rush population (“12,000, non-Indian”) sets that tone early on. The recitals of atrocities committed have more a “boys will be boys” quality than embarrassment for passing laws that stacked the land-claim deck.
Michael Montes’ jaunty score reinforces the telling with complementary colour and balance, only missing a honky-tonk saloon sequence to accompany the champagne-selling women-for-rent.
The question/explanation for the anything goes reality asks “Who would you rather have as founding fathers: ‘49ers or Pilgrims?” Hmmm. But whether killed for greed or moral disgust, the country’s first inhabitants are just as dead, enslaved or destitute once their lives were improved by their conquerors. JWR