Eamonn Lynskey's Poetry and Reading Blog

September 7, 2010

‘Here They Dug The Gold’, by George F Willison. Eyre & Spottiswood 1950

Filed under: Books — tvivf @ 2:25

Tough times, tough work, tough men. The subtitle of this book ‘Here They Dug the Gold’, by George F. Willison, is ‘The Story of The Colorado Gold Rush’ and that is exactly what it is. There is very little padding out and the narrative often goes at breakneck speed, rather like the events themselves once the rush started ‘ … when a North Carolina negro known only as Charley… picked up gold on the banks of Dukes Creek, in Northern Geogia… The richest diggings… lay in Georgia… on Indian lands belonging to the Cherokee, many of whom had already been transported across the Mississippi into Indian territory (Oklahoma). With the advent of the gold rush, the remaining Cherokee were quickly dispossessed in quite ruthless and barbarous fashion’.

And so it was that what we today call genocide and ethnic cleansing were much in evidence as every sort of man (and woman) made their way out west to make their fortune. One thing this book does, though, is show how much the whites suffered in their quest. Of course fortunes were made, but many many men disappeared into history never to be heard of again.

Gun law and Lych law were the only laws in evidence. Towns sprung up overnight. Prospecters came down from the hills, their pockets heavy with gold and lost it in a few hours in the gambling halls. Armed gangs roamed the streets at will robbing and killing. Vigilante groups were then formed which often turned out to be little better than the armed thugs. Indians were massacred. Prospecters were shot down in the street or out in their claims by ‘claim jumpers’. In short, life wasn’t just cheap. It  no value at all.

And all the Irish surnames! O’Connor, Daly, Duggan, Gallagher, Hart, Purcell, Ryan… any many, many more, including some whose deeds are no credit to their original native land. And of course, here again the perennial problem pushes its way into the discussion: Is it right to criticise men who commit terrible deeds when ‘the committing of terrible deeds’ is commonplace around them? When it’s dog eat dog, isn’t it the case that the dog who doesn’t eat gets eaten? Well, these are weighty questions and Willison doesn’t trade much in ehtics, though he does have many a sad thing to say about how the natives Indians fared in all this mad gold-hunting fever. He’s ashamed of it, but he has a story to tell (or rather, a history to write) and he gets on with it and leaves the moralising to one side.

And then, when the seams ran out, the towns died out too, leaving a few hermits eking out an existence in ghost towns. Denver, Boulder, Central City, Montgomery, Buckskin Joe, Fairplay, California Gulch, Breckenridge, Tarryall… all proved graveyards to the many unknown men who took the fever and went west for gold. Some these towns became graveyards to themselves.

Towards the end of the Book, Willison focuses on one Horace Tabor who started out with little or nothing, discovered gold and had everything, then gambled and speculated and finally eneded up again with nothing. At first I thought the author was overdoing this treatment of one single individual but then I realised that this man’s life and times are really the life and times of the gold rush personified.

Great book, well written in a simple clear direct style and well documented. Recommended.

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