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Gold rush comes to life in newly published diary

December 03, 2009

The California gold rush began with a whimper – or whisper – of gold, and ended in a bang. Or a bust for many gold-seekers who descended on the Golden State from 1848 to 1855 in search of wealth.

Hundreds of thousands of “Forty Niners” came to California from all over the United States and abroad, and each had a story to tell.

Some historians say that the gold rush was one of the two most documented events in the United States – the other being the Civil War – in terms of diaries, journals, letters sent and received, and news stories.

One such diarist was William R. Goulding, a New York businessman who manufactured surgical instruments for a living, and was a devoted family man.

Goulding joined the Knickerbocker Exploring Company in 1849 and traveled the lesser-known Southern trail to California and up the coast to San Francisco.

That we know that much – and more – about Goulding is due to the curiosity and efforts of Patricia Etter, who retired in 2006 as head of the Labriola National American Indian Data Center in Hayden Library.

Ironically, part of Etter’s information about Goulding came from his family in Australia, who read an Insight story about Etter’s retirement and contacted her via e-mail.

Etter, a “trail enthusiast” – one who likes to follow the original wagon trails that settlers and the “49ers” used to come West – and scholar, came upon Goulding’s diary when she was doing research for her first books about the Southern route to the West.

When those books were completed, and she was ready for a new project, she turned to Goulding’s yet-untold story. Her lavishly annotated and illustrated presentation of the diary, “California Odyssey: An Overland Journey on the Southern Trails, 1849,” was published this fall by The Arthur H. Clark Company, an imprint of the University of Oklahoma Press.

“Since I had read a lot of diaries, I was ready to edit more," Etter said. "I had seen the Goulding diary at Yale and it was a super story and well written, and he had more to say than most of the others so I naturally chose it to work with – especially since he had unique adventures not shared by other overlanders.”

Goulding first journeyed from his home in New York to Fort Smith, Ark., where he joined the Knickerbocker Company of New York. He kept a detailed diary of his trip all the way from New York to San Francisco.

“We can infer from his penmanship and style that the writer was educated and sophisticated,” Etter said. “The journal reveals an already well-traveled and deeply religious man who appeared to take the frequently extreme difficulties of travel in unknown territory in stride.”

Goulding was considered one of the best surgical-instrument makers in the country, Etter said. So, along the route, he often stayed with doctors on military posts who had bought his tools, forsaking the hardships of camp for a night or two of frontier “luxury.”

The diary is fascinating reading, with Goulding’s chatty entries transporting the reader back to life as a traveler in 1849.

Etter said that Goulding came across some well-known characters on his journey, such as Kit Carson and John Charles Frémont, and had “delightful exchanges with some 15 Indian tribes he met as he crossed the country.”

The explorer reached San Francisco after a taxing journey of six months riding in wagons and on horseback – with the last 20 miles on the steamer Oregon – and it appears that he did not search for gold at all, but chose to return home.

“I suspect that Goulding re-boarded the steamer Oregon in San Francisco and returned home by way of Nicaragua or Panama, as most did,” Etter said. “At this point, plenty of miners and adventurers had grown tired of the whole adventure and were happy to get out of California with nothing but the clothes on their backs.

“If Goulding started out with the goal of making it rich in the mines, his experiences on the trail, the individuals he met, and knowledge he gained no doubt changed his view. By the time he reached Monterey, he probably felt had had enough adventure and was quite simply ready to go home.”

Etter’s first exposure to the Southern trail came unexpectedly from a source in her own home.

“We had a book at home, a hard-cover manuscript by a Scotsman who emigrated to the United States. He was a stonecutter who traveled from Little Rock, Ark., to Los Angeles when gold was discovered. I wondered, ‘Why do we have that book?’”

Turns out that the Scotsman was an ancestor, and Etter’s parents had received the manuscript from a visiting relative.

When Etter returned to college in 1976, she mentioned the manuscript to Jeanne Muñoz, one of her professors at California State University, Long Beach. Muñoz was interested in the manuscript and said if Etter does not annotate it, by adding critical or explanatory notes or comments, then she would.

Thusly challenged, Etter set to work annotating her great-uncle’s story of the gold rush.

Since most ‘49ers had gone to California by the Northern route, information about the Southern route was more obscure.

“I had a heck of a time finding resources and other diaries for helping me define the route,” Etter said. “I found diaries at the Bancroft, Yale, Huntington Library, Missouri Historical Society archives, University of the Pacific and many more.

“Ultimately, I compiled a list of previously unknown diaries and books about various Southern trails. Since this had not been done before, I listed and annotated both published and unpublished diaries and books about Southern trails and included a history of the trail.”

She even traveled a great deal of the entire trail herself, from beginning to end, by foot, horseback, auto and all-terrain vehicle, snapping photos to illustrate the route.

The result was a book titled “To California on the Southern Route, 1849: A History and Annotated Bibliography.” It was voted one of the 10 outstanding English-language, book-length bibliographies in the field of history in 2000.