I'm sure there are a lot of interesting stories from the 1849 California Gold Rush, but I've always been partial to the Yukon Gold Rush myself, the subject of Howard Blum's new book, The Floor of Heaven.
Or perhaps I should say the lead up to the Gold Rush--Blum chooses three restless characters from late 19th century America who felt their opportunities were running out as quickly as the old West they knew was disappearing: George Carmack, a Marine deserter with dreams of gold; Soapy Smith, a con artist in need of new places to scam; Charlie Siringo, a cowboy-turned shopkeeper-turned Pinkerton detective. All ended up in Alaska.
Carmack had been stationed in Alaska as a Marine and had become attracted to the Native Americans and their lifestyle. He skipped out of his Marine enlistment after a few years, but after aimlessly trying to scrape along back on the continental US, he knew he had to return to Alaska. His father had been a failed gold prospector, and George had inherited his dreams of a big strike. He was convinced that there was gold in the desolate Yukon, and set off to find it. Along the way he married a Taglish woman and practically became an honorary member of the Taglish tribe. His wife's family was high-ranking and he began to think that his destiny was to become chief of the tribe, rather than a gold prospector. He couldn't lose his conviction that he could find gold, though, and set off into the Yukon in search of his fortune. He found it, setting off the Yukon gold strike, but in Blum's retelling of the events, the gold riches made him bitter, jealous, and distrustful. It's an almost too good to be true moral tale where "money can't buy you happiness."
Jefferson "Soapy" Smith was taught con games by a carnival hand and made his biggest hit with a con that won him his nickname--he enticed audiences to buy overpriced bars of soap on the chance that they might get one with a hundred dollar bill hidden inside. He kept slipping out of the law's hands, but eventually ran out of places where he wasn't known in his chosen territory of Colorado. And as boomtowns turned into cities, he began to run out of the kind of desperate, wide-eyed listeners who were ready to fall for his kind of con. He hoped to get rich in Alaska, and while he didn't strike gold, he did become the de facto dictator of Skagway, a town that was the "gateway to the Klondike," the last stop before eager prospectors headed into the rough country to find their own gold claim. For a while, Smith was king there, but when he cheated a miner out of his gold find, the town had had enough. Smith was gunned down in a shootout with vigilantes who finally decided to stand up to Smith and demand the return of the gold.
Charlie Siringo had worked on big cattle drives, but after marrying, decided to settle down. He got the idea to open a cigar store and while that was a big success, he found himself wanting more. When he saw an ad for Pinkerton detectives, he applied, was hired, and found he had a knack for the job. He had the logic to piece together clues, a flair for disguise, and the patience and nerve to immerse himself in a criminal gang and wait until he had all the pieces in place to make an arrest. He ended up in Alaska when a large amount of gold was stolen from an operation that melted down gold nuggets and processed them into gold bars. Siringo discovers it was an inside job and goes undercover to win the confidence of the thieves and find out where they buried the gold. He cracks the case and retrieves the gold with high drama, which seems to be how Siringo did everything. After he retired, he wrote memoirs about his cowboy and detective exploits, which eventually landed in Hollywood, where he acted as a consultant on Westerns, some inspired by his life.
As you can see, these are colorful characters that could easily have come out of a novel rather than a nonfiction book, and this book, while rated as nonfiction, has more than a little of a novel in it; in the afterword, Blum acknowledges that it is tough to tease out the real story from the self-dramatizing memoirs and tall tale nature of the primary source accounts. It's more than likely that the version pieced together by Blum isn't the gospel, factual truth. But this isn't a court of law and this material isn't on the AP US History exam. It's a fun, easy read, written in the loose, laconic style of a paperback western. The stories in this book may not all be true, but it has some of the true spirit of the time and the people of the Yukon gold strike.