Q & A with Gary Noy, author of “Gold Rush Stories”

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Since our last interview with Gary Noy, he’s presented Sierra Stories: Tales of Dreamers, Schemers, Bigots, and Rogues to dozens of audiences and picked up the Gold Medal for Best Regional Nonfiction from the Next Generation Indie Book Awards. I recently spoke with Gary over email about his latest book, Gold Rush Stories: 49 Tales of Seekers, Scoundrels, Loss, and Luck.

Your last book came out in 2014, and it seems like you’ve been on the road doing book talks ever since. When did you find time to write Gold Rush Stories, and how much was this book informed by your experience writing Sierra Stories?

Fortunately, I am pretty good at compartmentalizing my time so that I can juggle work, writing, and play. When I started writing Gold Rush Stories I pledged to spend about one to two hours most days researching and writing. I stuck with that plan and, as a result, the process went remarkably smoothly and, as the days and weeks passed, I was able to accumulate a sizable amount of material fairly quickly. I was also greatly helped by the amazing staff of the California State Library where I did most of my research. It is astonishing what a little discipline can accomplish.

I was very influenced by my experience in writing Sierra Stories. As I travelled around doing book events, it was often suggested that I write another book with a similar set-up and focus exclusively on the California Gold Rush. Coming from a family of gold miners and given my interest in mid-nineteenth century American history, it seemed like a perfect fit. And then, once I got into the subject more, I became increasingly excited about producing what came to be Gold Rush Stories.

Since fake news is, well, so newsworthy these days, how easy or difficult was it for you to work with the primary sources from the era?

I find the most enjoyable part of writing to be the research. It is like a treasure hunt every time you delve into the archives. So, I never found it difficult. Since my main interest in historical scholarship is the mid-to-late nineteenth century, I have had considerable experience in working with primary sources from the era. It is a mixed bag as to the quality of the materials you encounter. Newspapers and journals of the time did not make any pretense of being objective, they always had an agenda, so you constantly have to take that into account. But, when you find private letters or personal journals of participants, writings that were never intended to see the public light of day, you find a wealth of insights that reflect a truer portrait of life in the Gold Rush. I find that stuff fascinating and I have tried to incorporate as much as possible into the book. Some excerpts I used come from letters or journals that not only have never been published, they have never been transcribed. I think some letters I used had not been looked at in decades.

It seems to me that the Gold Rush can be described with any concept and its polar opposite: striking it rich/going home empty-handed; debaucherous lawlessness/the entry of California into the Union; a land of camaraderie/devastating race- and ethnic-based discrimination. How did you deal with writing all these contradictions, both in terms of how much ink you dedicated to either “side,” and how you managed the tone of the writing?

You always have to keep in the mind when writing about the Gold Rush that this enormous event was complex and constantly shapeshifting. Everywhere you turn you see rapid change and fluctuating priorities. These variations applied to large-scale endeavors and to deeply personal conversions. And often these contradictions emerged seemingly overnight within groups or individuals. Consider the transformation of Alfred Doten, who changed from a pious, teetotaling youngster into perhaps the most raucous and debauched reveler of the age—all within a matter of months. This concept applied to government, social structures, and any and all forms of economic activity. One moment a mining camp might ban drinking and swearing and the next day they would abandon mining and have a massive drunken blowout, just to raise hell.

Alfred Doten, Gold Rush diarist and ne’er-do-well.

Alfred Doten, Gold Rush diarist and ne’er-do-well.

A key word in describing the Gold Rush is “impermanence”—in large part, the miners were not there to form a lasting society, they were there to plunder anything shiny and move on or go home. This transient quality also could apply to their attitudes and behaviors. Nothing ever stayed the same for long in Gold Rush California. Contradiction was part and parcel of what made the Gold Rush tick. In addressing the issue of the inconsistencies and paradoxes, I tried to be fair and report both sides, if possible. Sometimes I would express outrage or puzzlement or bemusement, depending upon the issue, but I would always try to do so without resorting to demonizing the participants. These were human beings, flawed and fallible, not devils.

How would you compare the Gold Rush’s multiculturalism and entrepreneurship with those of modern-day California—either in the “Gold Country” or in, say, Silicon Valley? Where is the present-day analog to the California Gold Rush?

I don’t believe the Gold Rush has ever ended. There was a moment when the “rush” aspect concluded, about seven or eight years in, but the attitudes that began during the era have never disappeared and are now venerated California traits, like entrepreneurial risk-taking. The California Gold Rush was a social earthquake and we still feel the tremors to this moment. The Gold Rush transformed into other “rushes” like an agriculture rush, oil rush, technology rush, population rush; but the viewpoints detonated by this extraordinary event remained constant. It is not surprising that Silicon Valley was born in California or the dream factory of Hollywood prospered here as the Gold Rush made enduring trademarks of social and economic experimentation, innovation, cultural and intellectual diversity, and risk-taking.

In the final analysis, the Gold Rush is the story of a journey, a search, and taking a risk. This is the human story as well—but the California Gold Rush concentrated and accentuated it. In many ways, those of us who live in California are products of that complicated and endlessly fascinating moment in time.

How has writing this book changed your perception of the Gold Rush? How do you think this will change readers’ perceptions of the Gold Rush?

I always suspected that the California Gold Rush was an enormous enterprise, but I did not realize how big until I started studying it more completely. Almost overnight, California became the most culturally diverse place on earth and with that came a tsunami of change. Societal changes that took decades or even centuries in other places occurred within months during the Gold Rush. And we still feel the impact.

One aspect of the event that I found surprising and intriguing was the contradiction between racial stereotypes and personal interaction between races. For instance, there were the awful, stereotypical representations of the Chinese as a group and too many associated acts of violence, but, in many, many cases, the relationship between a single white person and a single Chinese person was friendly and even respectful. When these individuals came to know one another, or work together, they saw each other not as stereotypes, but as neighbors, friends, and partners.

I want the reader to be entertained and informed, but I also hope that there will be a realization of the complexity and enormity of the Gold Rush experience. The standard image of the Gold Rush being about an independent miner with a red flannel shirt, a mule and a gold pan is romantic but does not do justice to the remarkable diversity and intricacy of the era. My hope is that Gold Rush Stories presents that point well.

In terms of Gold Rush lore, what’s the one that got away for you?

Based upon the lyric from the famous Gold Rush song “Oh! Susanna!” I searched high and low to find a primary source reference to “I came from Alabama with a banjo on my knee.” Never found one. That is the Holy Grail I seek.