Gold and Silver in the West: The Illustrated History of the American Dream
April 1, 1972
David J. Weber, Book Review Editor
Gold and Silver in the West. The Illustrated History of the American Dream. By T. H. Watkins. (Palo Alto, Ca., American West Publishing Co., 1971). Glossary of Terms. Chronology. Note on Sources. Picture Credits. Acknowledgments. Index. 277 pages. $13.95.
Reviewed by W. Turrentine Jackson, Professor of History, University of California, Davis. He received his M.A. and Ph.D. degrees from the University of Texas, and is the author and editor of numerous publications on the West in American History including Wagon Roads West; When Grass Was King; Treasure Hill: Portrait of a Silver Mining Camp, and The Enterprising Scot: Investors in the American West After 1873. He has served on the Board of Editors of the Pacific Historical Review and the Southern California Quarterly. He currently serves as editorial consultant for Arizona and the West and the Journal of San Diego History.
Publishers advertised this book as the first comprehensive account of man’s search for gold and silver on the North American continent. In reality, the bulk of the study concentrates on the mining rushes of the last half of the nineteenth century, the same territory that has been tramped by many a historian. To broaden the traditional scope of studies on the mining kingdom, an introductory chapter considers the search for mineral wealth as a factor in the expansion of European nations to the New World, emphasizing the Spanish conquest and developing the theme of man’s eternal dream of riches. It, too, is an overly-simplified account of an oft-told tale. Toward the end, twentieth century developments, including the uranium rush of the 1950’s, are described to bring the study up to date.
Watkins elected to bifurcate his book, the first part being a narrative account, using a combined chronological and regional approach, to tell what transpired on the mining frontier between the California and Alaskan gold rushes. In an otherwise routine survey of events in gold and silver regions such as the Fraser River Country, the Colorado Rockies and the Black Hills, three sections have exceptional merit: a chapter on the Southwest containing new information and fresh insights; an effective explanation of the interrelationships of the various gold discoveries in Alaska; and a succinct summary of twentieth century developments in Nevada.
Watkins has more to offer in the second section of his book when he deals with science and technology and the impact of the machine on the worker that resulted in labor-capital conflicts. His chapter on the social evolution of the mining campus and towns abjures the type of synthesis attempted by Duane Smith in his Mining Camps and the Urban Frontier, but suggests that what transpired was little more than the “dynamics of experience.” A few aspects of the mining industry as a business, emphasizing legal chicanery, are given due attention. One wishes that the author had utilized his penerating mind and great talent as a writer to analyze these mining moguls and suggest a composite picture of these men as has been done for cowboys, cattlemen and other western types. Quite naturally an epilogue on the legacy of mining speaks of the perpetuation of the dream.
The author’s research was conducted, in part, by traveling thousands of miles to obtain photographs of the physical remains in many mining districts. He has skillfully utilized all types of illustrative material: historical photographs and maps, paintings and lithographs, and contemporary scenes familiar to tourists who have visited the ghost towns of the mineral West. No study of mining, known to this reviewer, has been so elaborately illustrated. Throughout the text, the author effectively quotes from contemporary observers to prove a point, but always from the standard oft-quoted sources when less-known and more recently published materials would have served his purposes better.
David Lavender, in his introduction, states that Watkins has been selective in the places he discusses and laments that some of his favorite spots, like Aspen and Ouray, Colorado are missing. The same selectivity, the picking and choosing, is evident in the author’s consideration of the vast literature on the mining kingdom. Watkins makes quite clear that the circle of writers whose historical studies he considers worthy is limited. Even so, one questions the wisdom of writing on Tonopah, Goldfield and Ely without a casual reference to Russell R. Elliott’s Nevada’s 20th-Century Mining Boom, (1966). If the author had used Bruce A. Woodward’s Diamonds in the Salt (1967), his featured account of “Clarence King and the Mountain that Sprouted Diamonds,” (pp. 260-261) would have been more accurate and up-to-date. Finally, it is essential to describe the work of a fellow historian who has attempted a similar study as “one of the most unreadable books in our literature”? One should be on very safe ground, not only as a stylist but also as a researcher, before he throws a stone. In answer to all this, Watkins, quite justifiably, might reply that he was writing a book to be read and enjoyed, NOT preparing a monograph for specialists and scholars.
The charm of this volume is the eminent readability of the author’s flowing style. Lavender rightly notes his “sharp irony, broad humor, even, at times . . . overt editorializing.” The format can best be described as lavish. Book collectors will want this publication. No doubt it will be displayed on many a coffee table and a few study bookshelves as a cherished gift from a friend or relative. One wonders if the publishers do not share with the miners of yesteryear the American dream of the search for wealth.