The California Gold Rush Overland Diary of Byron N. McKinstry, 1850-1852. Edited by Bruce L. McKinstry. Glendale: Arthur H. Clark Company, 1975. Illustrations. Index. 401 pages. $15.00.
Reviewed by Robert W. Frazer, Professor Emeritus, California State University, Long Beach, author of several books and articles on the military history of the West.
In March, 1850, Byron N. McKinstry left his home in Illinois to make his way by the Overland route to California and the gold fields. The trail was already well marked by the ruts of wagon wheels, the carcasses and bones of draft animals, and the graves of persons who had perished along the route. McKinstry’s party deviated from the established trails only for about one hundred miles along the north side of the North Platte River, west of Fort Laramie, presumably the first to take this route. McKinstry arrived in the Mother Lode country in September, after a trip which had entailed no unusual hardships and faced no disasters. He remained in California until June, 1852, working various claims, none with particular success. Late in June he boarded a steamship at San Francisco to return to the East via the Isthmus of Panama, going ashore at New York on July 23.
McKinstry kept a diary of his entire gold rush experience. His grandson, who edited the diary for publication, states that for his grandfather “the greatest adventure of them all was that unexplainable, tragic, funny, mad escapade, the California Gold Rush.” (p. 58) It is a familiar story, with variations, the details reflecting McKinstry’s own background and interests. That portion of the diary devoted to the overland journey is much more extensive than are most such accounts. Indicative of McKinstry’s own interests are his frequent comments about the land, the flora, the economic potential of the country through which he passed. He also has much to say about the availability of supplies along the route and, happily, what they cost. Diary entries devoted to life in the diggings are generally brief; nevertheless, they give a good picture of the hardships, the hopes, the frustrations of one who did not strike it rich. McKinstry was a competent observer, his descriptions are frequently vivid, and his opinions are entertaining.
In a very real sense this is two books. Bruce L. McKinstry, Byron’s grandson, acquired the diary in 1947 and for two and a half decades thereafter he employed his vacations to retrace the route and visit the places described by his grandfather. Inserted in the diary, often occupying more space than the diary itself, are Bruce McKinstry’s notes. In them he discusses the route over which his grandfather traveled as it is today, locates virtually all of the places mentioned in the diary (some of them largely forgotten or bearing different names), and does so with infectious enthusiasm. The notes could well serve as a travel guide for the present-day trail buff.
Bruce McKinstry provides an adequate biography of his grandfather, commendably, without attempting to glorify him. He occasionally refers to a source in his notes, but there are no footnotes as such nor is there a bibliography, although it is clear that he has consulted a variety of sources. The book is appropriately illustrated, primarily with photographs taken by the editor, and there is a comprehensive index. Unfortunately, there are no maps.
The book should be of interest to scholars, not because it adds anything new of a major nature but because the details, the minutiae, help to vivify what is known of the period. The casual reader should enjoy it because it is readable and, after all, it is a tale of high adventure.