Douglas H. Strong, Book Review Editor
The Bonanza Kings–The Social Origins and Business Behavior of Western Mining Entrepreneurs, 1870-1900. By Richard H. Peterson. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1971, 1977. Bibliography. Tables. 191 pages. $9.95.
Reviewed by Mark Wyman, Assistant Professor of History, Illinois State University, student of Western mine labor.
The current emphasis on history “from the bottom up” is inverted in this new study by Richard H. Peterson. The author, an instructor at the College of the Redwoods, Mendocino Coast Branch, believes that the mine entrepreneur rather than the lone prospector is the crucial figure to understand in examining Western metal mining in the late nineteenth century. Fifty Western “bonanza kings” are examined as to nativity, migration, education, training, labor policies, and methods used to obtain property, capital, and technology.
Many of the fifty headed West soon after the gold rush, often for non-economic reasons, and they benefitted greatly from these early experiences as placer miners or suppliers. As merchants or bankers, some were soon providing capital to miners, learning which enterprises paid best, and often becoming mine owners themselves when borrowers defaulted. Their education during this process turned many into the shrewd entrepreneurs Peterson details in this concise, straightforward account-men who “tried to make it an exact business” even though it was definitely “not an exact science.”
The Turner thesis could hardly be ignored in a study of this sort. The author addresses the issue briefly at the outset, arguing convincingly that for the entrepreneur in mining, milling, and smelting, the West provided more freedom to rise than did the Eastern business world. Perhaps no more tolerant than other regions, the mining frontier was still “more democratic” and “more open” than the East. He shows statistically that comparatively more immigrants and men of poor economic and educational backgrounds were able to rise to top levels in Western mining. Little is done in this-study, however, to indicate what went wrong with the “almost” bonanza kings-was it guessing wrong in an economic downturn? Failing to switch to a new milling method?
Or was it luck? Peterson devotes some time to discussing how various entrepreneurs played the boom-and-bust cycle and managed to stay on top. But it is apparent from many of the case histories that luck was often important in determining success or avoiding failure.
Related to this is another issue: beyond their own skills, what was it in the West that encouraged or permitted such success? The book indicates that the chance for a new start in an undeveloped region was important: most “joined the westward movement at an early stage,” usually during the rush into a new district. Such an opportunity was past or passing in the East, forcing newcomers there to grapple with established enterprises and methods of operation.
Peterson is at his best in creating flesh-and-blood humans out of the legends and generalizations surrounding the bonanza kings. This is especially true regarding labor relations, a field in which the blood from Cripple Creek and other conflicts has been used to spread a universal stain over mineowners as a cruel and reactionary group. Admitting that this was basically true in several cases, the author demonstrates that many other bonanza kings were sympathetic to their workmen-often because of their own humble beginnings, or previous employee status, but also for purely economic reasons. In the end they are a varied group-lucky, skillful, eager, and finally believable.