The Journal of San Diego History
Summer 1993, Volume 39, Number 3
Richard W. Crawford, Editor

Book Review

Bonanza Rich: Lifestyles of the Western Mining Entrepreneurs.

By Richard H. Peterson. Moscow: University of Idaho Press, 1991. Notes. Appendix. Bibliography. Index. 192 pages. $21.95.

Reviewed by Kenneth N. Owens, Professor of History and Ethnic Studies, California State University, Sacramento. Author of “The Mormon-Carson Immigrant Trail in Western History,” Montana, The Magazine of Western History (1992) and other studies concerning the nineteenth century West.

During the Gilded Age, an assortment of newly rich business moguls, financiers, and speculators—often with wives who prodded their ambitions—tried to translate sudden wealth into instant social prestige. Among those who indulged in gaudy excess, the wildest spenders may have been the group that Professor Richard Peterson of San Diego State University calls the bonanza rich: men who made their money by fortunate and shrewd investments in western mining. Lacking formal education and untutored in the finer social graces, many western mining entrepreneurs could easily be caricatured as unpolished buffoons, searching for ways to impress others by extravagant displays of bad taste. In a kind of social counterpoint to the Horatio Alger myth, a public unsure of its own class allegiances found these men fit objects for scorn as well as envy and admiration.

Peterson’s 1977 study entitled The Bonanza Kings described the social origins and business behavior of western mining entrepreneurs. In this sequel, the author goes behind the public image to examine what fifty successful mining men actually did with their wealth. He analyzes the explanations they gave for their success, describes their philanthropic activities, and details the ways in which they spent their fortunes. First, he reports, they built imposing mansions that became monuments to themselves. Then they turned to expensive hobbies and diversions, finding respectable ways to enjoy their wealth while showing off their spending ability. Except for the fact that few western men took up yachting, Peterson finds, the mining rich demonstrated overall a strong tendency to emulate the fashionable lifestyles of the eastern business elite.

Peterson concludes his work by considering the experiences of the mining entrepreneurs in light of the frontier thesis advanced by Frederick Jackson Turner. The results provide yet one more reason for henceforth ignoring Turner’s formulation as a basis for historical understanding. While the mining rich, Peterson observes, regarded themselves as rugged individualists, “it is impossible to determine to what extent these self-proclaimed and sometimes exaggerated character traits were the product of frontier experience or of the general conditioning of America’s capitalist culture and Protestant religious heritage.” (p. 154) In the final analysis, he declares, the bonanza kings thought and acted in ways that reflected “the homogeneity of national culture” rather than a supposedly distinctive frontier or regional character.

Bonanza Rich is a well conceived and fully realized work. For scholars, it provides a systematic account of the nonbusiness behavior of this select group of western business leaders. At the same time, readers interested in western social history will enjoy Peterson’s descriptions of the foibles and egotistical fancies of these Gilded Age mining millionaires.

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