Recently I had the pleasure of viewing Ken Burns' The West. Like all of his remarkable documentaries, this 1996 series vividly portrays the American story through images and the words of historical figures and contemporary experts. The filmmakers cover the sweep of U.S. western history from pre-European Indian times through the closing of the frontier at the turn of the century.
Of relevance to this blog is Episode Three, "Speck of the Future," describing the discovery of gold at Sutter's Mill that ignited the huge migration of fortune seekers into California. The film chronicles the struggles of the people who worked the gold fields: prospectors from the East, Chinese immigrants, Native Americans, Mexican Americans and those who came from other countries. Though most of the "49ers" failed to strike it rich, entrepreneurs like John Sutter and Sam Brannan did very well selling supplies to miners at exorbitant prices.
The principal commentator in this segment is the late J.S. Holliday, one of the state's preeminent historians and author of The World Rushed In: The California Gold Rush Experience. Holliday's book relies heavily on the letters and journals of William Swain, a young prospector from Youngstown, N.Y. who traveled overland to California in April 1849. He returned home the following year defeated and broke. In the film Swain stands in as the archetypal New England 49er who left home and family to chase an elusive dream.
The 8-part documentary is available on DVD or viewable online with Netflix instant streaming. PBS hosts a terrific web site for the series that features a transcript of each episode, resources, photographs, maps, biographies, timelines, lesson plans and even a couple quizzes.