Sac History Happenings

News and developments in Sacramento and California history

October 28, 2011
Ken Burns film looks at the California Gold Rush

TheWest.jpgRecently 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.

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About Sac History Happenings

California and Sacramento have a long, rich, vibrant history. And our region is blessed with an abundance of historical resources maintained by museums, libraries, archives and societies. This blog aims to alert readers to the latest developments in local/state historical education and research.

Send tips concerning upcoming exhibits, tours, lectures and meetings, as well as new books, magazine articles and online collections to the blog's contributors.

The Contributors:

Michael Dolgushkin

Michael Dolgushkin is Manuscript Librarian at the California State Library History Section. He is co-author of San Francisco's California Street Cable Cars and is a frequent contributor to the California State Library Foundation Bulletin. Contact him at

Amanda Graham

Amanda Graham is a Certified Archivist working in the Sacramento Room of the Sacramento Public Library. She earned a BS in History from Southern Oregon University and a MS in Information Studies with an emphasis in archives from The University of Texas at Austin. Contact her at

Pete basofin

Pete Basofin is Director of Editorial Research at The Sacramento Bee. He previously worked at The St. Petersburg Times and Columbia (Mo.) Daily Tribune. Contact him at

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