Think back to the 19th-century Gold Rush of the American Far West. Towns emptied, schools closed, churches went quiet, houses were shuttered. People rushed from all over the world to take a chance at striking it rich and making a better life. People individually endowed by their Creator with creativity, talent, and grit risked everything. Motivated by self-interest and a shot at a better life, they forged westward.
These people came from all walks of life and all socioeconomic classes, and they packed their life possessions into one wagon or one bag and took a chance. They sailed from all over the world on voyages that lasted months on ships with the vilest conditions — often surviving catastrophic ocean storms. Americans from the east coast and Midwest joined them, trekking sometimes six months across the plains and experiencing some of the most monotonous and difficult times of their lives. Out west, they encountered the Great Basin for the first time, summited the largest mountains they had ever seen, and survived the most arid desert stretches of the Humboldt sink. Many died of frostbite or starvation in the Sierras or general fatigue and dehydration in the desert. Before their journey was over, most would lose their wagons, mules, and oxen along the way.
Yet, those 49ers were undaunted, for they lived and they lost in the freest nation on earth. In the process, they invented a new style of American dream, as author H. W. Brands notes in The Age of Gold
: “The new dream was the dream of instant wealth, won in a twinkling by audacity and good luck.” The golden dream, as Brands calls it, was enchanting, “holding forth the promise that wealth could be obtained overnight, that boldness and luck were at least as important as steadiness and frugality.”
The Gold Rush was a dramatic addition to the American Dream that had already captured the world’s imagination: the Jeffersonian model of a life based in liberty, in which, with hard work and dedication, an immigrant could eventually have his own plot of land, raise a family on it, and live free according to the religious and moral values of his choosing. America had come to be known as a place where people could break from the rigid social-class systems of their native countries and start anew. The Republic was founded on and fueled by the millions of immigrants who came here to build on this dream. The boot-strapper ethos fostered a great nation.
Then came the Gold Rush of 1848. Trains, shops, towns, churches, civic organizations, and cities all rose to accommodate it. Territories like Nevada gained near-instantaneous viability in the national economy as thousands flocked to places like Virginia City. Men like Mark Twain took up residence and both prospered and recorded the events of this frenzied time. Places like California became states, with cities like San Francisco booming overnight.