by Michele Shover
Most histories are written about great events and great men. This history is the story of three spirited but ordinary men who participated in a great event: the American settlement of California from the 1849 gold rush until the early 1860s. In that period, California was transformed from a largely unmapped territory to a state of small towns in vast counties.
Three rainbow chasers followed their dreams to Butte County with the gold rush. Each man carried his own notions of what would constitute his fortune, and for only one of the three men would gold alone suffice. That man was an Irish immigrant, Dr. J. B. Smith, whose lifelong assaults on the problem of making a living were regularly and swiftly enfeebled. His lawyer, a young man named George Adams Smith, was driven by a desire to succeed in the law—which he did—until he destroyed his consumptive body by physical labor he knew better than to risk. Their mutual friend was scrappy Joseph McCorkle, who saw in California a stage from which he could project his political talents to the nation. McCorkle's fate was, however, that, as the political stage became more crowded, his roles plummeted from the part of leading man to that of jester.
Their story notes their separate arrivals in the California of 1849 and moves on to consider the high stakes trial in which all three friends had roles. From there the story follows them after 1851 when their relationship with the California pioneer, John Bidwell, developed. The history concludes with their remaining years in the rapidly changing Sacramento Valley.
The Doctor, the Lawyer, and the Political Chief in the 1850s of Butte County
In presenting (for want of a better term, it seems fitting to call "Three Musketeers of the Gold Rush Years" in northern California) Professor Shover has emplaced a glittering tile in the mosaic of that region's history. It is a tile that demands the attention of all those who are concerned with the human condition—the dreams, hopes, aspirations, conceits, disappointments, and small victories and major defeats that are inseparable from that condition, be it experienced in the Days of '49 or the parlous present.
In the lives of the men she presents so well, there is to be seen quite clearly the hazards inherent in the passion of living for the moment, of living only for yourself without thought for your predecessors or for posterity. In so doing, she permits the men she has rescued from historical obscurity to sound a tocsin for generations still to come.
W. H. Hutchinson
Emeritus Professor of History California State University, Chico