Vintage Civil War Library

The California Gold Rush and the Coming of the Civil War

Publisher: Vintage

Award-winning historian Leonard L. Richards gives us an authoritative and revealing portrait of an overlooked harbinger of the terrible battle that was to come.


When gold was discovered at Sutter's Mill in 1848, Americans of all stripes saw the potential for both wealth and power. Among the more calculating were Southern slave owners. By making California a slave state, they could increase the value of their slaves—by 50 percent at least, and maybe much more. They could also gain additional influence in Congress and expand Southern economic clout, abetted by a new transcontinental railroad that would run through the South. Yet, despite their machinations, California entered the union as a free state. Disillusioned Southerners would agitate for even more slave territory, leading to the Kansas-Nebraska Act and, ultimately, to the Civil War itself.


Chapter 1

The chain of events that led to the killing began in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada on a cold morning in late January 1848. That morning, as every morning for the past several months, Jennie Wimmer had been working over a hot woodstove. Her task at the moment was making soap. Technically,...
Read More


“Richards, a leading historian of 19th century America superbly illuminates gold rush California as a land in contention between national pro– and anti–slavery lobbies in the decade leading up to the Civil War.”
Publishers Weekly (starred review)

“Richards offers a broad panorama that moves seamlessly from the gold fields to the halls of congress. This is an excellent work of popular history that will add to the appreciation of a critical epoch in our national development.”

“Brings to life a population of scheming officeholders, xenophobic Californians and frantic slaveholders, all of whom resorted to the ultimate frontier solution: violence.’
Kirkus Reviews

“An engrossing chronicle of the political intrigues that engulfed California in the 1850s, when pro-Southern legislators there angled to turn the state’s newfound wealth to the benefit of the slave economy.”
The Atlantic

“The important back-story of the Gold Rush, according to gifted historian Leonard Richards, is political and racial. Mr. Richards contends in this insightful new book, The California Gold Rush and the Coming of the Civil War that for every fortune seeker who viewed California as a place to get rich discovering gold, another believed it a place to get rich exporting, utilizing, or trafficking in human slaves. . . . [A] gripping book.”
The New York Sun

“Richards meticulously catalogs details of 19th-century American legislation that nonspecilaists won’t have thought about since high school: the Missouri Compromise, the Gadsden Purchase, the Kansas-Nebraska Act. But when he places the actors center stage to reveal the motives behind the politics, the narrative approaches the Shakespearean.”

“With a mastery that brings even his bit players to life, Leonard Richards tells a gripping story about politics, business, violence, and the scoundrels who almost destroyed the United States. If you think you already know this story, you're in for some nice surprises. And if you don’t, there’s no better guide.”
—Robin L. Einhorn, author of American Taxation, American Slavery

“Leonard Richards has once again produced a wonderful, entertaining, and informative account of antebellum politics. Most important, he shows the myriad forces–greed, ambition, idealism, racism, patronage, migration, expansionism–that melded together to distance southerners from northerners. Any one reading this work will come away with a deep understanding of how the antagonism between free and slave labor systems constituted the volatile fuel that made the explosion of secession and civil war possible.”
—James L. Huston, author of Calculating the Value of the Union: Slavery, Property Rights, and the Economic Origins of the Civil War

“A truly rollicking book, full of colorful characters, duels, hard-rock miners, ‘Chivs,’ and back-stabbing politics. But its readability belies the centrality of these seemingly minor characters to the drama of the nation’s sectional crisis. The Golden State can no longer be ignored by those wishing to tell the story of how the nation came to civil war.”
—Jonathan H. Earle, author of Jacksonian Antislavery and the Politics of Free Soil, 1824-1854

From the Hardcover edition.