Candy Moulton: Reading the West 4-9-12
April 9, 2012
In 1849 thousands of men (mostly) rushed west along the new trail to California, headed for the gold that had been discovered in the American Fork River in January of 1848. Most left their families behind so they could travel quickly and get to the diggings in time to stake a good claim that they believed would make them wealthy. Some traveled by wagon train, though others took pack animals because they believed that would get them to California ahead of the competition. Even a few walked, carrying lightly loaded backpacks because either they did not have the resources to outfit with wagons, or, again, because they wanted to be in the vanguard.
J. Goldsborough Bruff was one of those who rushed to California. Born into a prominent Washington, D.C., family, he had attended two years at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, and several years in maritime travel. He served as a draftsman for the U.S. Navy and the U.S. Corps of Topographical Engineers and as such he was an accomplished artist.
He formed a company of 64 men known as the Washington City and California Mining Association. While he intended to seek riches in California, one primary purpose for his travel was to “compile a guidebook for future travelers.” This led to him prepare over 300 drawings (most of the originals are held by the Huntington Library in San Marino, Calif., and at the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut) that he supplemented with a narrative he wrote while traveling.
Bruff’s legacy is recorded for Western historians to study, and now available for the general reader as well in the new book, “Bruff’s Wake: J. Goldsborouogh Bruff & The California Gold Rush 1849-1851,” which is published by the Oregon-California Trails Association (available on their website at http://www.OCTA-Trails.org).
Author H. L. James, spent years following in Bruff’s track, learning the landscape, as he researched this book. Bruff’s narrative is at times evocative, at other times simply functional and his images are much the same. It is clear that he hurriedly sketched some locations (Fremont’s Castle, p. 116, Plume Rock/Pacific Creek, p. 142), but more often they are detailed artistic renderings, clearly recognizable to trail and Western history buffs. Even his sketches show a degree of accuracy in places. In some instances James has taken photographs from the same angle and location as Bruff must have sat and sketched, giving both historic and contemporary views in juxtaposition.
The publisher wisely chose to use a large format to present this content, meaning the artwork reproduced is for the most part full page size and therefore easy to see and study. Savor this book for the drawings and photographs, but learn from it through the narrative.
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This is a volume anyone interested in overland migration, the California Gold Rush, or early Western art really should have on his or her bookshelf.