I’ve pursued family history research for probably fifteen years and have been reading Eilene Lyon’s fascinating blog Myricopia about her own research for a long time as well. Therefore, I had an inkling of what her new book was going to be about. But I had no idea how thoroughly researched and well-structured Fortune’s Frenzy would be. Nor did I realize how engaging a story she would create about the California gold rush.
Eilene’s perspective, like mine, is that the history of ordinary Americans is important and fascinating. When she discovered that some of her ancestors had been involved in the gold rush—and that their story was something brand new to our traditional historical vision of that event—it was a fabulous starting point for her project.
PLOT SUMMARY PROVIDED BY EILENE LYON
In this true story, Henry Z. Jenkins and a group of Indiana farmers use shady financing to make their way to California during the gold rush, causing devastating impacts to their families and their futures. Fortune’s Frenzy relates previously untold aspects of the gold rush: how the wealthy took advantage of gold fever by offering usurious loans, and how the cold calculus of transporting people to California became a deadly game for profit.
Eilene Lyon immersed herself in American history from an early age,
when her parents took her to iconic sites such as Williamsburg, Philadelphia,
and Gettysburg. She has been putting history into context through
studying the lives of her ancestors for over twenty years. Her work has
appeared in various history journals and can be found on her blog at
Myricopia.com. She speaks on genealogy and family history writing at
regional and national conferences. Eilene lives in Durango, Colorado,
with her husband and husky-lab Sterling (named for a great-grandfather,
INTERVIEW OF EILENE LYON
Eilene has agreed to respond to interview questions about her beautiful book.
- Your book tells the story of previously unknown ramifications of the gold rush as it affected countless Americans, but your story begins and ends with the story of Henry and Abby Jenkins. How are you related to them? Can you please describe these two characters to give prospective readers an idea of who these people were?
They are my 3rd great-grandparents (maternal). At this time there are no known images of Henry and Abby, so I can’t provide a physical description. Both of them have a family background in the Quaker tradition, having been born and reared in Philadelphia. Henry, though, was never a member of the Society of Friends, but his mother was for most her life. Both were well educated—Abby sometimes stepped up to teach her children and others. Henry and Abby had a strong religious faith, but they spent much of their marriage struggling to make ends meet, which added strain to their marriage. I get a sense they were very loving to each other and to their children.
- Your book cover provides a startling look at one of the new ways of looking at the gold rush that you provide: a 19th century ship on a choppy sea! All this time I thought that men traveled from the eastern U.S. to California by land—on their horses or with buggies or covered wagons. But your book presents a completely new vision. Can you explain a little about why some people would have traveled on water—and do you have any statistics on how many traveled by water versus overland?
The sea route to California was a principal one from the very beginning, even though it had its own dangers. It actually cost less and involved fewer logistics than overland travel. People living on the east coast rounded up any vessel that would float (and some that didn’t) and went around the horn of South America.
Even in 1849, some went across Mexico from Vera Cruz, or across the isthmus at Panama or Nicaragua. Unfortunately, in the early years of the rush, there were few ships available on the Pacific coast of these countries. The isthmus route became favored by 1851, both going to and coming back from California. If you factor in the people who went there from other countries, the majority of people heading to the gold rush arrived by sea, landing in San Francisco. There aren’t any accurate statistics, though.
A detail about the cover image I’d like to note is the early steamship in the background. This painting was done in 1838, but these old ships were very much still in use during the gold rush years.
- I was very taken by your writing style. You give beautiful descriptive details of time and place that can only have come from very intensive research. You also tie in what happens in the book with larger financial and political events that really made me feel that I was “there.” What types of sources did you use and how did you find them? And how did you find primary sources, such as letters?
Thank you! I spent eight years researching and writing this book. It began with a collection of Jenkins family letters that I’ve had in transcript form for decades, passed on to me by my grandmother. The problem with letters is that the people writing and reading them know the context, but from a 170-year remove, all of that is missing and has to be reconstructed. I was fortunate that I also found a Liestenfeltz family descendant who had a memoir written by another character in the book, and a Lowry descendant with another letter. I combed archives, partly using ArchiveGrid and the Online Archive of California. Some records I could obtain via email, but much of it was collected by visiting places such as the Huntington Library and Bancroft Library in California. I also visited the places in Indiana and Ohio where my characters lived.
- There is a character in the book called Allen Makepeace. How would you describe him and how he made a living? Did he perform any vital role in life in those days or was he merely a parasite?
That’s an interesting characterization for Makepeace—parasite! He got into the merchandise business as a teen, bringing wagon-loads of goods from Ohio to Native Americans and early settlers in the undeveloped areas of eastern Indiana. He and his extended family were responsible for creating the town of Chesterfield and developing the Madison County seat of Anderson. Once he became wealthy, he served as community banker, because there were no banks at the time. He was not a benevolent lender, though.
- I don’t think this is really a question, but I must comment that Fortune’s Frenzy made me imagine that the United States of this time period was really the beginning of the way things are run today by financial movers and shakers and by the legal system. People certainly seemed to take advantage of litigation. If you would like to comment on that, it would be wonderful, but not necessary.
It’s actually fair to say that the gold rush helped usher in modern financial practices. Companies like Adams Express and Wells Fargo got their start there and the need to be able to send money to families in eastern states drove the development of money transfer certificates and such. I actually find all the financial aspects of this story quite fascinating. It may seem tedious to others. For a time there were fears that all this gold coming from California would disrupt global finances and markets, causing runaway inflation. Those fears generally weren’t realized.
- Eilene, nothing about your book was tedious! What motivated Indiana farmers to leave home and go to California? I imagine the draw of becoming rich overnight was huge, but why leave where they were?
You know the acronym FOMO (fear of missing out). Very real back then, too! Indiana in the mid-19th century was nothing like it is today. It was covered in dense, swampy forests. Clearing and draining it to create farms was incredibly difficult, back-breaking work. The pioneer farmers were actually better equipped physically to endure the rigors of mining than the doctors, lawyers, and shopkeepers—once they figured out what to look for and how to extract the gold.
- What is the most important idea(s) or feeling(s) you would like your readers to come away with after finishing Fortune’s Frenzy?
In one sense, I wanted this work to stand as a valuable piece of historical research. But I did not want it to read like an academic book. I wanted to create a story that anyone could enjoy reading. Hopefully I have managed to meet both of those goals.
I’ve read a lot of gold rush literature—fiction and nonfiction—in the course of researching the book. I think it’s fair to say that even scholars of the era will find new information that will be surprising.
It isn’t important that this is a story about my ancestors and their network, per se. I hope everyone will get a sense that their family history is important. Their ancestors lived through historic events and even created them. History is not just about famous people, politicians, wars, etc. I think the everyday life events in Indiana, as depicted in this book, are fascinating, too.
WHERE TO GET A COPY OF EILENE’S NEW BOOK