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Story Behind the Story #56: Hard Gold

Hard GoldMy I Wit­ness series con­cept was sim­ple enough: Fact-dri­ven his­tor­i­cal fic­tion, illus­trat­ed like a text book. The notion, frankly, was to make his­to­ry that much alive for my read­ers: Strong fic­tion, with many con­tem­po­rary images, maps, dia­grams, etc. Iron Thun­der (the Civ­il War bat­tle of the iron-clads, the Mon­i­tor and the Mer­ri­mac) was the first vol­ume. Hard Gold was the second.

Where­as the 1849 Cal­i­for­nia gold rush is fair­ly well estab­lished as part of our nation­al mythol­o­gy, the 1859 Col­orado gold rush is not so well known, oth­er than per­haps “Pikes Peak or Bust,” a refrain from the time. Hard Gold tells the sto­ry of young Ear­ly Wittcomb, Iowa-born, and his attempt to locate his gold-seek­ing Uncle Jesse in the Rocky Moun­tains. The nov­el is, in its fash­ion, a Western.

Ear­ly will cross the Great Plains until he reach­es new­ly found­ed Den­ver, and then on into the moun­tains, to Gold Hill. Gold Hill, which once had a pop­u­la­tion of thou­sands, still exists, with its cur­rent pop­u­la­tion of per­haps two hundred.

My nov­el was writ­ten in the form of a diary, a form which many pio­neers used to record their own jour­ney west. Indeed, there is a huge library of 19th Cen­tu­ry pio­neer trav­el lit­er­a­ture; diaries, mem­oirs, let­ters, news­pa­per records—along with a mul­ti­tude of pic­to­r­i­al records. Where­as many of us derive our under­stand­ing of the great trek west from movies, the real­i­ty is much more com­plex and fascinating.

To begin, many of Amer­i­ca’s gold-rushes—and there have been many—were pow­ered less by the desire for gold, as such, as by peri­od­ic eco­nom­ic hard times Back East. That is to say, the rush­es were not about the romance of the west, but more about sav­ing the farm. And the num­bers of peo­ple who went west were huge. I can recall one diary entry which records how, at night, the lights from wag­ons on the trail, extend­ed out in an unbro­ken line for as far as one could see.

There are count­less tales about the peo­ple who migrat­ed from east to west. There are as many sto­ries about  the Indi­ans, who were so help­ful to those who trav­eled, until they grasped that their land was being tak­en away. Tales of Mormons—heading for Salt Lake City—who pushed wheel­bar­rows across the plains. Trag­ic tales about the par­ents who lost chil­dren when their kids wan­dered into the tall prairie grass, and could not be found. The chil­dren who lost their par­ents to ill­ness; what became of them?

The search for gold was nev­er easy. Hence, HARD gold. Since I live in Col­orado, the research was not par­tic­u­lar­ly dif­fi­cult. Most inter­est­ing was to go to the lost places where the world was so dif­fer­ent. And, yes, as the notes in the book sug­gest, I did pan for gold. I just might have found some. Not enough to pay the mort­gage, just enough to know that get­ting it was very hard.

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