Mountains and Molehills: or Recollections of a Burnt Journal by Frank Marryat is considered one of the most engaging and accurate descriptions of gold rush life. Marryat’s observations included a wide variety of topics from his experiences in California: saloons, fires, claim jumpers, bears, fleas, mining techniques, mining camps, Chinese and French miners, theaters, ranchos, and señoritas.
When Marryat arrived in San Francisco on June 14, 1850, he saw the city recovering from one of its great fires. He quickly settled into one of the gold rush’s most ubiquitous institutions, the gambling saloon. He writes: “On entering one of these saloons, the eye is dazzled almost by the brilliancy of chandeliers and mirrors. The roof, rich with giltwork, is supported by pillars of glass; and the walls are hung with French paintings of great merit, but of which female nudity form alone the subject. The centres of the tables are covered with gold ounces and rich specimens from the diggings.”
Such descriptions no doubt shocked Victorian sensibilities but, in turn, lured young men to the Gold Rush by the thousands. Demonstrating his good-natured ability and resilience, he wrote in his preface that his journal and drawings had been destroyed in one of San Francisco’s many fires, resulting in his tongue-in-cheek subtitle. Possessed of a remarkable memory, he recreated his journal and sketches.
Mountains and Molehills is listed in many of the standard bibliographies of Gold Rush books: The Zamorano 80, Carl Wheat’s Books of the California Gold Rush, and Gary Kurutz’s The California Gold Rush, to name only a few. His illustrations are as important and renowned as his writing. The links below will take you to two editions: the New York edition with black and white illustrations, and the London edition, with the same illustrations, but hand-colored. The excellence of the illustrations led to the inclusion of the book in Harry Peters’ California on Stone, which lists artists working in California.
Below are links to both editions from the Internet Archive – first the New York edition, then the London edition. The Society of California Pioneer’s Alice Phelan Sullivan Library has copies of both editions.
Read Mountains and Molehills First Edition here.
Read Mountains and Molehills Second Edition here.
Patricia Keats, Director of Library and Archives