The most recommended books on the California Gold Rush

Who picked these books? Meet our 10 experts.

10 authors created a book list connected to the California Gold Rush, and here are their favorite California Gold Rush books.
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Stone Age Present

By William Allman,

Book cover of Stone Age Present: How Evolution Has Shaped Modern Life -- From Sex, Violence and Language to Emotions, Morals and Communities

Bruce Nappi Author Of Collapse 2020 Vol. 1: Fall of the First Global Civilization

From the list on the impending collapse of global civilization.

Who am I?

I was an Eagle Scout selected for the 1964 North Pole expedition, graduate of MIT with both BS and MS degrees in Aero Astro – yes, a true MIT rocket scientist. I quickly took planning roles at the “bleeding edge” of technology: missiles, nuclear power, heart pumps, DNA sequencing, telemedicine… In every case, however, the organizations were plagued by incompetence and corruption. As an individual, I interacted with activist leaders in movements for: peace, climate, social justice, ending poverty, etc. Again, incompetence and corruption. Throughout, I dug for answers into the wisdom of the classics and emerging viewpoints. Finally. All that effort paid off. I found the “big picture”! 

Bruce's book list on the impending collapse of global civilization

Why did Bruce love this book?

Unravelling the confusion of our time always begs the question, “how could such confusion happen with the greatness of human thinking?” Allman has a simple answer: maybe our notion about “modern intelligence” isn’t so obvious. His point is: biological evolution is extremely slow. The time from the stone age to now is extremely short on evolutionary scales. Instead of focusing just on modern marvels like jet planes, what if we first compare our image of a “stone age man,” with the thinking ability of “modern” miners during the 1849 California gold rush? Hmmm… not “all” that different. Then compare a current apartment designer with the designers of the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, 3,000 BC? Are modern brains actually going backward? This book will really challenge your “stone age” brain.

By William Allman,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Stone Age Present as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

From Simon & Schuster, The Stone Age Present explores how evolution has shaped modern life—from sex, violence, and language to emotions, morals, and communities.

In this fascinating synthesis of the disciplines of anthropology, psychology, linguistics, philosophy, and biology, William Allman shows us how our minds have evolved in response to challenges faced by our prehistoric ancestors, and reveals how our brains continue to harbor that legacy in the present day.

Redeeming Love

By Francine Rivers,

Book cover of Redeeming Love

Lori Handeland Author Of Beauty and the Bounty Hunter

From the list on romance for lovers of the show The English.

Who am I?

As an only child of a working mother, I spent a lot of Saturday afternoons with John Wayne. I graduated to movie nights at the theater with Clint Eastwood. My hero-worshipping crush on tough guys combined with my passion for romance novels and my fascination with the history of the American West made me the perfect candidate to write gritty, romantic westerns. My very first book, written over 30 years ago, was a western.

Lori's book list on romance for lovers of the show The English

Why did Lori love this book?

Redeeming Love is a retelling of the Biblical story of Gomer and Hosea, set during the California Gold Rush, with a heroine who was sold into prostitution as a child and a hero who heeds God’s call to marry her and love her unconditionally.

I have always been drawn to dark heroes, in both my reading and my writing, but this book is all dark heroine and after reading it I wanted to write a few dark heroines too. The characters in this book have stayed with me for years as I’ve endeavored to create something as powerful as Redeeming Love.

When asked if there is a common theme that runs through all my novels, I realized I write books where the characters will do anything for love. Sometimes “anything” isn’t pretty. Sometimes “anything” is scary. But love is worth the risk.

By Francine Rivers,

Why should I read it?

5 authors picked Redeeming Love as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

NATIONAL BESTSELLER * SOON TO BE A MAJOR MOTION PICTURE starring Abigail Cowen, Tom Lewis, Nina Dobrev, with Logan Marshall Green and Eric Dane, special appearance by Famke Janssen. Distributed by Universal Pictures with a screenplay by Francine Rivers and D.J. Caruso


Angel expects nothing from men but betrayal. A child prostitute, she survives by keeping her hatred alive. And what she hates most are the men who use her, leaving her empty and…

Soapy Smith

By Charles River Editors,

Book cover of Soapy Smith: The Life and Legacy of the Wild West's Most Infamous Con Artist

Jim Motavalli Author Of The Real Dirt on America's Frontier Outlaws

From the list on Wild West Desperados.

Who am I?

I wrote my first cover story on climate change circa 1996, when the computer modeling made clear what would happen. Then I began to see clear physical evidence that the planet was warming, and not much was being written about it outside academic circles. That led to the book Feeling the Heat. I recruited a bunch of experienced environmental journalists, sent them around the world, and they came back with very detailed and important reporting based on what they’d seen—melting glaciers, rising seas, changing ecosystems.

Jim's book list on Wild West Desperados

Why did Jim love this book?

Why isn’t Soapy Smith better known? He was one of the most outrageous con men who ever lived, and would make a fine subject for a film. After a colorful life of fleecing people with three-card monte and bunco of every description (and getting run out of Denver), he turned up in Skagway, Alaska during the Gold Rush of 1896, and his gambling parlor took the miners for every penny. He was finally gunned down in 1898. 

By Charles River Editors,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Soapy Smith as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

*Includes pictures
*Includes a bibliography for further reading
Before there was Charles Ponzi, there was Jefferson Randolph “Soapy” Smith II. The famed Old West con artist and gangster's criminal career ranged from Texas to Alaska, from Denver to the Klondike. But Smith was not predestined to become a criminal; if genetics and environment typically determine one’s destiny, he could have become a farmer, a lawyer, or a politician. He was born in Coweta County, Georgia, on November 2, 1860, to Jefferson Randolph Smith, Jr., and Emily Dawson Smith, right as the Southern society his family was a part of was…

Roaring Camp

By Susan Lee Johnson,

Book cover of Roaring Camp: The Social World of the California Gold Rush

Sarah Deutsch Author Of Making a Modern U.S. West: The Contested Terrain of a Region and Its Borders, 1898-1940

From the list on reimagining our mythic American West and its cast.

Who am I?

At some point I decided that if I was going to teach US history, I better have a good sense of what the place looked like. So I drove across the country—and then back again—and then again, and then once more, each time at a different latitude. I drove through North Dakota and South Dakota, Montana and Idaho, Nebraska and Kansas, Arkansas and Oklahoma, Louisiana and Texas, up and down California, Oregon and Washington, and on and on. I got addicted to seeing the landscape in all its amazing variety and vastness, and seeing the landscape made the histories come alive. 

Sarah's book list on reimagining our mythic American West and its cast

Why did Sarah love this book?

Surely the Gold Rush is one of the first things we learn about the West, but who were these people? Where did they come from? Susan Johnson is a great storyteller, and this story is peopled with men and women from across the globe, radicals and racists, Chinese, Mexicans, Germans, Irish, and everyone else, how they worked, loved, and made a life.

By Susan Lee Johnson,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Roaring Camp as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The world of the California Gold Rush that comes down to us through fiction and film is one of half-truths. In this brilliant work of social history, Susan Lee Johnson enters the well-worked diggings of Gold Rush history and strikes a rich lode.

Johnson explores the dynamic social world created by the Gold Rush in the Sierra Nevada foothills east of Stockton, charting the surprising ways in which the conventions of identity-ethnic, national, and sexual-were reshaped. With a keen eye for character and story, she shows us how this peculiar world evolved over time, and how our cultural memory of…

The Shining Mountains

By Alix Christie,

Book cover of The Shining Mountains

C. P. Lesley Author Of Song of the Siren

From C. P.'s 3 favorite reads in 2023.

Who am I?

Author Historian Historical novelist Podcaster Wannabe ballerina Cat lover

C. P.'s 3 favorite reads in 2023

Why did C. P. love this book?

Like most people raised in the US, I thought I learned the history of westward expansion in school. I even knew that Manifest Destiny destroyed Native American populations and cultures. But this novel by Alix Christie brings the tragedy home in ways the flat text of history books cannot.

Through the story of two generations of one family, The Shining Mountains explores how a relatively respectful discourse between fur traders and indigenous peoples in the Pacific Northwest deteriorated into hostility, suspicion, racial discrimination, warfare, trickery, and murder after the Gold Rush of 1849, with long-term consequences to both those displaced and the natural environment.

Beautifully written and timely, The Shining Mountains will get you thinking and warm your heart.

By Alix Christie,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Shining Mountains as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The year is 1838. A young Scotsman forced from his homeland arrives at Hudson's Bay. Angus McDonald is contracted to British masters to trade for fur. But the world he discovers is beyond even a Highlander's wildest imaginings: raging rivers, buffalo hunts, and the powerful daughter of an ancient and magnificent people. In Catherine Baptiste, kin to Nez Perce chiefs, Angus recognizes a kindred spirit. The Rocky Mountain West in which they meet will soon be torn apart by competing claims: between British fur traders, American settlers, and the Native peoples who have lived for millennia in the valleys and…

Book cover of Men to Match My Mountains: The Monumental Saga of the Winning of America's Far West

Arthur G. Sylvester Author Of Roadside Geology of Southern California

From the list on exploration of the American West.

Who am I?

I had never been out of a Los Angeles suburb until my high school biology teacher took our class on a river trip running rapids down the Yampa and Green Rivers in Colorado and Utah. The trip was absolutely exhilarating and opened my eyes to the American West and to a career exploring its geology and landscapes. Fifty years and over 300 field trips later, mostly in southern California, I finally learned enough to write Roadside Geology of Southern California. That book was followed by the second editions of Geology Underfoot in Southern California, and Geology Underfoot in Death Valley and Eastern California with co-authors Allen Glazner and Robert Sharp.

Arthur's book list on exploration of the American West

Why did Arthur love this book?

If I could return to any place and time in history, it would be to the American West in the years between 1830 to 1880. It was an exciting time of exploration, territorial acquisitions, invention, and discovery of all of the major mineral deposits (Comstock Lode 1859, Butte 1864, Mother Lode 1849), construction of a transcontinental railroad (completed 1869), and establishment of the world’s first national park, Yellowstone (1872). This book opened my eyes to the American West.

By Irving Stone,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Men to Match My Mountains as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Acclaimed author of biographical and historical fiction Irving Stone turns his magnificent talent to telling America's most colorful and exciting story-the opening of the Far West.

Men to Match My Mountains is a true historical masterpiece, an unforgettable pageant of giants-men like John Sutter, whose dream of paradise was shattered by the California Gold Rush; Brigham Young and the Mormons, who tamed the desert with Bible texts; and the silver kings and the miners, who developed Nevada's Comstock Lode and settled the Rockies.

America called for greatness...and got it. There is nothing in history to match the stories of these…

Book cover of Alcohol and Opium in the Old West

Randi Samuelson-Brown Author Of Market Street Madam

From the list on the dark side of the Wild West.

Who am I?

I recall the exact moment when my interest sparked about frontier prostitution and Denver’s underbelly — a friend mentioned the ‘bad blood’ in her family — an ancestor who was a second-rate madam and who employed her own daughters. The quest started. Who were these women, and why did they make the choices they did? I’ve spent years chasing down traces of the old west’s prostitutes, fascinated by their identities and lives. The west had opportunities for women who were willing to take chances. As a fifth-generation Coloradoan, I hoped to capture the story of these enterprising and overlooked women, their lives, and the world around them.

Randi's book list on the dark side of the Wild West

Why did Randi love this book?

By now, readers can get a sense of where my recommendations are going with all of this. Life in the West was hard, and alcohol and drugs were turned to (often) to help reduce the pain, discomfort, and loneliness of living in the western United States. Whiskey tended to be of poor quality, drugs were not known to be addictive, and a lot of the stereotypical old west behavior stemmed from the use of liquor and drugs – often to the detriment of the users…and innocent bystanders.

By Jeremy Agnew,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Alcohol and Opium in the Old West as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

This book explores the role and influence of drink and drugs (primarily opium) in the Old West, which for this book is considered to be America west of the Mississippi from the California gold rush of the 1840s to the closing of the Western Frontier in roughly 1900. This period was the first time in American history that heavy drinking and drug abuse became a major social concern.

Drinking was considered to be an accepted pursuit for men at the time. Smoking opium was considered to be deviant and associated with groups on the fringes of mainstream society, but opium…