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The West, Vol. 5 - The Grandest Enterprise Under God [VHS] (1996)

Peter Coyote , Philip Bosco , Stephen Ives  |  NR |  VHS Tape

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Editorial Reviews


The title of this episode of The West is coined in a prologue by historian J.S. Holliday, who along with several other experts guides us through this splendid survey of the gold rush and its explosive effect on the burgeoning West. From the moment James Marshall finds gold in California's American River on January 24, 1848, we witness the fever of greed and grit that stoked the American dream and spelled certain doom for many would-be millionaires and countless Native Americans. Gold sparked a human stampede of 50,000 fortune seekers, among them the miners known as forty-niners, represented here by William Swain, a New York farmer whose cross-country trek for gold (joined by 30,000 migrants from Missouri alone) gives this video its narrative line.

This was a time of rampant sin among characters whose legend was writ large in the gold rush capital, San Francisco, where eccentrics such as "Emperor" Joshua Norton added a flourish of local color; where an enterprising Mandarin named Wah Li opened the first Chinese laundry; and where Levi Strauss turned his denim tent canvas into durable, bestselling pants. Fortunes rose and fell, and with California statehood came the ongoing oppression of Native Americans, whose tragic history was further tainted by broken treaties and intertribal warfare. Providing a comprehensive study of the gold rush turbulence, the story moves forward to the mid-1850s, but finds its suitable coda earlier, in 1850, when William Swain returned to New York, with not a grain of gold but richer for the experience of seeking it. He would, we learn, become the most successful peach grower in Niagara County, New York--just one of many ironies in this fascinating chapter of American history. --Jeff Shannon

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