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An epic historical tale with the California Trail as central character
on May 17, 2014
Men to Match My Mountains by Irving Stone is a true delight for anyone who enjoys history and is familiar with the western United States. The book focuses on the time period from 1840 to 1900, and the now states of Colorado, Utah, Nevada and California. At the beginning of this epic tale, the area has none of the present boundaries and is mostly empty of Europeans, with the minor exception of California. At the end of the tale there are four states admitted to the Union. In many ways the California Trail is the central character of the story. At the beginning of the tale, nobody knows how to get from Missouri to California by land, or back. At the east end, the South Pass in now Wyoming is known as a good route through the Rocky Mountains, one which had not been discovered by Lewis and Clark. Nobody has even tried to get a wagon through the Sierra Nevada Mountains to California. At the west end, the few people of European origin in California have come by ship or north by land from Mexico. Two things then happen in quick succession and just the right order. First, a few wagon trains of Emigrants from the east discover the best route through the Sierra Nevada Mountains via the now called Donner Pass. Second, gold is discovered to the west of the Donner Pass, stimulating an avalanche of people from the eastern US into California via the California Trail through the Donner Pass. How would history have unfolded if gold were discovered in California, but people from the eastern US did not have privileged access by land? There was already one owner, Mexico, and other potential suitors besides the US. Just something to ponder now as US Interstate 80 approximately follows the California Trail through South Pass and Donner Pass.
Men to Match My Mountains is packed with memorable characters - John Sutter, John Freemont, Brigham Young, H.A.W. Tabor, Baby Doe, Collis Huntington, Charles Crocker, and many others. Many of the chapters stand on their own as colorful vignettes. It is also packed with unforgettable places, some now ghost towns, others prospering - Sutter's Fort, Virginia City, San Francisco, Cripple Creek, Leadville, Denver, etc.
I first read Men to Match My Mountains back in the early 1970's, about 15 years after its first publication in 1956. At that time I had moved from the east to live in California and was drawn to its tales about my new home state. I now re-read it in 2014, finding it equally fascinating. It is a tribute to the content and Irving Stone's craft that many of the passages are still familiar after 40 years, and that parts of the book flow like "page turners." With current PC sensitivity the book could be criticized because Native Americans and women get second billing. On the first count, something is missing. On the latter count, the West during its most colorful episodes of mining camps, railroad construction, and politics was indeed predominantly male. John Sutter, it is alleged, came all the way from Switzerland to establish his fort near now Sacramento, in part, to get away from his wife. The Mormon settlement in now Utah was completely male dominated. There and elsewhere women are often mentioned where present, but seldom given significant voice.
Men to Match My Mountains is a good read about a uniquely colorful and amazing period In history. While other, earlier, migratory periods were no doubt equally amazing, arguably few have been as well documented or captured as readable history. A fascinating character at the very end of Stone's book is publisher Hubert Bancroft, who became obsessed with collecting all that was written about the West. Bancroft eventually assembled a library of sixty thousand volumes of original source material, for which he built a fire-proof storage building, and which he then processed into many volumes of historical analysis. His library was eventually purchased by the University of California in 1905. We are indebted not just to Stone, but also to Bancroft for our literary access to this amazing tale.