Worldwide Gold Rush to California Begins


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My Gold Rush posts this year have traced the spread of the news, from the discovery of gold in January 1848 until the knowledge reached distant corners of the earth. Although Johann Sutter wanted to keep the discovery secret, he could not contain news of such import, as we have seen.

“The United States is on the brink of an Age of gold,” the New York Herald Tribune reported in November 1848. By the end of the month, newspapers on the East Coast were full of the story, but it still wasn’t accepted as a fact by the U.S. government.

In fact, Colonel Mason’s letter regarding the discovery of gold arrived in Washington, D.C., on November 22, 1848, but it took a couple of weeks for the letter to circulate to the highest levels of government.

Brigantine_copperEtchDespite lack of official confirmation of the gold finds, the first ship left the East Coast for California with gold seekers aboard in November 1848. From the East Coast, a sailing voyage around South America took five to eight months, depending on the exact route and the weather. These were the first American Forty-Niners, though as my posts have shown, many other miners reached California well before 1849 began.

New Zealanders received word of California gold in November 1848 when an American whaling ship brought newspapers from Hawaii. News also reached France in November 1848. The Courrier des États-Unis reported the gold find on November 30.

Gold seekers from foreign lands began their travels to California to join those from Mexico and South America who had already arrived.

At the same time travelers from around the world streamed toward California, the first shipments of gold left San Francisco bound for the mint. The first ship to leave port carried over $500,000 in gold.

The government’s San Francisco mint wouldn’t open until 1854. Until then, gold was made into coins by private mints or transported either via sea or overland to the Philadelphia mint.

How quickly would news spread if large quantities of gold were discovered today? What would keep miners from flocking to the site?

A Broken Foot, Horseback Riding, and Christmas Woes . . . And Joys


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gift08Most years about this time I get frantic over Christmas preparations. This year is particularly bad, because I have a trip planned for a week in early December, so I am trying to get as much done as possible before I leave. But I’m not having much success.

When I worked full-time, I took a day’s vacation (or more) during Thanksgiving week to do my Christmas shopping. My goal was to buy everything before Thanksgiving. I refused to participate in the frenzy on Black Friday, and I avoided malls on December weekends as much as possible. Nevertheless, it always seemed like there was something I needed on a December Saturday afternoon.

“Mom,” a kid would tell me, “we’re having our class gift exchange on Monday.”

Or my husband would say, “Do you have anything I could give my secretary? Her last day in the office is tomorrow.” Why didn’t he know his assistant’s schedule sooner?

The only year I avoided the December madness was 1995, the year I broke my foot. That fall, my daughter took horseback riding lessons.

It might seem odd that those two facts—a broken foot and horseback riding lessons—would contribute to the only smooth holiday season I’ve had since my marriage. But because (a) I was immobile, yet able to drive because it was my left foot, and (b) my daughter needed to be driven to a rural location near our home every Saturday morning, I had two forced hours of alone time in my minivan each week when no one bothered me.

I treasured those two hours of solitude. I scooted into the back seat of the van and spread my projects around me. The autumn weather was lovely and I worked in comfort to the sound of meadowlarks.

In 1995, online shopping was not yet available, but catalogs poured into my mailbox by the dozens. I took the most likely catalogs with me on Saturdays, selected gifts for all my loved ones, and filled out the order blanks.

Voilà! Christmas. I was done with my shopping by Halloween.

I’ve tried to replicate that year’s success every autumn since. Unfortunately, my more recent experiences go like this:

  1. On Labor Day, I think to myself that Christmas is around the corner.
  2. On Halloween, I decide to make my gift list.
  3. In mid-November, I realize, “Oh, hell, Thanksgiving is next week.” And I decide to go shopping on Monday, as I always have.
  4. On December 1, I say, “Damn, it’s December.” And because I’m retired, I realize I can shop mid-week. I try to stifle the panic.
  5. On December 15, it dawns on me that I must mail all the out-of-town stuff that day. Or on the 16th at the latest.
  6. On December 20, I wake up in the middle of the night, realizing I forgot to buy so-and-so a gift. But at least my husband is retired now, so it won’t be the gift for his secretary this year.

Now, add in Christmas cards (which, because I worked for Hallmark Cards, I must send), the family newsletter, some holiday travel, and you’ll see why the magic of Christmas has left me behind. Click here for a poem I wrote a few years ago about my holiday woes.

Then finally it is Christmas morning, the frenzy is behind me, and I welcome the day with family and friends and the joy of togetherness.

I really do like Christmas. But only once it has arrived.

What’s your least favorite part of Christmas? How do you survive it?

The Cousins and Rudolph


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4 cousins Nov 1986I wrote on Monday about my children and their cousins. The picture above is my favorite picture of the four of them, primarily because I know the story behind it.

They were singing “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” to the adults that were present. The youngest, my daughter, was nineteen months old, and didn’t know much more than “Woo-doff.” The middle two—my son and my niece—knew all the words and most of the tune. Only the oldest (my nephew) could add the “extra” lyrics—you know, the ones that go:

Rudolph the red-nosed reindeer (REINDEER)
Had a very shiny nose (LIKE A LIGHT BULB)

The other kids thought he was hilarious.

So in this picture, the four kids are singing away, three of them clapping with delight. Son and Niece carried the melody, while Daughter bounced and clapped to her own rhythm. Nephew, a suave eight-year-old, displayed his boredom with the traditional Johnny Mark lyrics and only chimed in with the special harmony at the end of the lines.

Note that my son was so into the song that he stomped his foot in time with the music.

I laugh every time I see the picture. I wish I had a recording to go along with the picture.

(Just in case you wondered, none of them grew up to be singers. But all four of them won Hall Family Foundation college scholarships while I worked at Hallmark Cards, and they are all responsible and independent adults today.)

What memories of children during the holidays make you smile?

On Cousins, Connections, and the “Social” in Social Media


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First picture of the four cousins

First picture of the four cousins

I envied my children as they were growing up—they were close with two of their cousins. They were close in age, and for their first few years of life they lived within a reasonable driving distance of their mutual grandparents. The four kids played together regularly, stair steps spanning six and a half years.

My nephew and niece were older than my son and daughter. Nephew (the oldest) was charged with keeping order. As an oldest child myself, I know how unfair that was to the poor kid, but he bore it bravely. I’ve learned in recent years (now that all the culprits are beyond the age of grounding) that Niece and Son ganged up on Daughter, the baby. Daughter still has a soft place in her heart for Nephew who saved her.

A litter of cousins

A litter of cousins

The reason I envied my children is that I only had brothers and a sister. One brother was near me in age, but the others were much younger and not playmates in the way closer siblings are. I always thought it would be fun to be part of a litter.

I had six first cousins (all children of the same aunt), but I rarely saw them growing up.

I had a gob of second cousins, but saw them even less frequently. Some of my second cousins live in the Kansas City area, and I finally met them after I moved here as an adult. Three of them are women about my sister’s age, and I was struck by how much their mannerisms resembled my sister’s. The hand gestures, the speech tones—it was like watching my sister in triplicate.

A few years ago, there was a family reunion in Nebraska where I met other second cousins for the first time. I couldn’t see any family resemblances in that part of the clan. There are still some second cousins on that side of the family whom I’ve never met, and I can only wonder how genetics played out there.

Even though our family is far-flung and not close, through the power of social media I’ve reconnected with a few cousins.

Two first cousins found me on Facebook. It’s been interesting to see the pictures they’ve posted of themselves. One cousin looks like our mutual grandmother, another reminds me of my brother.

A second cousin recently found me through this blog. She was researching our common ancestors in Sacramento (though she knew them better than I did). She found my post on the Strachan-Ryan (our shared great-grandparents) wedding. Since then, we have traded emails about our memories, and I sent her a picture I had of our great-grandmother, Cecelia Ryan.

This second cousin and I met once as children, and we both recalled the meeting, but we knew little about each other’s lives since our grade school days. When we friended each other on Facebook, I saw some pictures this cousin has posted of herself. She looks more like my grandmother (her great-aunt) than I do!

And so families continue, generation after generation. Sometimes close. Sometimes not. But always with connections that transcends time and distance.

Social media now brings us together in ways that were impossible in decades past, forging closer connections, or at least letting us see the connections that exist.

When have you been surprised by a connection with a relative you don’t know well?

Sculpting My Novel and My Life


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MC900290846My writing goal for the summer was to finish an edit of my second Oregon Trail book. I got it done just after Labor Day. Of course, that was not the end of the project. I know it needs another substantial edit. And probably another edit after that.

And I’m working still on the first book, which is closer to being finished, but could still benefit from some shaping.

Some writers seem to be able to dash off a first draft of their novel, go back through it once to catch typos, and declare it done. I can’t do that. Part of it may be my inexperience—I still consider myself to be a newbie novelist. Part of it may be my unwillingness to let go.

But a substantial part is that I know I can make it better with each draft. It isn’t time to let go of the book yet. Not until I am proud of it. It took me nine drafts (four of them major rewrites) to finish the novel I published under a pseudonym.

For me, writing a novel is like sculpture. With each draft, I lay down more clay or scrape it away to reveal the story inside. On the first draft, I write the bones, the skeleton of what happens. On the next draft, I further develop the plot and fix the obvious glitches. On the next draft, I add more character back story and emotion and description.

On the next, I focus on the story arc—making sure the plot points are at about the right points, that there is not much denouement after the climax, etc. It is surprising that if you look for plot points, they are there. It’s a matter of building them up so that readers feel satisfied with the timing of the twists in the story.

Of course, writing isn’t really as scientific as this. By the third draft or so, I’m sharing the story with my critique group, and they tell me where I most need to work. So the story arc draft may come before the emotion-adding draft. Or I have to go back to the plot when I’m told something isn’t believable.

Maybe it is inexperience that I cannot concentrate on everything that a novel needs at once. It is definitely my fault that my time is over-committed and each draft takes so much time.

But writing is what I want to do. No one will manage my time except for me. It is up to me to sculpt my life the way I sculpt my novel. I try on new activities for size—a board or committee here, a new critique group there. The activities that fit, I add to if I’m able. The ones that don’t, I carve away when I can.

Piece by piece, and draft by draft, our life work builds. On the pages we write and in the friends we make.

What sculpting does your life need?

Friends: Sometimes Mothers Know Best


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When I arrived at Middlebury College, I knew no one. The college did a reasonably good job of throwing freshmen together on a variety of activities, but friendships must develop at their own pace and in their own time.

The day we moved into the dorm, I was wearing a nice pants suit (double-knit polyester, of course, because it was 1973). I was dressed up because my father and I had flown across the country the day before, and in 1973, people from Good Families still dressed up to fly. My jeans were packed in my suitcase, and I didn’t change clothes until we had moved everything into the dorm room.

Unbeknownst to me, across the hall, a girl from New Jersey—already dressed in jeans—was unpacking her suitcases with her mother. Her mother spotted me all gussied up, and told her daughter, “Now that girl [me] is someone you should get to know. Look at her nice pants suit.”

New Jersey girl scoffed, “I’ll bet she’s stuck up. Why would she move into a dorm in a pants suit?”

S&T Midd 01-76 cropped

My friend and me, January 1976

A few days later, when parents were gone and Freshman Week was well underway, the New Jersey girl and I left the dorm for some event at the same time, both wearing jeans. We walked to the assembly hall together.

And we have been good friends now for over forty years.

Fast forward many years, to when my daughter was a preschooler. We were at a family outing for my husband’s law firm, with kids of various shapes and sizes milling about everywhere.

I tried to get my daughter to mingle with the other children. “Go play with the little H____ girls,” I said. The two little H____ girls had curly blond hair and matching summer dresses with ruffles. “Don’t they look cute?”

My daughter—never a frilly dresses kind of girl—scoffed at me, and refused to leave my side.

A decade later, she and the little H____ girls went to the same high school. My daughter and the older H____ girl were on the same cross-country team, and they became great friends. My daughter still hangs out at the H____ house when she comes home to visit. I’ve tried not to say, “I told you so.”

When has your mother been proven right about one of your friends?

Seeking Inspiration at the Plains Indians Exhibit (Nelson Atkins Museum of Art)


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As soon as I heard about it, I wanted to see the Plains Indians special exhibit at the Nelson Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City.  After all, I’m writing novels about travel across the plains in the 1840s—my visit to the museum would be research. So my husband and I set out for an afternoon at the Nelson a few weeks ago.

CantohujaI knew I would glean details that would enrich my novels, and the Plains Indians exhibit did exactly that. But I was also awed at the beauty of many of the objects on display.

For example, here is a picture of a pipe and tobacco bag from the Central Plains about 1845, the time my characters were traveling to Oregon. The bag was called a cantohuja, or “container of the heart.” It received this endearing name because of the sacredness of the pipe to the native peoples. I don’t currently have a pipe ceremony in my Oregon Trail novel, but perhaps I will have to work one in. At the least, I can describe a beaded, fringed bag such as this.

I was also impressed at how well-preserved most of the pieces were. Many of the exhibits were centuries old but could still be worn or used today. As I thought about this, I realized the Nelson would only include the best examples of Native American art and culture. But in addition, it occurred to me that the more enlightened white travelers in North America in the 18th and 19th centuries viewed the native tribes as anthropological oddities, so would have preserved what they collected for posterity. (The unenlightened behaved savagely to peoples they thought of as savages.)

There are stories behind the preservation of the objects in the exhibit. Who collected them? On what travels? On what occasions? And what did the collectors do with the objects originally?

Beaver bowlAs an example of the preservation of the exhibited items, here is a walnut bowl carved to resemble a beaver from around 1800. It is better polished than the walnut salad bowls I own.

The Native Americans my emigrant characters encountered might well have used such a bowl as they ate with the white travelers.  Would leftovers have been sent back to the wagons in such a bowl?

Elkhorn scraperAnother example is an elk antler scraper made in about 1820 used to prepare hides. I have written scenes where my characters buy hides and buffalo robes along the trail. The placard with the scraper informed me that this item might have been a woman’s most important tool. Note that even a utilitarian object such as this is highly decorated.

But my favorite object in the exhibit is the red stone pipe bowl shown below. It is from about 1820, and depicts a Pawnee myth involving a boy and bear. According to the description of the pipe, the bear derives power from the sun and the boy in turn receives power from the bear’s claws. It looks like it could still draw smoke.

I also wondered if a small child might play with such a pipe if he could get his hands on it. Perhaps a child in my novel could do exactly that.

Pipe with Boy & Bear

The museum curators describe their exhibit as follows:

Together the 140 works will reveal the accomplishments of Plains Indian artists, not only as the makers of objects that sustain tradition and embody change, but as the bearers of individual creative expression and innovation.

This description is accurate, but it doesn’t invoke my imagination the way the actual objects did. As I walked through the art and objects of daily living, I thought about the history of the native peoples and the emigrants who went through the prairies, about the humane and inhumane encounters between these peoples through decades of change, and about how our lives are different today because of these encounters.

The Nelson Plains Indians exhibit contains objects from around the United States from Massachusetts to California, the Dakotas to Texas, as well as those from museums and collections in England, France, Germany, and Switzerland.

Beaded boots 2014The Plains Indians exhibit displayed Native American artworks from the earliest discovered items all the way into modern creations. I admired this pair of beaded boots by Jamie Okuma made in 2014, though I must admit I preferred the older objects, which looked like they contained more stories.

The Plains Indians exhibit will be at the Nelson until January 11, 2015. I encourage you to go see it—it is well worth your time. And, of course, you can also partake of the food and atmosphere in Rozelle Court while you’re there.

When have you been inspired by a museum exhibit?

You Do Have My Nose!


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In every family, there are traits and physical features that no one wants to own.

For example, I have my father’s ears. So does my sister. So does my daughter, who calls them “the Claudson ears.” Our ears all stick out at the top. I suppose we should be glad that most of us are girls, and we can wear our hair over the Claudson ears.

A year ago my daughter posted a picture of herself as a toddler on Facebook. One of her friends claimed she couldn’t see any resemblance between the picture and how my daughter looks now. I posted a comment, “Just look at the ears.” The friend immediately recognized my daughter.

One day when I was a teenager, we were talking about family noses and who had whose nose.

My nose is a little pointed. Not too bad, but it’s fairly prominent for someone who is only five-foot-one. I think it’s the same nose my maternal grandmother (Nanny Winnie) had, though mine is more exaggerated.

Whether it is Nanny Winnie’s specifically or not, I’m certain that the nose came from my mother’s side of the family. My mother definitely had the nose, too.

Funny thing was, she never would admit it.

That day when I was in my teens, I told my mother my nose had come from her. “No, it didn’t,” she said. “My nose isn’t as big as yours.”

I insisted. “Yes, I got your nose.”

She wouldn’t believe me.

Until she saw this picture. Here we are together in profile on my wedding day:

MFC MTH at T's wedding 1977 (edited)

When my mother saw this photo, she said, “Oh, we do have the same nose.” And it’s obvious we do.

A picture is worth a thousand words.

Which family traits do you and your relatives fight over?

Haunting Book: A Constellation of Vital Phenomena, by Anthony Marra


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Constellation of Vital Phenomena coverI had another novel in mind for my last haunting book review this month, but then I read A Constellation of Vital Phenomena, by Anthony Marra, and it immediately became the most haunting book I’ve read this year.

A Constellation of Vital Phenomena  is the story of the impact of the Chechnyan wars on the people of a small village. The citizens of this village show all the humanity and inhumanity of how people behave under  stress. The story revolves around a man’s abduction by Russian soldiers while his eight-year-old daughter Havaa watches. Her neighbor Akhmed takes her to an abandoned hospital where only one doctor, a weary woman named Sonja, remains to treat the victims of war and illness. Sonja, already overwhelmed by the work of running a hospital single-handedly, does not want to assume responsibility for Havaa.

The novel’s timeline takes place over five days, but through numerous flashbacks we see the impact of both the first and second Chechnyan wars on the characters and their families. The flashbacks give the novel a broader scope than simple narration of the five days of Havaa, Akhmed and Sonja’s lives could have. The story is both small and universal, as any good novel should be.

Marra’s prose is beautiful, even as the events he depicts are horrifying. We see torture and sex trafficking, drug abuse and lust, betrayal and euthanasia. Each tragedy makes sense in its time and in the connections between the characters, even as the horror of the novel’s totality mounts.

The novel’s title comes from a definition in Sonja’s medical dictionary:

“Life: a constellation of vital phenomena—organization, irritability, movement, growth, reproduction, adaptation.” 


And, indeed, the novel is about life and all its vital phenomena. Ultimately, we see the power of love and compassion amidst the ugliness of war, but to say any more would be a spoiler.


Some of the characters in this book are heroes, but few are truly villains. Most are victims. They all lose family and friends, and many lose their self-respect as well. Some do their best during extraordinarily difficult times, and some discover their inability to act as they should.

Here are some of the key characters in the novel:

Havaa: At the heart of the novel is eight-year-old Havaa, whom Akhmed saves after her father Dokka is imprisoned by the Russians. As a child, she is not responsible for anything that happens to her, and caring for her drives many of the developments in the plot. Havaa also carries a secret that binds many of the characters and their pasts together.

Akhmed: Although only Havaa’s neighbor, Akhmed takes her to a hospital to save her, and agrees to work as a doctor in exchange for her care. He went to medical school, but is a far better artist than doctor. He is married to Ula, a woman with dementia, whom he mostly abandons to work in the hospital

Sonja: Sonja is a London-trained surgeon who returned to her native Chechnya to find her sister Natasha. She is bitter and exhausted because of her inability to care for everyone the war has sent her way.

Natasha: We see Natasha only in flashbacks. When war came to Chechnya, she fled and was caught up with sex-traffickers who also turned her into a drug addict. She returns, then flees again, and Sonja never finds out what happened to her, though the reader does.

Khassam: An old man and neighbor of Akhmed, Khassam tries to salvage what is left of his community when he cannot salvage his relationship with his son, an informant.

Ramzan: Ramzan, Khassam’s son, was tortured during the first Chechnyan war, and now informs on his friends and neighbors. He is troubled by his actions, and yet cannot find a way to extricate himself from the horrors and losses in his life.

Even when characters seek to escape their cruel reality, even when they betray their friends, I had to forgive them, because of the horrors they endured. Sonja has saved so many lives with her skill and lost her brilliant career; should I condemn her for her brusqueness toward a child who needs a home? Ramzan has been tortured and maimed; I condemn him for informing on his friend to avoid more torture? Akhmed saves Havaa and brings light to Sonja; should I condemn him for killing his bedridden and dying wife when he is about to be captured?

Anthony Marra does a masterful job at making readers ask these questions, of making us sympathize with people surrounded by cruelty who often become cruel themselves. His haunting prose is always cognizant of and compassionate toward human frailty.

A Constellation of Vital Phenomena  is most like The Sandcastle Girls of the other haunting books I have reviewed, and also contains themes similar to the non-fiction Unbroken. We see the same inhumanity of man to other men that war brings out no matter where in the world and when in time it occurs.

This book is fiction, but its themes are real. It is a miracle that any of the characters in A Constellation of Vital Phenomena retained any scrap of goodness in the face of the evil around them. And those of us who live our lives away from evil cannot in our complacency hold the less fortunate responsible. Some of Marra’s characters believe they are beyond redemption, but we readers do not have to believe that they are.

Who are we to judge?


California Grows Quickly Despite Slow Communications


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Throughout 1848, fortune-seekers streamed into California, even though the U.S. government had not yet acknowledged the discovery of gold. By October 1848, there were 8,000 men mining for gold in California, doubled from the 4,000 in July of that year.

William T. Sherman made his second trip to the gold fields in the fall of 1848, and reached the Stanislaus River, called “Sonora” after the region of Mexico where many of the miners came from. Sherman reported that more and more mines were being discovered every day, both north and south of the Stanislaus.

Peter Burnett, photo from Wikipedia

Peter Burnett, photo from Wikipedia

Miners poured into California from Oregon. A few brought wagons down the east side of the Sierra Nevada and reached Sacramento in late October 1848. One of these Oregonian miners was Peter Burnett, who later became California’s first governor.

Burnett described the difficulties of the trail to California along the Yuba in his Recollections and Opinions of an Old Pioneer. He wrote:

I could hear the wagons coming down that rough, rocky hill until midnight. Some of the people . . . had been without water for nearly two days.”

. . .

“Below, glowing in the hot sunshine and in the narrow valley of this lovely and rapid stream, we saw the canvas tents and the cloth shanties of the miners.

Meanwhile, not only was official acceptance of the gold rush slow to come from Washington, but news from the East Coast also arrived slowly in California. On October 23, 1848, the San Francisco newspaper, The Californian, reported news just received from the east via Monterey:

We have been politely favored with the perusal of a letter from Monterey to a gentleman of this town, from which we gather some highly interesting and important intelligence. Two vessels had arrived at Monterey, by which intelligence had been received from Boston and Washington up to June 29.

. . .

“Martin Van Buren was a self nominated candidate for the Presidency, taking the anti-slavery side of the question. Hale of New Hampshire, was the abolition candidate.

“The election for Presidential electors is to be held on the same day in November throughout the Union.

This last point was significant, because 1848 was the first year in which the presidential election took place on the same date throughout the U.S.—November 7, 1848.

In the 1848 presidential election, the candidates were Martin Van Buren, a former Democrat (and former President) who headed the Free Soil Party, Lewis Cass of the Democratic Party, and Zachary Taylor of the Whig Party. Taylor won, but died in 1850, just sixteen months after taking office.

Of course, residents of California could not vote in the 1848 election, because California was not a state. This newspaper account came just a week before the election took place. It had taken four months—from late June until late October—to reach California. How could California ever become a part of the nation when communications were so slow?

And yet, less than two years later, on September 9, 1850, Congress approved California’s statehood.

When have poor communications caused difficulties for you?


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