The Finest Narrative by One Who Had Seen the Elephant—Kurutz
10. BORTHWICK, J[ohn] D[avid]. Three Years in California by J. D. Borthwick with Eight Illustrations by the Author. Edinburgh & London: William Blackwood & Sons, 1857. [vi], , 384 pp., 8 lithograph plates on tinted grounds (from drawings by author). 8vo, later three-quarter dark red sheep over red cloth, spine decorated and lettered in gilt, raised bands, t.e.g. (binding by Putnam Book Store). Spine chafed at head, upper joint cracked but holding, front joint cracked between frontispiece and title, frontispiece professional reattached, otherwise very fine and fresh, the plates very fine. From John Howell-Books, with goldenrod label on back free endpaper and with pencil price of $35 and pencil note “fine.”
Below each illustration: J. D. Borthwick, Delt., M. & N. Hanhart Lith.
[Frontispiece]: Our Camp on Weaver Creek.
Monte in the Mines.
A “Flume” on the Yuba River.
Chinese Camp in the Mines.
Bull & Bear Fight.
A Ball in the Mines.
First edition. Braislin 194. Byrd 67. Cowan I, p. 22. Cowan II, p. 64. Graff 358. Gudde, California Gold Camps, p. 386. Hill II:156. Holliday 107. Howell California 50:313. Howes B622. Huntington Library, Zamorano 80...Exhibition of Famous and Notorious California Classics 8. Kurutz, The California Gold Rush 65a. LC, California Centennial 202. Norris 371. Peters, California on Stone, pp. 59-60, 127n. Rocq 15706. Samuels, Encyclopedia of Artists of the American West, pp. 58-59: “Borthwick exhibited genre paintings in London from 1860 to 1870, including the R[oyal] A[cademy] in 1863 and 1865. Some of these paintings may have been of California. He was the first British artist-correspondent to report the West for a British newspaper.” Streeter Sale 2817. Van Nostrand, The First Hundred Years of Painting in California, pp. 28, 33-34, 88. Van Nostrand & Coulter, California Pictorial, pp. 102-21 (reproducing the plate of “Our Camp on Weaver Creek”). Wheat, Books of the California Gold Rush 21: “Outstanding account of mining life, with the best illustrations the period produced.” Zamorano 80 #8 (Robert J. Woods): “Horace Kephart writes in the introduction to the 1917 edition: ‘Many narratives have been published by men who participated in the stirring events of early California. From among them I have chosen, after long research, one written by a British artist, Mr. J. D. Borthwick, and issued in Edinburgh in 1857. The original book is now rare and sought for by collectors of western Americana.’”Gary Kurutz in Volkmann Zamorano 80 catalogue:
J. D. Borthwick’s Three Years in California roars with excitement, and for this reason, his book has universally been proclaimed as one of the most important accounts of the Gold Rush. A gold seeker blessed with remarkable reporting ability, Borthwick wrote with a dynamism and sense of adventure that captured as well as humanly possible the essence of that rough-and-tumble era. Gold Rush historian Erwin G. Gudde calls it: “One of the best, if not the best book of the period.” Collector T. W. Streeter states: “I do not know of another story by an actual miner that is so well written and so true to that wonderful life in the Days of Gold.” In short, this is the finest narrative by one who had seen the elephant.
Borthwick, a Scotsman visiting New York, reported that the gold fever first seized him in May 1850 (his book incorrectly states the year as 1851). In search of gold, he traveled to California the quickest way possible, via the Isthmus of Panama, and arrived in San Francisco. In this pulsing city, Borthwick observed: “People lived more there in a week than they would in a year in most other places.” After the rainy season ended, the author headed for the mines. Like many others, he soon found grubbing for gold less than thrilling and discovered that fellow miners clamored for his sketches of the diggings. Turning to his god-given talents, he wrote: “I was satisfied that I could make paper and pencil more profitable tools than with pick and shovel. My new pursuit had the additional attraction of affording me an opportunity of gratifying the desire which I had long felt of wandering over the mines, and seeing all the various kinds of diggings and the strange specimens of human nature to be found in them.” In this pursuit, Borthwick succeeded better than anyone.
For the next three years, Borthwick wandered through the mining towns and camps in such places as Sacramento, Placerville, Coloma, Greenwood Valley, Nevada City, Foster’s Bar, Downieville, Jacksonville, San Andreas, and Sonora. His travels allowed him to make a detailed and accurate review of mining methods, ethnic groups, racial tensions, transportation, amusements, lynch law, hotels and restaurants, and the growth of California. His word pictures of seven different ethnic groups teaming together to construct a wing dam, a stroll down a Placerville street strewn with old boots and bottles, a Fourth of July celebration in Columbia, a bull and bear fight featuring the bull-killing grizzly “Winfield Scott,” and the sounds of a brass band in a San Francisco gambling saloon brought a freshness and vitality that transported the reader smack into the middle of this new El Dorado. Borthwick naturally wrote from the perspective of his native land and he both praised and criticized American institutions and mannerisms. He likewise made fascinating observations on the multitude of ethnic groups that pushed their way into the diggings.
Borthwick was an artist of considerable skill, and Blackwood published eight lithographic plates based on his drawings. These are among the best-known and most appreciated views of life in the mines and superbly complement his stunning word pictures. Such views as “Our Camp on Weaver Creek,” “Monte in the Mines,” “Faro,” and “Chinese Camp in the Mines” are all classics and have been reproduced in virtually every pictorial concerning the Gold Rush. His “A Ball in the Mines,” depicting a womanless dance, not only is hilarious but also demonstrates in one brilliant image the miner’s uncanny ability to improvise. Because of their appeal, several of his images were used in the Illustrated London News and reproduced as pictorial letter sheets.
Borthwick returned home to Edinburgh in 1856 and began organizing his notes for the purposes of publication. Upon publication, an extensive and friendly review of the book appeared in Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine 81:4 (1857), p. 487, entitled “The Land of Gold,” and in The National Magazine 2:3 (September 1857), pp. 242-45. Borthwick also published material on his California experience in “Gold in California” (Illustrated London News, January 24, 1852, pp. 632-34); “Mining Life in California” (Harper’s Weekly, October 3, 1857, p. 634); and “Three Years in California” (Hutchings’ California Magazine  2:2, pp. 72-79; 2:3, pp., 121-27; 2:4, pp. 169-74; 2:5, pp. 216-21; 2:6, pp. 271-74; and  2:8, pp. *359-62; 2:9, pp. 411-16).
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