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Eye of the Blackbird A Story of Gold in the American West
Holly Skinner, survival instructor, wrangler, forest fire fighter, rough rider, and gold prospector, writes about gold and the lives of the prospectors whose lust for gold opened Anglo settlement of California and the Rockies. Skinner combines history, geology, biography, and personal experience to come up with a unique book - a poem to gold and those who seek it.
“How could a simple element like gold cause mountains to be moved, civilizations to rise in splendor and then get torn back down, new worlds to be explored and populations to shift like cargo in a unsteady boat? Hundreds of thousands have joined in the search for gold, sifting earth and breaking stone, pillaging the living and robbing the dead, all to hold in their hands for a moment some small piece of glowing treasure.”

“It has become easy in the light of today’s ‘goldless’ society to dismiss past centuries’ gold rushes as a rapacious trampling of resources – greed run ecologically amok, an exploitation to be condemned and shunted into the closet with the rest of mankind’s unpleasant deeds. But that view also dismisses the reality of human courage, the labor and hardship, the dreams and disappointments of those individuals who lived the history.”

“I have come here to relive that history, to walk at least partially in their footsteps, carrying pick and pan. For a year and a half now I have lived in a ghost town where miners once dug their hearts out, gave up and moved on. By kerosene lamplight, in a run-down log cabin on Wyoming’s South Pass, I have read the diaries and letter, reminiscences and requiems of those who joined the western gold rushes. From California to the Klondike, Virginia City to Atlantic City, Denver to Deadwood, Clear Creek to Cripple Creek I have followed them – those dreamers and die-hards – mad alchemists wringing gold from sand and solid rock.” - from the Introduction to Eye of the Blackbird, a Story of Gold in the American West, copyright 2001 by Holly Skinner.


If you survey the field of gold rush writings, you find an awful lot of unreadable dross – unverifiable tales of ’49, a sourdough’s wobbly stories, fables of good luck and bad - a slew of narratives that just don’t assay out so well. There’s the distinct sense, in most of these stories, of someone’s thumb on the scale, if you will.

Which is a shame, since gold rushes were integral to the settling of the Western U.S., and the story of gold in North America is wild, wooly, and fascinating enough when told straight up. You can make the argument that the history of the Western U.S. begins with gold - the foot-loose gold seekers coming to California by the tens of thousands, who were followed by hundreds of thousands, many of whom traveled to other gold strikes as they were discovered in the West and into Alaska and Canada over the next few decades.

Skinner’s Eye of the Blackbird takes the broad view of this exodus west. She has studied the diaries and accounts of these remarkable gold rush times, and has woven those accounts with her own familiarity with the West, its land and its history, into a thoroughly entertaining book about gold, and people's relation to it.

Skinner grew up in Wyoming, and has a prospector’s trained eye for a promising looking landscape. She has frequently been successful in ‘finding color’ in her pan. As a matter of fact, she significantly points out the wide distance between finding traces of gold (not hard to do, if you know where to look) and that rarer instance of finding gold in quantities sufficiently plentiful and accessible to be profitably taken out of the ground.

Although gold was widely distributed in the New World, through an accident of cultural history, much of the North American continent contained great unexploited gold holdings. In Central and South America, Aztec, Mayan, and Inca cultures revered gold, and gathered and mined it extensively. But the natives of North America seemingly had no use for it.

Amazingly, gold was simply there for the taking when the discovery at Sutter’s Mill in 1848 started the first gold rush. Some true facts:

- Early participants in the California gold harvests simply picked gold nuggets out of streams.

- The more ambitious argonauts dug gold out of crumbly quartz with a knife.

- “General” George Custer died opening the Black Hills to gold-seekers.

- 30% of those seeking gold in California died on the way, or soon thereafter.

- Cannibalism among travelers in the 1800s neither started nor ended with the Donner party.

- During the last great gold rush of the 1800s, in the Klondike, each prospector was required to lug 2,000 pounds of food and supplies over the frozen Chilkoot Pass, which took about 40 trips, on foot, over a 3500-foot pass that no pack animal could manage to cross. It took 3 months on average.


There’s a lot of history in this great book, a lot about prospecting and mining (including a chapter on an on-again, off-again gold mine and its current, laid-back owner), and it’s all threaded together with Skinner’s personal experiences wintering in Wyoming. The outdoors-person Skinner stalks elk on the plain, and in turn is stalked by a mouse in her cabin. Prospector Skinner enjoys the shock of her first panned flake of gold. And the geographer Skinner takes us through the landmarks of the Gold Rush West, many unchanged today.

Published by Johnson Books in Boulder, Colorado, Holly Skinner’s Eye of the Blackbird is fantastic, brutal and beautiful – much like gold itself.


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