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Stories from the valley

Emperor Norton, Rice and other Gold Rush Nuggets

Contributed by Tim Johnson

As a matter of confession, I always hated that I grew up in Placerville. There were too many depictions of whiskered miners bent over a stream with gold pan in hand. One even looked down on me every day of middle school from the wall of the gymnasium.

I was 10. How could I relate to anything more than the travails common to my fellow 5th grade class mates – lunch, cool tennis shoes and the very odd art teacher (who painted the mural on the gym wall)?

At 50, I still feel depictions of the Gold Rush are largely old, stylistic and more than a bit dusty. That is, until I picked up Gold Rush Stories by Gary Noy. Gary, a history professor at Sierra College, not only finds the compelling stories of the era, but tells them with flair and reflects deep humanity.

Such is the chapter on the first emperor of the United States, Norton I. To start with his self-proclaimed sovereignty, however, is to start the story in the middle. First, he was a merchant – one that tried and failed to corner the rice market in the heady days of the Gold Rush. In fact, it was his speculation on a crop failure in China and planned shipments of the grain from Peru that lead to his financial and personal demise.

After his ruin, Joshua Norton began his reign as Emperor of the United States, captivating first the San Francisco and then the state’s newspapers, hungry for captivating stories to lure new readers. The legend of Norton I spiraled, as he made ever greater pronouncements on politics of the day and the papers embraced both the eccentric and the public’s hunger for excitement.

In this story of a peculiar person, we not only see the history of our region with fresh eyes, we also clearly see the characteristics that have stayed with us in this golden West – individualism, embrace of the unconventional and hunger for excitement.

At the bottom of the gold pan, Noy finds not precious metal, but rather the nugget of who we are as a people of the Golden State. Now that is interesting.