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By Eilene Lyon

When Henry Jenkins’s sawmill business goes bust and his family loses their Indiana farm to foreclosure, he sees gold as the answer to his financial woes. Joining a company of younger men, Jenkins and the other prospective miners sign fraudulent promissory notes to borrow from a ruthless businessman, Allen Makepeace, to reach the gold mines. They sail the risky route via Panama to the mines in 1851. But gold is not so easy to find by then. Making enough to survive and get home will be difficult; repaying Makepeace could be impossible.


As Henry Jenkins becomes mired in mining, his wife, Abby, struggles to meet the needs of her large family amidst crop failures, waves of deadly disease, and harassment by Henry’s creditors. When Henry’s sons-in-law follow in his wake, they find themselves on a notorious death ship, stranded in the vast Pacific. Will any of these frantic men make it home to their distressed families?


Fortune’s Frenzy reveals the plight of miners who borrowed at extortionate rates to get to California, and explores the dangerous and deadly sea routes to the west coast that killed roughly 10 percent of those who risked the journey. Alternating between the miners’ trials and terrors, and the challenges for the wives, children, and mothers left behind, Fortune’s Frenzy delves into the country’s pressing social, economic, and nationalist issues in the pre-Civil War decades. The theme is age-old, and still relevant: desperate people falling for get-rich-quick schemes. They fail to consider the sacrifices they will have to make and the dismal odds of their success.


(307 pages)

Fortune's Frenzy: A California Gold Rush Odyssey

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