Perhaps the single best book now available on the California Gold Rush is H.W. Brands's The Age of Gold, which offers a lively narrative of Gold Rush events within a compelling analytical framework that the discovery of "free" gold in the Sierra foothills forever transformed the American Dream.
In Gold Rush Saints, Kenneth Owens recalls the fascinating and little-known role of Mormon settlers in settling California and promoting the Gold Rush. Mormons, who emerged as a dissident religious movement in the early nineteenth century and faced extreme persecution in the eastern United States, decided at mid-century to lead an exodus to a new holy land. While the Mormons' new capital eventually became Salt Lake City, the first choice was actually San Francisco; in 1846 a ship full of Mormons arrived and quickly comprised a majority of the city's population. The Mormons' hopes of complete separation from American society ended with the discovery of gold, which allowed some Mormon leaders to become fabulously wealthy but reopened age-old dilemmas about the proper relationship between God and Mammon.
Will Bagley's Scoundrel's Tale is an exhaustive collection of primary sources related to the life of one of the Gold Rush's most famous characters, Mormon leader turned buccaneering businessman Sam Brannan. If Brannan's story weren't true, you wouldn't believe it!
Mark Twain missed the height of Gold Rush fever, traveling to California for the first time in 1861, more than a decade after the madness of 1849. Still, Twain's hilarious, semi-autobiographical travelogue Roughing It remains an invaluable (and entertaining!) window into the rambunctious culture created through the Gold Rush.