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May 23, 2006 > Gold Rush Legacy-Book Review

Gold Rush Legacy-Book Review

by Robert A. Garfinkle

"Gold Rush Legacy: W. W. Brier; Pioneer Presbyterian Pastor"
By Dr. Greg Roth
Xlibris Corporation; 353 pages; $19.54 (paper back), $29.69 (hardback)

Dr. Greg Roth has written a fascinating look at the religious aspects of the California Gold Rush and focuses on one man, William Wallace Brier, and his efforts to establish frontier Presbyterian churches. After establishing (planting) four new churches in 1848 and 1849 in his native Indiana, Brier was assigned by the American Home Mission Society (AHMS) to come to California and plant new Presbyterian churches and to minister to the religious needs of the Christian miners. Between 1850 and 1874, Brier planted 24 churches in California and Nevada, including the churches in Centerville, Alvarado, and Milpitas. Roth is the pastor of the Centerville Presbyterian Church in Fremont, which was the third such congregation founded by Brier in California.

Through a mixture of archival letters between Brier and the AHMS and his fellow ministers, Roth has created a very interesting book on this Gold Rush era history, made even more interesting because it explores a part of our local (Fremont) history. I for one was unaware of the work Brier accomplished in both sickness and health over nearly a quarter of a century after he and his pregnant wife trekked across the jungles and mountains of Panama as part of their journey to reach California. Brier contacted illnesses in Panama that would at times make it hard for him to carry out his missionary work.

After planting a church in Marysville, in 1850, raising a church building, then loosing his ministry there, he moved to Grass Valley and established a church there in February 1852. In April of that same year, he moved back to the Mission San Jose area. During a period of reflection and reconsideration of his career as a pastor and having been raised on a farm, Brier purchased 40 acres near the George Patterson farm (Ardenwood) and became a farmer again. His farm became well known for the fine fruits he produced. Brier also became the first paid teacher in Alameda County and in 1853; he was elected superintendent of the Alameda County schools (he served two terms).

Brier established 28 churches (4 in Indiana, 16 in California, and 8 in Nevada). Of these, 16 are still active congregations. Roth discusses Brier's work to plant these congregations and Brier's struggles to minister to the miners and provide for his family.

Overall, I found this a very interesting well-researched accounting of the history of the establishment of first Presbyterian churches in the West during the pioneer days following the Gold Rush. Unfortunately the book also suffers from some minor typos and misspellings that a through proofreading would have caught. In the Epilogue, Roth gives the date of April 16, 1906 as the date of the great earthquake instead of April 18th. A minor error, but a distraction. Apparently before his death on June 3, 1887, William Wallace Brier had been working on a manuscript history of the planting of his churches and this unpublished document was consumed in the fires that also destroyed San Francisco.

Roth explains that his book "is an attempt to reconstruct what was lost, not as a definitive history of the Synod, but as a reconstruction of Brier's inspiring ministry." In that effort Roth has succeeded and I highly recommend this book to anyone interested in learning more about the California Gold Rush or the history of the founding of the Presbyterian churches in our area.

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