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June 6, 2006 > Gold Rush Legacy

Gold Rush Legacy

A 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)

Centerville Presbyterian Church pastor, Dr. Greg Roth, has written a fascinating look at the religious aspects of the California Gold Rush, focusing on the efforts of William Wallace Brier, who established many 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, plant new Presbyterian churches and minister to the Christian miners. Between 1850 and 1874, Brier planted 24 churches in California and Nevada, including churches in Centerville, Alvarado, and Milpitas. Roth's Centerville church was the third such congregation founded by Brier in California.

Relying primarily on archival letters written by Brier, the AHMS and his fellow- ministers, Roth has created an interesting book on this Gold Rush era history, made even more interesting because it explores a part of our local 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 contracted illnesses in Panama that made it hard at times for him to carry out his missionary work.

After planting a church in Marysville, in 1850, raising a church building, then loosing that ministry, he moved to Grass Valley and planted a church there in February 1852. Two months later, he returned to the Mission San Jose area and left his planting of churches for the planting orchards. Relying on his boyhood farming days for experience, Brier purchased 40 acres near the George Patterson farm (Ardenwood) and earned a reputation for producing fine fruits. During this time, Brier also became the first paid teacher in Alameda County. In 1853; he was elected superintendent of the Alameda County schools, serving two terms.

Brier established a total of 28 churches (4 in Indiana, 16 in California, and 8 in Nevada). Of these, 16 are still active congregations. Roth discusses Brier's work planting these congregations and his struggles ministering to the miners while also providing for his family.

Overall, I found this an interesting, well-researched account of the Presbyterian's early work during the pioneer days following the Gold Rush. Unfortunately the book also suffers from some minor typos and misspellings that a thorough proofreading would have caught. For example, in the Epilogue, Roth gives the date of April 16, 1906 for the great earthquake instead of April 18th - a minor error, perhaps, but still a distraction from an important point. Apparently, Brier had been writing a history of his church plantings before his death on June 3, 1887. This valuable manuscript was consumed in the fires that also destroyed San Francisco.

Dr. 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, producing a book of interest to anyone wanting to learn more about the California Gold Rush or the history of the founding of the Presbyterian churches in our area.

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