Reading through Ken Johnston’s Legendary Truths: Peter Lassen & His Gold Rush Trail in Fact & Fable, I kept asking myself, “Who is this written for?” Sara Balmuth – in her review found here – addresses the same issue (and gives a fair summary of the book, a bit more than what is already covered in the title). Her conclusion is that Ken Johnston has a “personal agenda.”
Again and again, there are references to those “legendary truths.” Mr. Johnston, having clearly and admirably done his homework, refutes and clarifies and investigates and corrects every historical “fact” about Peter Lassen without first establishing who or what he’s responding to. It’s like reading a transcript of a debate, but only the rebuttals.
I too, like Sara, wanted to learn more about Peter Lassen following a visit to Lassen Volcanic National Park. The first section of the book about Lassen’s life prior to the widespread use of the trail he pioneered, and the final section about his death, are both very interesting. Peter started to remind me of Forrest Gump, in how he managed to meet most of the famous players (or bear witness to, or became associated with major events) in the founding of California as a state.
However, there are no known firsthand accounts of Peter’s life. Was it that Peter (born in Denmark) never learned to write? I vaguely recall Ken Johnston wrote that was the case, which is why there are no letters or diaries; I defer to Mr. Johnston, so I don’t start more rumors about poor, much-maligned Peter.
Anyway, as a result, the bulk of the book focuses on the Emigrant Trail (used primarily as a route for Gold Rush-ers seeking California access after better known routes were depleted of resources such as anything for their cattle to graze), with maps and descriptions of every mile (after analyzing the many dotted line maps, I started to expect wee wandering Billy from Family Circus to pop up at the end). If you are an Emigrant Trail historian, this absolutely is the book for you. If you want a casual overview of Peter Lassen’s life, go to Wikipedia and read the “legend.” If that stokes your interest, then you are ready for the “truth.”