BRED AS I HAVE BEEN IN the academic tradition of looking down one's long nose at the "popular" historian, I approached Donald Dale Jacson's Gold Dust with malicious intent. He had, by his own admission, no training in history; his previously published books numbered three, two of them volumes in the Time-Life wilderness series. Here was a rank pretender who deserved to be crucified by the acid tongue of criticism.

By the time I finished the first chapter doubts were mounting; by the time I completed the book I was ready to eat my intentions, even if salted with gold dust at $500 an ounce. For this may not be, as the dust jacket claims, the first "authentic story of the forty-niners" (the centennial of 1949 produced a glut of such volumes), but it is the best complete account of the gold rush yet written, from the discover to the end of 1850.

The author, instead of plagiarizing professional historians (whose works he has read thoroughly), has immersed himself in the hundreds of printed diaries and reminiscences of the forty-niners, contemporary newspapers (including such an exceedingly rare rile as that of the Sacramento Transcript) and a number of mnauscript collections in Yale's Beinecke Library and the Bancroft Library of the University of California. Others who have written of the gold rush have read as extensively, but none has captured the feverish atmosphere of the times so successfully. Add to this a lusty style, an unerring instinct for the apt quotation, a knack for characterization and, above all, a sense of drama, and you have the ingrediants that account for the excellence of this book.

The tale begins with James Marshall's discovery of the first golden flakes in January 1848, and the subsequent slow spread of the gold mania first across California and later the United States. Then with a "Ho for California," those wealthy enough to risk the malarial swamps of the Panama Isthmus left for the West Coast. They were followed by the larger number who elected the wearisome journey around the Horn, and finally by the thousands who gathered at the river towns -- Independence and St. Joseph and Leavenworth -- to wait the greening of the grass to begin their overland trek.

Instead of following any one of these streams to the gold fields, Jackson lets us look in at each periodically. Our first glimpse is of the fortunate few from California who in the spring of 1849 were skimming off the surface wealth. Then we see the thousands languishing in Panama City as they wait to fight their way aboard the occasional vessel that will take them to San Francisco. There are thousands more aboard the "storm-battered armada strung out along a necklace-shaped track of ocean with Cape Horn at the bottom," and smaller numbers inching their way across the deserts of the Southwest and bandit-ridden Mexico. Finally we see the multitudes racing westwarrd along the Platte River as they try to outrun the cholera that has pursued them as far as the mountains. We see them again as they pause to celebrate Independence Day and at dramatic intervals thereafter until all are safely in the Mother Lode country -- all who have survived, that is.

The sense of drama is heightened as we follow the fortunes of a small group of diarists: Cal Gardiner and Bayard Taylor and Roger Sherman Baldwin Jr. on the Panama Route; Bill Johnson and Alonzo Deland and J. Goldsborough Bruff and the Conway family with their pretty daughter Mary on the Platte River Trail. The reader becomes hopelessly involved in their fates as their stores unfold. Will the lovelorn Henry Crandall ever return to his beloved Mary Millis in upstate New York? Will William Manly and his Jayhawkers survive the searing heat of Death Valley? Will J. Goldsborough Bruff be rescued from his starvation camp in the Sierras where he has chosed to remain to protect his precious diaries? Read on.

Eventually, all converge on the California mines, a few to garner fortunes, more to succumb to disappointment and dispair. There are recounted adventures revealing hardships and tragedy beyond belief, all as vividly described as they are accurate. By the end of 1850 the rush was over; "the day of the laboring man had passed. Now it was capital's turn" as shafts were sunk and rock crushing machines imported to extract the ore. Migration slackened to less than a thousand in 1851, and when it began to flow again in 1852, those who came were farmers and merchants, not adventuresome placer miners (those who panned for gold) with visions of dust and nuggets dancing in their heads.

The forty-niners would pass from the spotlight of history, but they left their mark. So Donald Dale Jackson believes. "They might," he writes, "have scraped out the gold and trampled the flowers but they had left gifts of character which were equally precious -- openness, a careless good humor, a taste for change, and a gambling spirit, qualities that would endure as long as the California dream persisted." His excellent book will help keep their legend alive.