The Bonanza King: John MacKay and the Battle Over the Greatest Riches in the American West

Written by Gregory Crouch
Review by Thomas j. Howley

John Mackay is born into grinding poverty in 1831 Ireland. His little tenant farming family shares their squalid cottage with the family pig. At nine, hoping to escape English oppression, his family immigrates to New York City. But things are not much better for the family there. Help wanted ads note “any color will answer except Irish.” John is able to go to school for two years then must work as a paper boy to support the family. Almost miraculously he becomes a carpenter’s apprentice. As earth-shaking news rumbles east of huge gold deposits in the American west, John boards a ship to California. With his workaholic attitude and carpentry skills, John works every type of physically challenging mining job. He doesn’t speculate but closely observes everything around him.  He labors, saves and learns. Through tenacious ingenuity, sound investment and entrepreneurship, he ultimately earns the highest monthly salary on the planet in 1876.

This true rags-to-riches story is remarkable because John Mackay’s name is so little known among Americans. The author believes this is because unlike Rockefeller, Carnegie and other industrial giants and robber barons, Mackay never lost his good name. A great book, and a fact-filled fascinating tale.