The Adventures of  “Portuguese Joe”

Another instance which clearly illustrates the fact that Dame Fortune is impartial with the distribution of her favors is found in the story of Portuguese Joe, a simple sailor who came up into the mines from San Francisco Bay to seek his fortune early in the spring of 1850. After working around for a few weeks in various well known mining localities with but poor success, he concluded that he would do a little prospecting in some less frequented locality. Purchasing a diminutive donkey, he packed the animal with all necessary tools and supplies for his journey and wandered forth. It was not long, however, before he returned again to purchase further supplies, and it was surmised from the size and weight of the gold in his sack that he had struck it rich. But everyone wanted to know where? Not a word could be gotten from him, however. He was followed a number of times, but, suspecting this would happen, old Joe would go miles out of his way upon his return to deceive them. The local miners were emphatic that Yankee ingenuity could not be foiled by a Portuguese sailor; and one dark night, when he had started back to his camp upon the donkey, two old miners followed his trail. 'The donkey and its rider suspected this, and consequently traveled nearly all night around among the hills, through many rocky ravines and dark canons, but only to find to their great astonishment, when, as they slid down the side of a steep hill near the dawn of day and landed upon a small bar upon the South Fork of the American River, that closely following them and sliding down the same steep descent in their rear, were the two old miners.



Well, Joe was a good-natured fellow, and was rather glad of their company, for the bar was very rich and large enough for all. They found, on investigation, upon the richest part of the bar the sand and gravel was only from six inches to a foot in depth, and that the gold was coarse and easily found in the crevices of the slate bed rock, and from this time forward it was called "Portuguese Joe's Bar." How much this Portuguese sailor took from his bar was never exactly known, although it was estimated to be about $60,000; nor of his ultimate end, for, alas, his was a sad ending, and of the incidents, being an eye-witness, I have at this late day a very vivid recollection.

During one of his frequent visits into Hangtown, astride of his diminutive donkey with his feet dangling upon the ground, for he was a very tall man, upon passing along through the noisy street, for it was Sunday, the affectionate animal, either from accident or fun, very suddenly elevated that portion of his anatomy above the saddle, and the rider was thrown forward upon the cold ground. Assisting him again to his feet, a bystander, in a very careless although innocent manner without the least design to injure or cause harm to anyone, remarked that Joe reminded him very much of Caesar, since both had been placed under similar circumstances. Upon being asked why. in the hearing of Joe, he answered that they both fell by a brute ass (Brutus). Joe gazed sadly upon the thoughtless miscreant to see if he was in dead earnest or only intended it as a joke, and being satisfied that it was no joke, he strode sadly astride of his beast which he sat down upon, turned his head toward the setting sun and departed never to return again. This vile attempt to destroy the peace and happiness of a fellow being in the eyes of the miners was equivalent to manslaughter, and a jury being immediately formed the culprit was arraigned before the bar (in the nearest saloon), received his sentence, the finding and sentence very heavy, as the jury was numerous and very dry – a round of drinks for all was required. Exactly what became of Portuguese Joe was never known. It is said by some that he went away off to Europe, and settled amidst the dense forests in the German Empire.

Not All Prospectors Were so Successful as Joe:
Here is another story of a man who came to seek his fortune in the California mines. While a friend was seated by me, before the Captain’s blazing fire, we were speaking of the great number of persons who come to the California gold mines, and, after working a few days, become discouraged, and abandon mining. He related the following instance, which he knows to have taken place in 1849. A merchant from New York came up to the goldfields with high expectations, having made all his arrangements and preparations to carry on mining for one season. The fascinating interest which invests this whole subject at a distance had drawn him on. Being a strong and vigorous man, blessed with the grace of perseverance, he attributed the want of success, of which so many complained, to their indolence or want of energy. The question he frequently put, on his way to the mines, was,
" How much may be made by hard and persevering labor?" as if he thought that such labor must be guaranteed to succeed. He reached the mines - saw, on the bar below him, some miners hard at work. As he watched them, he thought, "That, indeed, is hard work, and here is an opportunity to judge for myself."



He directed the muleteer to wait while he went down to the bar. There he saw the preparations which had been made for washing, the stones and dirt which had been removed before the gold could be reached. He saw the men at the bottom of the pit, knee deep in mud, filling the buckets. He followed those buckets to the cradle, watched the operation of washing the dirt through the cradle. As they prepared to wash down in pans, he inquired, " How many buckets of dirt have been washed to procure the gold now in the machine ?"

"Twenty five," was the reply.
" And how many buckets can be washed out in a day?"
'' Sometimes more and sometimes less; we wash out one hundred and fifty."''How many men in your company?" "Four."
While these inquiries were going on, one of the company was panning down the gold, and brought it to where they were seated upon some rocks.
"How much gold is there in that pan ?" the merchant eagerly inquired.
One said there was $2, while the others thought there was not so much. It was weighed, and found to be $1.62. He could make his own calculations of their day's labor. The sum total was $9.72 : for each of the four men, $2.43. He looked about him. There was all that pile of rubbish to be removed – enough to employ them the whole day - before they could wash the gold at all.

'' Where are your tents ?'' he asked.
"We have none." came the answer.
"Where are your provisions?"
"This gold is needed for us to purchase them."

"Well you had better purchase mine, which can be done cheap, as I shall be on my way to San Francisco in ten minutes." He had made up his mind about the work involved, and to San Francisco he returned, and in three weeks was established in the employ of a commission auction store.

Return To: California Gold Rush: True Tales of the 49ers



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