The Wandering Spirit of the Old 49ers

When the weather warmed and spring set in, our winter camp broke up and the miners scattered to find river, creek or other diggings. About this time we heard much of the rich deposits found at O'Neill's bar, on a creek of the same name, one of the tributaries of the south fork of the Calaveras. On arriving at the bar, we found that miners had flocked to it in great numbers, and that an unusually large camp had grown up there. The gold was coarse, and some of the claims were paying well. All the likely ground, however, as far as we could see, had been taken up. But we were not discouraged, and staked off a claim. It paid wages, and we settled down to work in the hope that the yield would improve as we went deeper.

One reason why so large a percentage of the miners failed to "make their pile," as it was then called, was the spirit of unrest that pervaded them. They were constantly on the go prospecting for new diggings. If they had a moderately good claim and heard of better ones somewhere else, they would pack up and start for them, to find either that the stories they had heard were untrue, or that the choice claims had all been taken up before their arrival. Every one wanted to make a big strike, and there was a prevailing conviction that the farther they went up into the heart of the Sierra Nevada, the surer they would be to get at the source from which the gold had been washed down into the rivers and gulches near the base of the range. To trace the gold to its great mother source would, in their crude opinion, be to discover an exhaustless deposit of auriferous wealth. The gold-seekers who kept constantly following this will-'o-the-wisp were filled with the popular delusion that "far-off fields are ever green." Those miners were the wisest, and accomplished the best results, who were satisfied with moderate paying claims and stuck to them.



Another reason for the many failures was that nearly everybody had a theory about the logical distribution from natural causes of the precious metal. But the fact is that the distribution observed no law or regularity, and theories based upon the tenets of geological science were found to be practically barren of results. Rich deposits were found in the most illogical places, hill diggings of immense auriferous value would unfold themselves to the prospector by the merest chance, and even the law of gravity was often defied by the curious ways in which the gold would be distributed. The men who had a theory based upon geological principles would be baffled at every turn, whilst often the ignorant sailor or vaquero, who knew nothing about primary formations or secondary assimilations, would blindly sink a hole in a place where no reasoning man would look for gold, and make an immensely rich discovery.

I recollect an instance of this kind which occurred near Mokelumne Hill. A man named Clarke, who was famous for finding rich diggings, came into the camp, and, as usual, went upon a protracted spree. After he had spent all his money and could get no more liquor, he started out "to make a rich find," as he said. It was winter, and he was overcome with fatigue and inebriation, for he had induced some considerate friend to provide him with a flask, and lay down on the top of a steep hill. During his restless sleep he rolled down the side of the hill and landed in a gulch. When he came to his senses he turned over, drew his case knife and commenced to dig up the earth. After a while he uncovered a lump of gold. Then, as he went deeper into the ground with his case-knife, he brought out more nuggets, some of them very large. To make our story short, he had discovered a ravine that was afterwards known as Rich Gulch, and from which many millions were taken. The secret of Clarke's success in finding rich diggings was that he had no theory, but that he would go around prospecting in the most inconceivable places, untrammeled by the laws of science or even by the likelihood of auriferous distribution. His knowledge of cause and effect began and stopped at the proposition that if he drank too much whisky he would get drunk, and he was very assiduous in demonstrating the truth of his proposition.



About this time the inventive genius of the miners was engaged in devising improved machines with which to wash out the gold. The rocker at the best was unsatisfactory. For two men to run through three hundred buckets of dirt a day—one picking, shoveling and carrying, the other handling the rocker —was considered a good day's work even in claims where all the conditions were favorable to the operators. Of all the new-fangled machines invented at this time only one seemed to receive general approval; that was the Long Tom. It was really an enlargement of the rocker, only that it was stationary, and the dirt was decomposed by a constant stream of water running through it, and men on both sides stirred up the earth with shovels, and threw out the washed rocks. The gold was caught in a series of riffles supplied with quicksilver, to which the auriferous particles adhered. So much more dirt could be run through these Long Toms that even poor diggings could be made to pay well, whereas to work them with the rocker the result would be trifling. Until the Long Tom was supplanted by the sluice, a still more elaborate extension of the Tom, that machine came into general use. 

Well, after leaving O'Neill's bar, we tried our luck at various points and experimented with various new machines and with indifferent success. In the course of our prospecting wanderings we visited the camp at the Middle Bar of the Mokelumne river. This was a very populous and lively camp, deriving its support from several adjacent rich gulches and from extensive and successful mining on the river bars and banks. The saloons flourished among the miners, and the tables were so well patronized that there could be no doubt that the miners were taking a great deal of gold out of their claims.


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