The Mining Days of 1848

Mining operations in 1848 had so far embraced surface picking, shallow digging along the rivers and the tributary ravines, attended by washing of metal-bearing soil, and dry diggings, involving either laborious conveyance, or 'packing,' of 'pay-dirt' to the distant water, or the bringing of water, or the use of a special cleaning process. This feature rendered the dry diggings more precarious than river claims, with their extensive veins of fine and coarse gold, yielding a comparatively steady return, with hopes centered rather on rich finds and 'gold pockets'.

The principal dry diggings were situated in the country since comprised in Placer and El Dorado counties, particularly about the spots where Auburn and Placerville, their respective county seats, subsequently rose. Smaller camps, generally named after their discoverers, were thickly scattered throughout the gold region. They were among the first discovered after the rush set in from the towns, and were worked by a great number of miners during June, July, and part of August. After this they were deserted, partly because the small streams resorted to for washing dried up, but more because a stampede for the southern mines began at that time. A few prudent and patient diggers remained, to collect pay-dirt in readiness for the next season; and according to all accounts they did wisely.



It was a wide-spread belief among the miners, few of whom had any knowledge of geology or mineralogy, that the gold in the streams and gulches had been washed down from some place where it lay in solid beds, perhaps in mountains. Upon this source their dreams and hopes centered, regardless of the prospect that such a discovery might cause the mineral to lose its value. They were sure that the wonderful region would be found some day, and the only fear of each was that another might be the lucky discoverer. Many a prospecting party set out to search for this El Dorado of El Dorados; and to their restless wanderings may be greatly attributed the extraordinarily rapid extension of the gold-fields. No matter how rich a new placer, these henceforth fated rovers remained there not a moment after the news came of richer diggings elsewhere. In their wake rushed others; and thus it often happened that men abandoned claims yielding from $50 to $200 a day, and hurried off to fresh fields which proved far less valuable or utterly worthless. Then they would return to their old claims, but only to find them fallen into other hands, thus being compelled by inexorable necessity to continue the chase. They had come to gather gold now, and bushels of it, not next year or by the thimbleful. At $200 a day it would take ten days to secure $2,000, a hundred days to get $20,000, a thousand days to make $200,000, when a million was wanted within a month. And so in the midst of this wild pursuit of their ignis fatuus, multitudes of brave and foolish men fell by the way, some dropping into imbecility or the grave, while others, less fortunate, were not permitted to rest till old age and decrepitude came upon them.

Although in 1848 the average yield of gold for each man engaged was far greater than in any subsequent year, yet the implements and methods of mining then in use were primitive, slow of operation, and wasteful. The tools were the knife, the pan, and the rocker, or cradle. The knife was only used in ' crevicing,' that is, in picking the gold out of cracks in the rocks, or occasionally in dry diggings rich in coarse gold. Yet their returns were large because there were fewer to share the spoils, and because they had the choice of the most easily worked placers; and although they did not materially diminish the quantity of gold, they picked up much of what was in sight. Moreover, they were fettered by no local regulations, or delays in obtaining possession of claims, but could hasten from placer to placer, skimming the cream from each. In February Governor Mason had abolished the old Mexican system of 'denouncing' mines, without establishing any other mining regulations in its place. In this way, some ten millions " were gathered by a population of 8,000 or 10,000, averaging an ounce a day, for $1,000 and more to the man for the season, and this notwithstanding the miners were not fairly at work until July, and most of them went down to the coast in October. Some, however, made $100 a day for weeks at a time, while $500 or $700 a day was not unusual.

In a country where trade had been chiefly conducted by barter with hides and other produce, coin was naturally scarce. This no less than the sudden abundance of gold tended to depress the value of the metal, so much so that the miners often sold their dust for four dollars an ounce, and seldom obtained at first more than eight or ten dollars. The Indians were foremost in lowering the price, at least in the early part of the season. They had no idea of the value of gold, and would freely exchange it for almost anything that caught their fancy. Although honest enough in dealings among themselves, the miners did not hesitate to cheat the natives, the latter meanwhile thinking they had outwitted the white man. Presently, however, with growing experience, they began to insist upon a scale of fixed prices, whereupon the trader quoted prices of cotton cloth or calico at twenty dollars a yard, plain white blankets at six ounces, sarapes from twenty to thirty ounces each, beads equal weight in gold, handkerchiefs and sashes two ounces each. Care was moreover taken to arrange scales and weights especially for trade with the savages.

To balance with gold the great slugs of lead, which represented a 'digger ounce,' the savages regarded as fair dealing, and would pile on the precious dust until the scales exactly balanced, using every precaution to give no more than the precise weight. The scales usually employed, often improvised, were far from reliable; but a handful of gold-dust more or less in those days was a matter of no great moment. The inflowing miners arrived as a rule well supplied with provisions and other requirements, but they had not counted fully on wear and tear, length of stay, and accidents. As a consequence, they nearly all came to want at the same time toward the close of the season, and the supply and means of transportation being unequal to the demand, prices rose accordingly. It did not take men long to adapt themselves to the new measurements of money ; nor could it be called extravagance when a man would pay $300 for a horse worth $6 a month before, ride it to the next camp, turn it loose and buy another when he wanted one, provided he could scrape from the ground the cost of an animal more easily than he could take care of one for a week or two. Extravagance is spending much when one has little. Gold was too plentiful, too easily obtained, to allow a little of it to stand in the way of what one wanted. It was cheap. Perhaps there were mountains of it near by, in which case six barrels of it might be easily given for one barrel of meal. And thus it was that all along this five hundred miles of foothills, daily and hourly through this and the following years, went up the wild cry of exultation mingled with groans of despair. For even now the unfortunate largely outnumbered the successful. It may seem strange that so many at such a time, and at this occupation above all others, should consent to work for wages; but though little capital save a stock of bread was required to work in the mines, some had lost all, and had not even that. Then the excitement and pressure of eager hope and restless labor told upon the constitution no less than the hard and unaccustomed task under a broiling sun in moist ground, perhaps knee-deep in water, and with poor shelter during the night, sleeping often on the bare ground. The result was wide-spread sickness, notably fevers and colds.

John Sullivan, an Irish teamster, took out $26,000 from the diggings named after him on the Stanislaus. One Hudson obtained some $20,000 in six weeks from a canon between Coloma and the American middle fork; While a boy named Davenport found in the same place 77 ounces of pure gold one day, and 90 ounces the next. At the Dry Diggings one Wilson took $2,000 out from under his own door-step. Three Frenchmen discovered gold in removing a stump which obstructed the road from Dry Diggings to Coloma, and within a week secured $5,000. On the Yuba middle fork one man picked up in 20 days nearly 30 pounds, from a piece of ground less than four feet square. Amador relates that he saw diggings which yielded $S to every spade full of earth; and he himself, with a companion and 20 native laborers, took out from 7 to 9 pounds of gold a day. Robert Birnie, an employee of Consul Forbes, saw miners at Dry Diggings making from 50 to 100 ounces daily.  A correspondent of the Californian writes from the Dry Diggings in the middle of August that at the lower mines the success of the day is counted in dollars, at the upper mines, near the mill, in ounces, and here in pounds! ' 'The earth,' he continues, 'is taken out of the ravines which make out of the mountain, and is carried in wagons and packed on horses from one to three miles to the water, where it is washed; $400 has been an average for a cart-load. In one instance five loads of earth which had been dug outsold for 47 oz. ($752), and yielded after washing $16,000. Instances have occurred here where men have carried the earth on their backs, and collected from $S00 to $1,500 in a day.' 'The fountain-head yet remains undiscovered,' continues the writer, who is of opinion that when proper machinery is introduced and the hills are cut down, ' huge pieces must be found. ' At this time tidings had just arrived of new placers on the Stanislaus, and 200 miners were accordingly preparing to leave ground worth $400 a load, in the hope of finding something better in the south. This letter is dated from the Dry Diggings, Aug. 15, 1848, and is signed J. B. Similar stories are told by other correspondents; for instance, 'Cosmopolite,' in the Californian of July 15th, and 'Sonoma,' in that of Aug. 14th. Coronel states that on the Stanislaus in three days he took out 45, 38, and 59 ounces. At the same placer Valdes of Santa Barbara found under a rock more gold-dust than he could carry in a towel, and the man to whom he sold this claim took out within 8 days 52 pounds of gold. Close by a Sonoran filled a large batea with dust from the hollow of a rock, and went about offering it for silver coin.

Yet the middle fork of the American surpassed the other streams in richness, the yield of Spanish Bar alone being placed at over a million dollars. These tributaries also boasted of nuggets as big as any so far discovered. Larkin writes: 'I have had in my hands several pieces of gold about 23 carats fine, weighing from one to two pounds, and have it from good authority that pieces have been found weighing 16 pounds. Indeed, I have heard of one specimen that weighed 25 pounds.' Colton heard of a twenty-pound piece, and a writer in San Joaquin Co. relates that the Stockton company obtained from the Stanislaus a lump 'of pure gold weighing 80 ounces avoirdupois,' of kidney shape, which was brought as a specimen. Mason reports that 'a party of four men employed at the lower mines averaged $100 a day.' On Weber Creek he found two ounces to be a fair day's yield. 'A small gutter, not more than 100 yards long by four feet wide and two or three feet deep, was pointed out to me as the one where two men, William Daly and Perry McCoon, had a short time before obtained  $17,000 worth of gold. Captain Weber informed me that he knew that these two men had employed four white men and about 100 Indians, and that at the end of one week's work they paid off their party and had $10,000 worth of this gold. Another small ravine was shown me, from which had been taken upwards of $12,000 worth of gold. Hundreds of similar ravines, to all appearances, are as yet untouched. I could not have credited these reports had I not seen in the abundance of the precious metal evidence of their truth. Mr. Neligh, an agent of Com. Stockton, had been at work about three weeks in the neighborhood, and showed me in bags and bottles over $2,000 worth of gold; and Mr. Lyman, a gentleman of education and worthy of every credit, said he had been engaged with four others, with a machine on the American fork, just below Sutter's mill; that they worked eight days, and that his share was at the rate of $50 a day; but hearing that others were doing better at Weber's place, they had removed there, and were then on the point of resuming operations. I might tell of hundreds of similar instances,' he concludes.



John Sinclair, at the junction of the north and middle branches of the American River, displayed 14 pounds of gold as the result of one week's work, with fifty Indians using closely woven willow baskets. He had secured $16,000 in five weeks. Larkin writes in a similar strain from the American forks. Referring to a party of eight miners, he says: 'I suppose they made each $50 per day; their own calculation was two pounds of gold a day, four ounces to a man, $64. I saw two brothers that worked together, and only worked by washing the dirt in a tin pan, weigh the gold they obtained in one day. The result was $7 to one and $82 to the other’. Mr. Buffum relates his own experiences on the middle branch of the American. Scratching around the base of a great bolder, and removing the gravel and clay, he and his companions came to black sand, mingled with which was gold strewn all over the surface of the rock, and of which four of them gathered that day 26 ounces. ' The next day, our machine being ready,' he continues, 'we looked for a place to work it, and soon found a little beach which extended back some five or six yards before it reached the rocks. The upper soil was a light black sand, on the surface of which we could see the particles of gold shining, and could in fact gather them up with our fingers. ' In digging below this we struck a red stony gravel that appeared perfectly alive with gold, shining and pure. We threw off the top earth and commenced our washings with the gravel, which proved so rich that, excited by curiosity, we weighed the gold extracted from the first washing of 50 pans full of earth, and found $75, or nearly five ounces of gold to be the result.' The whole day's work amounted to 25 ounces. A little lower on the river he struck the stony bottom of 'pocket, which appeared to be of pure gold, but upon probing it, I found it to be only a thin covering which by its own weight and the pressure above it had spread and attached itself to the rock. Crossing the river I continued my search, and after digging some time stick upon a hard, reddish clay a few feet from the surface. After two hours' work I succeeded in finding a pocket out of which I extracted three lumps of pure gold, and one small piece mixed with oxidized quartz: 29 ounces for the day; not much short of $500. Jones writes in Nov. 1848 that miners often sold an ounce of gold for a silver dollar. It had been bought of Indians for 50 cents.

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