Gold Prospecting Around Hangtown

The richest deposits of gold were found in the beds and banks of the rivers, creeks, and ravines, in the flats on the convex side of the bends of the streams, and in many of the flats and hollows high up in the mountains. The precious metal was also abstracted from the very hearts of the mountains, through tunnels drifted into them for several hundred yards; and in some places real mining was carried on in the bowels of the earth by means of shafts sunk to the depth of a couple of hundred feet. The principal gold diggings in the neighborhood of Hangtown were surface diggings; but, with the exception of river diggings, every kind of mining operation was to be seen in full force.

The gold is found at various depths from the surface; but the dirt on the bed-rock is the richest, as the gold naturally in time sinks through earth and gravel, till it is arrested in its downward progress by the solid rock. The diggings here were from four to six or seven feet deep; the layer of "pay-dirt" being about a couple of feet thick on the top of the bed-rock. I should mention that "dirt" is the word universally used in California to signify the substance dug, earth, clay, gravel, loose slate, or whatever other name might be more appropriate. The miners talk of rich dirt and poor dirt, and of "stripping off" so many feet of "top dirt" before getting to "pay-dirt," the latter meaning dirt with so much gold in it that it will pay to dig it up and wash it.



The apparatus generally used for washing out the gold was a "long tom," which was nothing more than a wooden trough from twelve to twenty-five feet long, and about a foot wide. At the lower end it widens considerably, and on the floor there is a sheet of iron pierced with holes half an inch in diameter, under which is placed a flat box a couple of inches deep. The long tom is set at a slight inclination over the place which is to be worked, and a stream of water is kept running through it by means of a hose, the mouth of which is inserted in a dam built for the purpose high enough up the stream to gain the requisite elevation; and while some of the party shovel the dirt into the tom as fast as they can dig it up, one man stands at the lower end stirring up the dirt as it is washed down, separating the stones and throwing them out, while the earth and small gravel falls with the water through the sieve into the "ripple-box." This box is about five feet long, and is crossed by two partitions. It is also placed at an inclination, so that the water falling into it keeps the dirt loose, allowing the gold and heavy particles to settle to the bottom and be caught, while all the lighter stuff washes over the end of the box along with the water. When the day's work is over, the dirt is taken from the "riffle-box" and is '''washed out" in a "gold pan," which is a round tin dish, eighteen inches in diameter, with shelving sides three or four inches deep. In washing out a pan full of dirt, it has to be placed in water deep enough to cover it over; the dirt is stirred up with the hands, and the gravel thrown out; the pan is then taken in both hands, and by an indescribable series of maneuvers all the dirt is gradually washed out of it, leaving nothing but the gold and a small quantity of black sand. This black sand is mineral (some oxide or other salt of iron), and is so heavy that it is not possible to wash it all out; it has to be blown out of the gold afterwards when dry.

Another mode of washing dirt, but much more tedious, and consequently only resorted to where a sufficient supply of water for a long tom could not be obtained, was by means of an apparatus called a "rocker" or "cradle." This was merely a wooden cradle, on the top of which was a sieve. The dirt was put into this, and a miner, sitting alongside of it, rocked the cradle with one hand, while with a dipper in the other he kept baling water on to the dirt. This acted on the same principle as the "tom," and had formerly been the only contrivance in use; but it was now seldom seen, as the long tom effected such a saving of time and labor. The latter was set immediately over the claim, and the dirt was shoveled into it at once, while a rocker had to be set alongside of the water, and the dirt was carried to it in buckets from the place that was being worked. Three men working together with a rocker one digging, another carrying the dirt in buckets, and the third rocking the cradle would wash on an average a hundred bucketfuls of dirt to the man in the course of the day. With a "long tom" the dirt was so easily washed that parties of six or eight could work together to advantage, and four or five hundred bucketfuls of dirt a day to each one of the party was a usual day's work.

A "prospector" goes out with a pick and shovel, and a wash-pan; and to test the richness of a place he digs down till he reaches the dirt in which it may be expected that the gold will be found; and washing out a pan full of this, he can easily calculate, from the amount of gold which he finds in it, how much could be taken out in a day's work. An old miner, looking at the few specks of gold in the bottom of his pan, can tell their value within a few cents; calling it a twelve or a twenty cent (per pan) "prospect," as it may be. If, on washing out a pan full of dirt, a mere speck of gold remained, just enough to swear by, such dirt was said to have only "the color," and was not worth digging. A twelve-cent prospect was considered a pretty good one; but in estimating the probable result of a day's work, allowance had to be made for the time and labor to be expended in removing top-dirt, and in otherwise preparing the claim for being worked.

To establish one's claim to a piece of ground, all that was requisite was to leave upon it a pick or shovel, or other mining tool. The extent of ground allowed to each individual varied in different diggings from ten to thirty feet square, and the local law was fixed by the miners themselves, who also made their own laws, defining the rights and duties of those holding claims; and any dispute on such subjects was settled by calling together a few of the neighboring miners, who would enforce the due observance of the laws of the diggings. After prospecting for two or three days we concluded to take up a claim near a small settlement called Middletown, two or three miles distant from Hangtown. It was situated by the side of a small creek, in a rolling hilly country, and consisted of about a dozen cabins, one of which was a store supplied with flour, pork, tobacco, and other necessaries.



We found near our claim a very comfortable cabin, which the owner had deserted, and in which we established ourselves. We had plenty of fire wood and water close to us, and being only two miles from Hangtown, we kept ourselves well supplied with fresh beef. We cooked our "dampers" in New South Wales fashion, and lived on the fat of the land, our bill of fare being beefsteaks, damper, and tea for breakfast, dinner, and supper. A damper is a very good thing, but not commonly seen in California, excepting among men from New South Wales. A quantity of flour and water, with a pinch or two of salt, is worked into a dough, and, raking down a good hardwood fire, it is placed on the hot ashes, and then smothered in more hot ashes to the depth of two or three inches, on the top of which is placed a quantity of the still burning embers. A very little practice enables one to judge from the feel of the crust when it is sufficiently cooked. The great advantage of a damper is, that it retains a certain amount of moisture, and is as good when a week old as when fresh baked. It is very solid and heavy, and a little of it goes a great way, which of itself is no small recommendation when one eats only to live. Another sort of bread we very frequently made by filling a frying-pan with dough, and sticking it upon end to roast before the fire. The Americans do not understand dampers. They either bake bread, using saleratus (yeast) to make it rise, or else they make flapjacks, which are nothing more than pancakes made of flour and water, and are a very good substitute for bread when one is in a hurry, as they are made in a moment.

As for our beefsteaks, they could not be beat anywhere. A piece of an old iron-hoop, twisted into a serpentine form and laid on the fire, made a first-rate gridiron, on which every man cooked his steak to his own taste. In the matter of tea I am afraid we were dreadfully extravagant, throwing it into the pot in handfuls. It is a favorite beverage in the mines morning, noon, and night and at no time is it more refreshing than in the extreme heat of midday. In the cabin two bunks had been fitted up, one above the other, made of clapboards laid crossways, but they were all loose and warped. I tried to sleep on them one night, but it was like sleeping on a gridiron; the smooth earthen floor was a much more easy couch.

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



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