The 49er days in Old Downieville

Downieville is situated at what is called the Forks of the Yuba River, and the town itself was frequently spoken of as "The Forks" in that part of the country. It may be necessary to explain that, in talking of the forks of a river in California, one is always supposed to be going up the river; the forks are its tributaries. The main rivers received their names, which they still retain, from the Spaniards and Indians; and the first gold-hunting pioneers, in exploring a river, when they came to a tributary, called one branch the north, and the other the south fork. When one of these again received a tributary, it either continued to be the north or south fork, or became the middle fork, as the case might be. If a river was never to have more than two tributaries, this would do very well, but the river above Downieville kept on forking about every half-a-mile, and the branches were all named on the same principle, so that there were half-a-dozen north, middle, and south forks.

The diggings at Downieville were very extensive; for many miles above it on each fork there were numbers of gold miners working in the bed and the banks of the river. The mountains are very precipitous, and the only communication was by a narrow trail which had been trodden into the hillside, and crossed from one side of the river to the other, as either happened to be more practicable; sometimes following the rocky bed of the river itself, and occasionally rising over high steep bluffs, where it required a steady head and a sure foot to get along in safety. One spot in particular was enough to try the nerve of any one but a chamois hunter. It was a high bluff, almost perpendicular, round which the river made a sweep, and the only possible, way of passing it was by a trail about eighty feet above the river. The trail hardly deserved the name it was merely a succession of footsteps, sometimes a few inches of a projecting rock, or a root.



Two men could pass each other with difficulty, and only at certain places, by holding on to each other; and from the trail to down the river all was clear and smooth, not a tree or a bush to save one if he happened to miss his footing. At one spot there was an indentation in the precipice, where the rock was quite perpendicular: to get over this difficulty, a young pine tree was laid across by way of a bridge; it was only four or five inches in diameter, and lay nearly a couple of feet outside of the rock. In passing, one only rested one foot on the tree, and with the other took advantage of the inequalities in the face of the rock; while looking down to see where to put one's feet, one saw far below, between his outstretched legs, the most uninviting jagged rocks, strongly suggestive of sudden death. 

The miners had given this place the name of Cape Horn. Those who were camped on the river above it, were so used to it that they passed along with a hop, step, and a jump, though carrying a week's provisions on their backs, but a great many men had fallen over, and been instantly killed on the rocks below. The last victim, at the time I was there, was a Frenchman, who very foolishly set out to return to his camp from Downieville after dark, having to pass this place on the way. He had taken the precaution to provide himself with a candle and some matches to light him round the Cape, but he was found dead on the rocks the next morning.

A few weeks before my arrival there, Downieville had been the scene of great excitement on one of those occasions when the people took on themselves the administration and execution of justice. A Mexican woman one forenoon had, without provocation, stabbed a miner to the heart, killing him on the spot. The news of the murder spread rapidly up and down the river, and a vast concourse of miners immediately began to collect in the town. The woman, an hour or two after she committed the murder, was formally tried by a jury of twelve, found guilty, and condemned to be hung that afternoon. The case was so clear that it admitted of no doubt, several men having been witnesses of the whole occurrence; and the woman was hung accordingly, on the bridge in front of the town, in presence of many thousand people. It was one of very few executions of females during the California gold rush era. For those whose ideas of the proper mode of administering criminal law are only acquired from an acquaintance with the statistics of crime and its punishment in such countries as England, where a single murder excites horror throughout the kingdom, and is for days a matter of public interest, where judicial corruption is unknown, where the instruments of the law are ubiquitous, and its action all but infallible, for such persons it may be difficult to realize a state of things which should render it necessary, or even excusable, that any number of irresponsible individuals should exercise a power of life and death over their fellow men.

Young as California was, it was in one respect older than its parent country, for life was so fast that already it could show ruins and deserted villages. In out-of-the-way places one met with cabins fallen into disrepair, which the proprietors had abandoned to locate themselves elsewhere in the search for gold; and even villages of thirty or forty shanties were to be seen deserted and desolate, where the diggings had not proved so productive as the original founders had anticipated.

Life for the most part was hard enough certainly, but every village was a little city of itself, where one could live in comparative luxury. Even Downieville had its theater and concerts, its billiard-rooms and saloons of all sorts, a daily paper, warm baths, and restaurants where men in red flannel shirts, with bare arms, spread a napkin over their muddy knees, and studied the bill of fare for half an hour before they could make up their minds what to order for dinner.

About thirty miles above Downieville is one of the highest mountains in the mines. It is known as the Sierra Buttes. The view from the summit, which is composed of several rocky peaks in line with each other, like the teeth of a saw, was said to be one of the finest in California, and I was desirous of seeing it; but the mountain was on the verge of settlement, and there was no camp or house of accommodation nearer to it than Downieville. However, the Frenchman in whose house I was staying told me that a friend of his, who was gold mining there, would be down in a day or two, and that he would introduce me to him. He came down the next day for a supply of provisions, and I gladly took the opportunity of returning with him. There was a considerable number of Frenchmen in the neighborhood of Downieville, but they kept very much to themselves. So very few of them, even of the better class, could speak English, and so few American miners knew anything of French, that scarcely ever were they found working together. Having obtained directions from the Frenchman as to my route, I set out to climb the mountain. The cabin was situated at the base of one of the spurs into which the mountain branched off, and was about eight miles distant from the summit.



When I had got about half-way up, I came in sight of a quartz-grinding establishment known as the Sierra Buttes gold mine, situated on an exceedingly steep place, where a small stream of water came dashing over the rocks. In the face of the hill a step had been cut out, on which a cabin was built, and immediately below it were two arrastras in full operation. These are the most primitive kind of contrivances for grinding quartz. They are circular places, ten or twelve feet in diameter, flagged with flat stones, and in these the quartz is crushed by two large heavy stones dragged round and round by a mule harnessed to a horizontal beam, to which they are also attached. The quartz is already broken up into small pieces before being put into the arrastra, and a constant supply of water is necessary to facilitate the operation, the stuff, while being ground, having the appearance of a rich white mud. The Mexicans, who use this machine a great deal, have a way of ascertaining when the quartz is sufficiently ground, by feeling it between the finger and thumb of one hand, while with the other they feel the lower part of their ear; and when the quartz has the same soft velvety feel, it is considered fine enough, and the gold is then extracted by amalgamation with quicksilver.

I returned to Downieville the next day, and as the weather was now getting rather cold and disagreeable, and I did not wish to be caught quite so far up in the mountains by the rainy season, I began to make my way down the river again to more accessible diggings. That winter, in many parts of the region the people were reduced to the utmost distress from the scarcity of food, and the impossibility of obtaining any fresh supplies. At Downieville, the few men who had remained there through the winter were living on barley, a small stock of which was fortunately kept there as mule-feed. Several men perished in the snow in trying to make their escape from the distant camps high in the mountains.

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



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