The Diggings

The two streams of immigrants, by sea and overland, thus differed, on the average, in kind. They also landed in the country at different points. The overlanders were generally absorbed before they reached San Francisco. They arrived first at Fort Sutter, whence they distributed themselves; or perhaps they even stopped at one or another of the diggings on their way in.

Of those coming by sea all landed at San Francisco. A certain proportion of the younger and more enthusiastic set out for the mines, but only after a few days had given them experience of the new city and had impressed them with at least a subconscious idea of opportunity. Another certain proportion, however, remained in San Francisco without attempting the mines. These were either men who were discouraged by pessimistic tales, men who had sickened of the fever, or more often men who were attracted by the big opportunities for wealth which the city then afforded. Thus at once we have two different types to consider, the miner and the San Franciscan.

The mines were worked mostly by young men. They journeyed up to the present Sacramento either by river-boats or afoot. Thence they took their outfits into the diggings. It must have seemed a good deal like a picnic. The goal was near; rosy hope had expanded to fill the horizon; breathless anticipation pervaded them–a good deal like a hunting-party starting off in the freshness of the dawn.

The diggings were generally found at the bottoms of the deep river-beds and ravines. Since trails, in order to avoid freshets and too many crossings of the water-courses, took the higher shoulder of the hill, the newcomer ordinarily looked down upon his first glimpse of the mines. The sight must have been busy and animated. The miners dressed in bright-colored garments, and dug themselves in only to the waist or at most to the shoulders before striking bed rock, so that they were visible as spots of gaudy color. The camps were placed on the hillsides or little open flats, and occasionally were set in the bed of a river. They were composed of tents, and of rough log or bark structures.

The newcomers did not spend much time in establishing themselves comfortably or luxuriously. They were altogether too eager to get at the actual digging. There was an immense excitement of the gamble in it all. A man might dig for days without adequate results and then of a sudden run into a rich pocket. Or he might pan out an immense sum within the first ten minutes of striking his pick to earth. No one could tell. The fact that the average of all the days and all the men amounted to very little more than living wages was quite lost to sight. At first the methods were very crude. One man held a coarse screen of willow branches which he shook continuously above an ordinary cooking pot, while his partner slowly shovelled earth over this impromptu sieve. When the pots were filled with siftings, they were carried to the river, where they were carefully submerged, and the contents were stirred about with sticks. The light earth was thus flowed over the rims of the pots. The residue was then dried, and the lighter sand was blown away. The result was gold, though of course with a strong mixture of foreign substance. The pan miners soon followed; and the cradle or rocker with its riffle-board was not long delayed. The digging was free. At first it was supposed that a new holding should not be started within fifteen feet of one already in operation. Later, claims of a definite size were established. A camp, however, made its own laws in regard to this and other matters.

Most of the would-be miners at first rather expected to find gold lying on the surface of the earth, and were very much disappointed to learn that they actually had to dig for it. Moreover, digging in the boulders and gravel, under the terrific heat of the California sun in midsummer, was none too easy; and no matter how rich the diggings averaged–short of an actual bonanza–the miner was disappointed in his expectations. One man is reported saying: “They tell me I can easily make there eleven hundred dollars a day. You know I am not easily moved by such reports. I shall be satisfied if I make three hundred dollars per day.” Travelers of the time comment on the contrast between the returning stream of discouraged and disgruntled men and the cheerfulness of the lot actually digging. Nobody had any scientific system to go on. Often a divining-rod was employed to determine where to dig. Many stories were current of accidental finds; as when one man, tiring of waiting for his dog to get through digging out a ground squirrel, pulled the animal out by the tail, and with it a large nugget. Another story is told of a sailor who asked some miners resting at noon where he could dig and as a joke was directed to a most improbable side hill. He obeyed the advice, and uncovered a rich pocket. With such things actually happening, naturally it followed that every report of a real or rumored strike set the miners crazy. Even those who had good claims always suspected that they might do better elsewhere. It is significant that the miners of that day, like hunters, always had the notion that they had come out to California just one trip too late for the best pickings.

The physical life was very hard, and it is no wonder that the stragglers back from the mines increased in numbers as time went on. It was a true case of survival of the fittest. Those who remained and became professional miners were the hardiest, most optimistic, and most persistent of the population. The mere physical labor was very severe. Any one not raised as a day laborer who has tried to do a hard day’s work in a new garden can understand what pick and shovel digging in the bottoms of gravel and boulder streams can mean. Add to this the fact that every man overworked himself under the pressure of excitement; that he was up to his waist in the cold water from the Sierra snows, with his head exposed at the same time to the tremendous heat of the California sun; throw in for good measure that he generally cooked for himself, and that his food was coarse and badly prepared; and that in his own mind he had no time to attend to the ordinary comforts and decencies of life. It can well be imagined that a man physically unfit must soon succumb. But those who survived seemed to thrive on these hardships.

California camps by their very quaint and whimsical names bear testimony to the overflowing good humor and high spirits of the early miners. No one took anything too seriously, not even his own success or failure. The very hardness of the life cultivated an ability to snatch joy from the smallest incident. Some of the joking was a little rough, as when some merry jester poured alcohol over a bully’s head, touched a match to it, and chased him out of camp yelling, “Man on fire–put him out!” It is evident that the time was not one for men of very refined or sensitive nature, unless they possessed at bottom the strong iron of character. The ill-balanced were swept away by the current of excitement, and fell readily into dissipation. The pleasures were rude; the life was hearty; vices unknown to their possessors came to the surface. The most significant tendency, and one that had much to do with later social and political life in California, was the leveling effect of just this hard physical labor. The man with a strong back and the most persistent spirit was the superior of the man with education but with weaker muscles. Each man, finding every other man compelled to labor, was on a social equality with the best. The usual superiority of head-workers over hand-workers disappeared. The low-grade man thus felt himself the equal, if not the superior, of any one else on earth, especially as he was generally able to put his hand on what were to him comparative riches. The pride of employment disappeared completely. It was just as honorable to be a cook or a waiter in a restaurant as to dispense the law,–where there was any. The period was brief, but while it lasted, it produced a true social democracy. Nor was there any pretense about it. The rudest miner was on a plane of perfect equality with lawyers, merchants, or professional men. Some men dressed in the very height of style, decking themselves out with all the minute care of a dandy; others were not ashamed of, nor did they object to being seen in, ragged garments. No man could be told by his dress.

The great day of days in a mining-camp was Sunday. Some over-enthusiastic fortune-seekers worked the diggings also on that day; but by general consent–uninfluenced, it may be remarked, by religious considerations–the miners repaired to their little town for amusement and relaxation. These little towns were almost all alike. There were usually two or three combined hotels, saloons, and gambling-houses, built of logs, of slabs, of canvas, or of a combination of the three. There was one store that dispensed whiskey as well as dryer goods, and one or two large places of amusement. On Sunday everything went full blast. The streets were crowded with men; the saloons were well patronized; the gambling games ran all day and late into the night. Wrestling-matches, jumping-matches, other athletic tests, horse-races, lotteries, fortune-telling, singing, anything to get a pinch or two of the dust out of the good-natured miners–all these were going strong. The American, English, and other continentals mingled freely, with the exception of the French, who kept to themselves. Successful Germans or Hollanders of the more stupid class ran so true to type and were so numerous that they earned the generic name of “Dutch Charley.” They have been described as moon-faced, bland, bullet-headed men, with walrus moustaches, and fatuous, placid smiles. Value meant nothing to them. They only knew the difference between having money and having no money. They carried two or three gold watches at the end of long home-made chains of gold nuggets fastened together with links of copper wire. The chains were sometimes looped about their necks, their shoulders, and waists, and even hung down in long festoons. When two or three such Dutch Charleys inhabited one camp, they became deadly rivals in this childlike display, parading slowly up and down the street, casting malevolent glances at each other as they passed. Shoals of phrenologists, fortune-tellers, and the like, generally drunken old reprobates on their last legs, plied their trades. One artist, giving out under the physical labor of mining, built up a remarkably profitable trade in sketching portraits. Incidentally he had to pay two dollars and a half for every piece of paper! John Kelly, a wandering minstrel with a violin, became celebrated among the camps, and was greeted with enthusiasm wherever he appeared. He probably made more with his fiddle than he could have made with his shovel. The influence of the “forty-two caliber whiskey” was dire, and towards the end of Sunday the sports became pretty rough.

This day was also considered the time for the trial of any cases that had arisen during the week. The miners elected one of their number to act as presiding judge in a “miners’ meeting.” Justice was dealt out by this man, either on his own authority with the approval of the crowd, or by popular vote. Disputes about property were adjudicated as well as offenses against the criminal code. Thus a body of precedent was slowly built up. A new case before the alcalde of Hangtown was often decided on the basis of the procedure at Grub Gulch. The decisions were characterized by direct common sense. It would be most interesting to give adequate examples here, but space forbids. Suffice it to say that a Mexican horse-thief was convicted and severely flogged; and then a collection was taken up for him on the ground that he was on the whole unfortunate. A thief apprehended on a steamboat was punished by a heavy fine for the benefit of a sick man on board.

Sunday evening usually ended by a dance. As women were entirely lacking at first, a proportion of the men was told off to represent the fair sex. At one camp the invariable rule was to consider as ladies those who possessed patches on the seats of their trousers. This was the distinguishing mark. Take it all around, the day was one of noisy, good-humored fun. There was very little sodden drunkenness, and the miners went back to their work on Monday morning with freshened spirits. Probably just this sort of irresponsible ebullition was necessary to balance the hardness of the life.

In each mining-town was at least one Yankee storekeeper. He made the real profits of the mines. His buying ability was considerable; his buying power was often limited by what he could get hold of at the coast and what he could transport to the camps. Often his consignments were quite arbitrary and not at all what he ordered. The story is told of one man who received what, to judge by the smell, he thought was three barrels of spoiled beef. Throwing them out in the back way, he was interested a few days later to find he had acquired a rapidly increasing flock of German scavengers. They seemed to be investigating the barrels and carrying away the spoiled meat. When the barrels were about empty, the storekeeper learned that the supposed meat was in reality sauerkraut!

The outstanding fact about these camps was that they possessed no solidarity. Each man expected to exploit the diggings and then to depart for more congenial climes. He wished to undertake just as little responsibility as he possibly could. With so-called private affairs other than his own he would have nothing to do. The term private affairs was very elastic, stretching often to cover even cool-blooded murder. When matters arose affecting the whole public welfare in which he himself might possibly become interested, he was roused to the point of administering justice. The punishments meted out were fines, flogging, banishment, and, as a last resort, lynching. Theft was considered a worse offense than killing. As the mines began to fill up with the more desperate characters who arrived in 1850 and 1851, the necessity for government increased. At this time, but after the leveling effect of universal labor had had its full effect, the men of personality, of force and influence, began to come to the front. A fresh aristocracy of ability, of influence, of character was created.

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