Life and Times in the Mines

We now located claims on the creek bottom. The channel of the creek was claimed by Holman of Alabama and the Helms brothers of Missouri. They had turned the stream into a ditch in order to work the bed of the stream, believing that their claims had all the gold in them. Our claims joined theirs.

Mr. W.M. Stockton, who left his family in Los Angeles, came with Mr. Bennett and went to work with us. As everything here was very high we concluded to let Mr. Stockton take the team and go to Sacramento for provisions for our own use. Flour and meat were each fifty cents a pound, potatoes twenty-five cents a pound and onions one dollar and twenty-five cents each. Onions and potatoes eaten raw were considered very necessary to prevent and cure scurvy, which was quite a common complaint. Whiskey, if not watered, cost one dollar a drink.

Our claims were about ten feet deep. The bottom was wet and a pump needed, so we went to a whip saw-mill and got four narrow strips one by three and one by five and twelve feet long, paying for them by weight, the price being twelve cents a pound. Out of these strips we made a good pump by fixing a valve at the end and nailing a piece of green rawhide on a pole, which answered for a plunger, and with the pump set at forty-five degrees it worked easily and well. One man could easily keep the water out and we made fair wages.

In the creek bottom Mr. Bush of Missouri had a saloon. The building was made mainly of brush, with a split piece for a counter, and another one for a shelf for his whiskey keg, a box of cigars, a few decks of cards and half a dozen glasses, which made up the entire stock of trade for the shop. In front was a table made of two puncheons with a blanket thrown over all, and a few rough seats around. There was no roof except the brush, and through the dry season none was needed except for shade.

There was also at this place five brothers by the name of Helms, also from Missouri. Their names were Jim, Davenport, Wade, Chet and Daunt. These men, with Mr. Holman, owned the bed of the stream, and their ground proved to be quite wet and disagreeable to work. Mr. Holman could not well stand to work in the cold water, so he asked the privilege of putting in a hired man in his place, which was agreed to. He then took up a claim for himself outside of the other claims, and this proved to be on higher bed rock and dry, and paid even better than the low claims where the Helms brothers were at work. This was not what the Helms boys considered exactly fair, as Holman seemed to be getting rich the fastest, and as there was no law to govern them they held a free country court of their own, and decided the case to suit themselves; so they ordered Holman to come back and do his own work. No fault was found with the hired man but what he did his work well enough, but they were jealous and would not be bound by their agreement.

But this decision did not satisfy all parties, and it was agreed to submit the case to three men, and I was chosen one of them. We held Court on the ground and heard both sides of the story, after which we retired to the shade of a bunch of willows to hold council over the matter with the result that we soon came to a decision in favor of Mr. Holman. About this time one of the Helms boys began to quarrel with Holman and grew terribly mad, swearing all kinds of vengeance, and making the cañon ring with the loudest kind of Missouri oaths. Finally he picked up a rock to kill Holman, but the latter was quick with his pistol, a single shot duelling piece, and as they were not more than ten feet apart Helms would have had a hole in him large enough for daylight to shine through if the pistol had not missed fire. We stopped the quarrel and made known our decision, whereupon Helms went off muttering vengeance.

We now went back to our work again at our claims, mine being between Helms’ cabin and the saloon. Holman stopped to talk a little while on my claim, while I was down below at work, and soon Helms came back again in a terrible rage, stopping on the opposite side of the hole from Holman, swearing long and loud, and flourishing a big pistol with which he threatened to blow Holman into purgatory. He was so much enraged that he fairly frothed at the mouth like a rabid dog. The men were about twenty feet apart, and I at the bottom of the hole ten feet below, but exactly between them. It seemed to me that I was in some little danger for Helms had his big pistol at full cock, and as it pointed at me quite as often as it did at anybody, I expect I dodged around a little to keep out of range. Helms was terribly nervous, and trembled as he cursed, but Holman was cool and drew his weapon deliberately, daring Helms to raise his hand or he would kill him on the instant. Helms now began to back off, but carefully kept his eye on Holman and continued his abuse as he went on to the saloon to get something to replenish his courage. Holman, during the whole affair, talked very calmly and put considerable emphasis into his words when he dared Helms to make a hostile motion. He was a true Alabamian and could be neither scared nor driven. He soon sold out, however, and went to a more congenial camp for he said these people were cowardly enough to waylay and kill him unawares.

Soon after this unpleasantness a man and wife who lived in Georgetown came into notice, and while the man made some money mining his wife did a good stroke of business washing for the boys who paid her a dollar a shirt as laundry fees. As she began to make considerable money the bigger, if not better, half of this couple began to feel quite rich and went off on a drunk, and when his own money was spent he went to his wife for more, but she refused him, and he, in his drunken rage, picked up a gun near by and shot her dead.

All of a sudden the Helms boys and others gathered at the saloon, took drinks all around, and did a good deal of swearing, which was the biggest portion of the proceedings of the meeting; and then they all started off toward town, swearing and yelling as they struggled up the steep mountain side–a pack of reckless, back-woods Missourians who seemed to smell something bloody.

It was near night when they all came back and gathered around the saloon again. They were all in unusual good humor as they related the adventures of the afternoon, and bragged of their bravery and skill in performing the little job they had just completed, which consisted in taking the murderer out to the first convenient oak tree, and with the assistance of some sailors in handling the ropes, hoisting the fellow from the ground with a noose around his neck, and to the “Heave, yo heave” of the sailor boys, pulling the rope that had been passed over an elevated limb. They watched the suspended body till the last spark of life went out, and then went back to town leaving the corpse hanging for somebody else to cut down and bury. They whooped and yelled at the top of their voices as they came down along the mountain trail, and at the saloon they related to the crowd that had gathered there how they had helped to hang the —- who had killed his wife. They said justice must be done if there was no law, and that no man could kill a woman and live in California. They imagined they were very important individuals, and veritable lords of Creation.

These miners, many of them, were inveterate gamblers and played every night till near day-light, with no roof over them, and their only clothes a woolen shirt and overalls which must have been a little scanty in the cool nights which settled down over the mountain camp; but they bore it all in their great desire for card playing.

Near by there were three men who worked and slept together, every night dividing the dust which each put into a purse at the head of his bed. One day the news came to the saloon that one of the purses had been stolen. The Helms boys talked it over and concluded that as one of the men had gone to town, he might know something about the lost dust; so they went to town and there, after a little search, found their man in a gambling house. After a little while they invited him to return to camp with them, and all started together down the mountain; but when about half way down they halted suddenly under an oak tree and accused their man of knowing where his partner’s money was. This he strongly denied, and was very positive in his denial till he felt the surprise of a rope around his neck, with the end over a limb, and beginning to haul pretty taut in a direction that would soon elevate his body from the ground, when he weakened at their earnestness and asked them to hold on a minute. As the rope slackened he owned up he had the dust and would give it up if they would not send the news to his folks in Missouri. This was agreed to and the thief was advised to leave at once for some distant camp, or they might yet expose him. He was not seen afterward.

The boys bragged a good deal of their detective ability after this, and said that a little hanging would make a —- thief tell the truth even if it did not make an honest man of him, and that a thief would be lucky if he got through with them and saved his life. Their law was “Hanging for stealing.”

The Helms brothers were said to be from western Missouri, and in early days were somewhat of the border ruffian order, and of course preferred to live on the frontier rather than in any well regulated society. As the country became settled and improved around them they moved on. A school house was an indication that the country was getting too far advanced for them.

They crossed the plains in 1849 and began mining operations near Georgetown in Placer county. It was well known that they were foremost in all gambling, and in taking a hand in any excitement that came up, and as a better class of miners came in they moved on, keeping ahead with the prospectors, and just out of reach of law and order. If anyone else committed a crime they were always quite eager to be on the vigilance committee, and were remarkably happy when punishing a wrong-doer. When any of their number was suspected it was generally the case that they moved quickly on and so escaped. It was reported, however, that one of their number was in the hands of the vigilance committee and hanged in Montana.

After a time, it is said, they went down to southern California and settled on the border of the Colorado desert, about seventy-five miles east of San Diego, in a mountainous and desert region. Here they found a small tribe of Indians, and by each marrying a squaw they secured rights equal to any of them in the occupation of the land. This was considered pretty sharp practice, but it suited them and they became big chiefs and midecine men, and numerous dusky descendants grew up around them.

It is said that their property consists of extensive pasture lands on which they raise cattle, and that they always go well armed with pistol, rifle and riata. It is said that some of the Indians undertook to claim that the Helms brothers were intruders, but that in some mysterious way accidents happened to most of them and they were left without any serious opposition.

They are very hospitable and entertaining to people who visit them, provided they do not know too much about the men or their former deeds or history. In this case ignorance is bliss and it is folly, if not dangerous, to be too wise. They have made no improvements, but live in about the same style as the Indians and about on a level with them morally and intellectually.

There may be those who know them well, but the writer only knows them by hearsay and introduces them as a certain type of character found in the early days.

As I was now about barefoot I went to town to look for boots or shoes. There were no shoes, and a pair of the cheapest boots I found hanging at the door were priced to me at two ounces. This seemed a wonderful sum for a pair of coarse cow-hide boots that would sell in the state for two dollars and fifty cents; but I had to buy them at the price or go barefoot.

While rambling around town I went into a round tent used as a gambling saloon. The occupants were mostly men, and one or two nice appearing ladies, but perhaps of doubtful reputation. The men were of all classes–lawyer, doctors, preachers and such others as wanted to make money without work. The miners, especially sailors, were eager to try to beat the games. While I was here the table was only occupied by a sailor lying upon it and covered with a green blanket. All at once the fellow noticed a large piojo walking slowly across the table, and drawing his sheath knife made a desperate stab at him, saying “You kind of a deck hand can’t play at this game.”

Our claims, by this time were nearly worked out, and I thought that I had upward of two thousand dollars in gold, and the pile looked pretty big to me. It seemed to me that these mines were very shallow and would soon be worked out, at least in a year or two. I could not see that the land would be good for much for farming when no irrigation could be easily got, and the Spanish people seemed to own all the best land as well as the water; so that a poor fellow like myself would never get rich at farming here.

Seeing the matter in this light I thought it would be best to take my money and go back to Wisconsin where government land was good and plenty, and with even my little pile I could soon be master of a good farm in a healthy country, and I would there be rich enough. Thus reasoning I decided to return to Wisconsin, for I could not see how a man could ever be a successful farmer in a country where there were only two seasons, one wet and the other long and dry.

I went out and hunted up my mule which I had turned out to pasture for herself, and found her entirely alone. After a little coaxing I caught her and brought her with me to camp, where I offered her for sale. She was sleek and fat and looked so well that Helms said that if I could beat him shooting he would buy both mule and gun; so three or four of us tried our skill. My opponents boasted a good deal of their superior marksmanship, but on the trial, which began at short range, I beat them all pretty badly. Helms was as good as his word and offered me twelve ounces for my gun and mule, which I took. I thought a great deal of my fat little one-eyed mule, and I thought then, as I think now, how well she did her part on the fearful road to and from Death Valley.

Helms was now going to the valley to have a winter’s hunt, for here the snow would fall four feet deep and no mining work could be done till spring, when he would return and work his claim again.

I now had all in my pocket, and when I got ready to go Mrs. Bennett was much affected at knowing that I would now leave them, perhaps never to return to them again. She clasped me in her arms, embraced me as she would her own son, and said “Good luck to you–God bless you, for I know that you saved all our lives. I don’t suppose you will ever come back, but we may come back to Wisconsin sometime and we will try to find a better road than the one we came over. Give my best regards to all who inquire after us.” She shook my hand again and again with earnest pressure, and cried and sobbed bitterly. As I climbed the mountain she stood and watched me so long as I was in sight, and with her handkerchief waved a final adieu. I was myself much affected at this parting, for with Mr. and Mrs. Bennett had been really a home to me; she had been to me as a mother, and it was like leaving a home fireside to go away from them. I was now starting out among strangers, and those I should meet might be the same good friends as those whom I had left behind. Mr. Bennett and I had for many years been hunting companions; I had lived at his house in the East, and we never disagreed but had always been good friends. I had now a traveling companion whose home was in Iowa Co., Wis., where I had lived for several years, and we went along together by way of Greenwood where there was a small mining town built of tents, many of which were used as gambling places. These places were occupied by gentlemen, some of whom wore white shirts to distinguish them, I presume, from the common herd of miners from whom they won their dust.

We crossed the American River at Salmon Falls, and walked thence on to Sacramento City, which was the largest town we had seen on the coast. The houses were all small wooden ones, but business seemed to be brisk, and whiskey shops and gambling houses plenty. One game played with three cards, called three card Monte, was played openly on the streets, with goods boxes for tables. Every one who came along was urged to bet by the dealer who would lay out his cards face up so all could see them, then turn them over and shuffle them and say “I’ll bet six ounces that no one can put his finger on the queen.” I watched this a while and saw that the dealer won much oftener than he lost, and it seemed to be a simple and easy way to make a living when money was plenty.

We strolled around town looking at the sights, and the different business places, the most lively of which had plenty of music inside, lots of tables with plenty of money on them, and many questionable lady occupants. These business places were liberally patronized and every department flourishing, especially the bar. Oaths and vulgar language were the favorite style of speech, and very many of the people had all the whiskey down them that they could conveniently carry.

We got through the town safely and at the river we found a steamboat bound for San Francisco and the fare was two ounces. The runners were calling loudly for passengers, and we were told we could never make the trip any cheaper for they had received a telegram from below saying that no boat would come up again for two days. I said to him “I can’t see your telegram. Where is it?” At this he turned and left us. He had thought, no doubt, that miners were green enough to believe anything. In the course of an hour the smoke of a steamer was seen down the river, and this beat out the runners who now offered passage for half an ounce.

At this time there was no telegraph and the delay was a lucky one for us. We took passage and went to San Francisco that night, where we put up at a cheap tavern near where the Custom House now stands.

Here we learned that we would have to wait two days before a ship would sail for Panama, and during this time we surveyed the town from the hill-tops and walked all over the principal streets. It was really a small, poorly built, dirty looking place, with few wharves, poor, cheap hotels, and very rough inhabitants. There were lots of gambling houses full of tables holding money, and the rooms filled with pretty rough looking people, except the card dealers, most of whom wore white shirts, and a few sported plug hats. There was also a “right smart sprinkling” of ladies present who were well dressed and adorned with rich jewelry, and their position seemed to be that of paying teller at the gambling tables.

The buildings seemed to be rather cheap, although material was very expensive, as well as labor, mechanics of all sorts getting as much as ten or twelve dollars per day for work. Coin seemed to be scarce, and a great deal of the money needed on the gambling tables was represented by iron washers, each of which represented an ounce of gold.

I noticed some places in the streets where it was muddy and a narrow walk had been made out of boxes of tobacco, and sometimes even bacon was used for the same purpose. Transportation from the city to the mines was very slow and made by schooner. Ship loads of merchandise had arrived and been unloaded, and the sailors having run away to the mines, everything except whiskey and cards was neglected. Whiskey sold at this place for fifty cents a drink.

A man at the tavern where we stopped tried hard to sell me a fifty-vara lot there in the edge of the mud (near where the Custom House now stands) for six hundred dollars. I thought this a pretty high price and besides such a lot was no use to me, for I had never lived in town and could not so easily see the uses to which such property could be put. It seemed very doubtful to me that this place would ever be much larger or amount to much, for it evidently depended on the mines for a support, and these were so shallow that it looked as if they would be worked out in a short time and the country and town both be deserted. And I was not alone in thinking that the country would soon be deserted, for accustomed as we all had been to a showery summer, these dry seasons would seem entirely to prevent extensive farming. Some cursed the country and said they were on their way to “good old Missouri, God’s own country.” Hearing so much I concluded it would be wise not to invest, but to get me back to Wisconsin again.

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