California Golden Rush

.. week and often seven. Often men would be removing the sand knee deep in ice-cold water for hours on end. One miner summarized the labors of mining in these terms: “Mining is the hardest work imaginable and an occupation which very much endangers health. A weakly man might about as well go to digging his grave as to dig gold.”(Rohrbough, 138).

Few forty-niners were prepared for the incredibly hard work. Working fifty pans of dirt in a ten hour day was a reasonable goal. But digging the dirt to fill those pans, sorting it out, and panning for the gold became more work than most gold seekers had anticipated. For a man who could endure hardships, could handle the incredible amount of labor, and could handle the sorrows of dissapointment, there was never a better opportunity in the world to make a fortune. There was a great number of men who barely knew how to pick up a shovel including doctors, lawyers, preachers, bookkeepers, and other white-collar workers, few of them prepared for the hard life of mining.

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As much as a thousand dollars worth of gold could be washed from a single pan, but few miners ever had that exhilar- ating experience. A half an ounce of gold a day was generally recognized as the bare minimum a miner must make to keep himself working due to the inflated prices in the camps. Prices were so high in the camps that had the miners been making what they did per day anywhere else in the world the majority of them would have become rich. As it was though many miners barely made enough to get by on a day to day basis. A tin pan that could be bought for fifteen cents anywhere in the United States sold for eight dollars in the gold fields. Everything was sold at unbelievable profits such as shovels for two dollars, frying pan for two dollars, a mule for two hundred dollars, a box of sardines for sixteen dollars, one pound of hard bread for two dollars, one pound of butter for six dollars, a bottle of ale for eight dollars, a half pound of cheese for three dollars, flour for fifty dollars a barrel, potatoes for three dollars a pound.

Not just the price of goods was high services were equally severely inflated, for example a full time house servant would receive around one hundred dollars a month, clothes washing could bring one hundred dollars per week, a cooked meal cost around five dollars, women could receive more than one hundred and fifty dollars a month for house cleaning. These high prices were paid for by the average miner working day in and day out under miserable condit- ions and poor health. In the late eighteen hundreds at the time of the gold rush men and women were accustomed to hard physical labor, but the intense labor required by mining eventually wore down even the most optimistic and the physically and mentally tough. “Wealth was the dream; grinding toil was the reality that for many made it into a nightmare.” (Rohrbough, 192). In the face of such demanding physical conditions, men aged rapidly in the mines.

Their hair turned gray, their teeth rotted, their aching backs cried out for relief from the daily labor of digging and carrying. The faces of miners were lined by hard labor, hot sun, and continuing exposure to the weather of all kinds. In addition to the dangers associated with mining was the communal living and poor sanitation. Baths were infrequent and the men did not have enough clothes to change on a regular basis. Epi- demics of smallpox and dysentary afflicted the mines each season, and to make things worse as prospects in the mines diminished cheap basic foods was all the miners could afford. These cheap meals lacking in vegetables and fruits, made the miners susceptible to scurvy. Even with all the hardships and miserable conditions most of the miners made it through and now faced the most difficult task of returning home.

Few miners found more than enough gold to cover their daily living expenses, and fewer still had any left over after gambling and drinking. By the year of 1853 the big gold rush was at an end, the placer deposits were virtually exhausted, earlier stakes had been worked over several times, and now the miners had to face the reality of going home. How could the forty-niner justify his long absence when he returned with no more than he left with? For those that stayed to the end and had still not struck it rich, there was the belief that they had done all they could to make their dreams come true. If they had left after a couple of years they would have been forever looking back and wondering if they had just missed the mother lode. In a way, coming home was the coming to terms with failure.

Many of the forty-niners who disappeared into the countryside of California did so because they couldn’t return home empty-handed and face relatives and loved ones. How much gold would a returning miner have to possess to measure up as a success? “Ten thousand dollars was frequently mentioned as the standard in newspaper articles.” (Rohrbough, 264). For many a few thousand dollars would be enough, and for others just being able to square up accounts was enough. Many forty-niners did strike it rich as is the case of John and Daniel Murphy who came to California in early 1848. By the end of the year the brothers hade made one and a half million dollars. John became a politician and Daniel ended up buying three million acres of land in California.

John Bidwell also came to California in 1848 and within six months had made a fortune and became one of the richest and most respected men in California. A man named Dye in less than two months mined more than seventy-six thousand dollars worth of gold. Generally unless a miner found a lot of gold quick and then left, he would eventually spend it all looking for more gold. The men who did not make their fortunes in money did gain wealth in their memories of taming the wild land called California. Captain Sutter prior to the gold rush wanted nothing more than to start an empire in the new land in which he had received two hundred and thirty square miles.

His land turned out to be the gold fields, but Sutter turned out to be careless about his business dealings. His workers went after gold along with the miners and left his fields and cattle unattended. Sutter tried mining but soon began drinking up all the gold he could find. By the end of his life Captain Sutter had sold all the land he had acquired and was a poor man. James Marshall, who found the first nugget, never made anything off of the gold discovery.

He actually lost his mill as forty-niners overrun his land looking for gold. He tried panning for gold but never had any success. James Marshall ended up dying penniless and bitter over the way his life turned out. Of the nearly four hundred thousand men who crowded into California in the decade after the find at Sutter’s Mill the vast majority neither prospered or starved. For them it was a grand adventure that they would never forget.

For many it didn’t end in California when the diggings tapered off. Many men loaded up their tools and moved on to new gold fields such as the Black Hills, Montana, Oregon, and even as far as Australia. Still other men simply packed up and went back home, for the most part looking back with fondness on California and their experiences searching for gold. Many decided to stay in California and take up trades staying close to the land they had grown to love Bibliography Johnson, William Weber. The Forty-Niners.

Ed. Hedley Donovan. Canada: Joan D. Manly, 1974. Paul, Rodman W.

The California Gold Discovery. Georgetown, California: The Talisman Press, 1967. —, California Gold. Lincoln, Nebraska: University of Nebraska Press, 1947. Rohrbough, Malcolm J.

Days of Gold: The California Gold Rush and the American Nation. Berkeley and Los Angeles, California: University of California Press, 1997.


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