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Struggles of the California Gold Rush

While tales of fabulous wealth are the stuff of legend, the pioneer miners of California faced huge obstacles and most barely made enough to eat, let alone get wealthy. The weather during some times of the year was pleasant and conductive to their mining and prospecting, but other times it was bitter and inclement. To eat, they had to work in the rain and cold. The winter of 1852-53, was perhaps the roughest time ever seen to that time in California. The long spell of rain leading to high water in the rivers and streams utterly prevented the transportation of provisions from the cities, and there was much want, though no actual cases of starvation. Many men lived for weeks on boiled barley. Beans, without even a ham-bone to season them, furnished, in some cases, the only food available to the gold miners for weeks. At one camp, a pork rind was borrowed from one house to another, to grease the frying-pan for slap-jacks (pancakes). A narrative of personal experience of one miner who lived on the south branch of Dry Creek, Amador County, in 1852, will give an idea of the troubles of that year:

“It had been raining for about six weeks, and our claim had been four feet under water for a month. There were no gulches there that would pay, and we had been waiting for the rain to cease until every bit of provision of any description was gone, as well as money or dust. Something had to be done, even if the rain was coming down in torrents. There were four of us, one Yankee, two young married men from Illinois, and a man who had served in the United States army in the Seminole war, and. Also as a volunteer in the Mexican war. We shouldered our picks, shovels, and rockers, and started up towards Indian gulch. After going a short distance, one of the miners in our group who had come from Illinois got to thinking of his young wife, and the pleasures of home compared with this country, and, overcome by his feelings, burst into a blubber of despair, and started on the run for the cabin, where he was found at night hovering over the cold ashes of the fire-place, the fire totally extinguished by his floods of tears.

At the head of Indian gulch we found some paying dirt. We went to work, and by dint of ground sluicing, rocking and panning, about four o’clock we had, probably, an ounce of gold dust. With this I started to Fiddletown to buy a supper for the boys.”

Now at a price of nearly $1000 per ounce, an ounce of gold dust in the year 2009 will buy many months worth of basic food and provisions for a man, but in those days gold was worth only 20 dollars per ounce. With the prevailing gold rush prices of food in 1852 (flour at one hundred dollars per barrel, and meat seventy-five cents per pound), it was not much. Our miner continued his tale:

“After standing and thinking awhile, I remarked that I thought the rain would hold up shortly, so that provisions would get cheaper; believed that I would buy but a small quantity to-night, etc. Mr. Wingo, the gentlemanly trader, did not seem to notice my embarrassment, but politely sold me the little dab of flour and a piece of meat, which went down into the corner of the sack out of sight. I rushed off for the cabin, darkness coming rapidly on, and the rain still falling.

The creeks were now nearly waist deep, but I safely got through them all until I got to Dry creek. The log on which I crossed in the morning was gone, and the water was running high over the banks. Two or three hundred yards away was the cabin, and I knew, by the bright light shining through the cracks of the door, that a big fire had been built to cook our suppers, out of the proceeds of our day’s work, and to dry our clothes, soaked by twelve hours’ rain. A council of war was called, and all attainable information regarding roads, bridges, and ferries, called for. The creek was nowhere fordable; that proposition was disposed of without delay. One witness, or member of the council, had an indistinct recollection of having seen a tree across the creek a mile or two below, some days since, but could not vouch for its being there at present. This being the only information attainable, the commander ordered a change of base, to the possible bridge. Down the creek, in utter darkness, over rocks and bushes, stumbling and falling, and after an hour’s hard work, the bridge was found. It was a cedar tree, the butt resting on the stump, the large top reaching to the opposite shore, and the middle sagged down so that the water was running, perhaps, two feet deep over the trunk, and threatening every moment to sweep the tree off its moorings; for, standing on its upper end, I could feel it swaying to the movement of the water. But the submerged part had limbs standing up out of the stream, and a charge in force across the bridge was ordered, I with this caution, ‘ My boy, if you go overboard, the boys will go without their suppers.’ The opposite bank was gained in safety, by feeling the way and holding to the limbs; and, an hour later, some bread and fried pork, and a roaring fire, brought us to a comfortable condition, and gave us the spirit to laugh at all our troubles.”

Such were the struggles and major difficulties of life in the California gold camps in the early days.

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