Gold and the Argonauts of 1849 by Ella M. Sexton

California has well earned her name of "Golden State," for from her rich mines gold to the value of thirteen hundred millions has been taken. Yet every year she adds seventeen millions more to the world's stock of gold. No country has produced more of this precious yellow metal that men work and fight and die for. The "gold belt" of the state still holds great wealth for miners to find in years to come.

Long, long ago people knew that gold was here, for in 1510 a Spanish novel speaks of "that island of California where a great abundance of gold and precious stones is found." In 1841 the Indians near San Fernando Mission washed out gold from the river-sands, and other mines were found not far from Los Angeles.

But James W. Marshall was the man who started the great excitement of '48 and '49 by finding small pieces of gold at a place now called Coloma, on the American River. Marshall, who was born in New Jersey, came to this state in 1847, and being a builder wished to put up houses, sawmills, and flour-mills. Finding that lumber was very dear, he decided to build a sawmill to exit up the great trees on the river-bank. He had no money, but John A. Sutter, knowing a mill was needed there, gave Marshall enough to start with.

So the mill was built, and when it was ready to run Marshall found that the mill-race, or ditch for carrying the water to his mill-wheel, was not deep enough. He turned a strong current of water into it, and this ran all night. Then it was shut off, and next day the ditch showed where the stream had washed it deeper and had left a heap of sand and gravel at the end of it. Here Marshall saw some shining little stones, and picking them up he laid one on a rock and hammered it with another till he saw how quickly it changed its shape. He was sure that these bright, heavy, easily hammered pebbles were gold, but the men working about the mill would not believe it. So he went to Sutter, who lived near at a place called Sutter's Fort, because his stores, house, and other buildings were built around a hollow square with high walls outside to keep off the Indians. Sutter weighed the little yellow lumps and said they certainly were gold.

The flood-gates between the mill-race and the river were opened again, and water ran through the ditch, washing more gold in sight. Sutter picked up enough of this to make a ring and had these words marked on it:—

"The first gold found in California, January, 1848."

Both Sutter and Marshall tried to keep what they had found a secret, but that was impossible, and soon people were flocking to the gold-fields. Then began a wild excitement known as the "gold-fever," and men left their stores and houses, gave up business, and left crops ungathered in a wild chase after nuggets of gold.

By December of 1848, thousands of miners were washing for gold all along the foot-hills from the Tuolumne River to the Feather, a distance of 150 miles. A hundred thousand men came to California during 1849, these Argonauts, or gold-hunters, taking ship or steamer for the long trip from New York by the Isthmus of Panama. Some went round Cape Horn, or else made a weary journey overland across the plains. "To the land of gold" was their motto, and these pioneers endured every hardship to reach this "Golden State."

  PLACER GOLD MINING. Washing with Cradle.
Washing with Cradle.

Then the miners, with pick, shovel, and pan for washing out gold from the gravel it was found in, started out "prospecting" for "pay-dirt." The gold-diggings were usually along the rivers, and this surface, or "placer," mining was done by shovelling the "pay-dirt" into a pan or a wooden box called a cradle, and rocking or shaking this box from side to side while pouring water over the earth. The heavy gold, either in fine scales or dust, or in lumps called nuggets, dropped to the bottom, while the loose earth ran out in a muddy stream. The rich sand left in pan or cradle was carefully washed again and again till only precious, shining gold remained.

So rich were some of the sand bars along the American and Feather rivers that the first miners made a thousand dollars a day even by this careless way of washing gold where much of it was lost. Then again for days or weeks the miner found nothing at all. He would wander up and down the cañons and gulches, prospecting for another claim, and dreaming day and night of finding a stream with golden sands, or of picking up rich nuggets. If he found good "diggings" he would build a rough shanty under the pines, and dig and wash till the gold-bearing sand or gravel gave out again. Sometimes he had a partner and a donkey, or burro, to carry tools and pack supplies. More often the Argonaut cooked his own bacon and slapjacks and simmered his beans over a lonely camp-fire, and slept wrapped in a blanket under the trees. If he had much gold, he would go to the nearest town, buy food enough for another prospecting tramp, and often spend all the rest of his money in foolish waste.

Sometimes a company of miners would build a dam across a river or stream, and turn it from its course, so they could dig out and wash the rich gravel in the river-bed. A flume, or ditch, would often carry all the water to a lower part of the river, leaving the bed of the upper stream dry for miles. In this kind of mining the "pay-dirt" was shovelled into long wooden boxes called sluices, and a constant stream of water kept the gravel and earth moving on out to a dumping-place. The gold dropped down or settled into riffles, or spaces between bars placed across the bottom of the sluices, and once a week the water was turned off and a "clean-up" made of the gold.

It was not long before the rivers, creeks, and gulches had all been worked over and most of the gold taken out. The miners knew that this loose gold had been washed out of the hills by the rains and storms of countless years. So some one thought of using a heavy stream of water to break down the foot-hills themselves and to carry the gold-bearing gravel to sluice boxes. This is called hydraulic mining and is the cheapest way of handling earth, as water does all the work and very little shovelling is needed. But since a strong water-power is necessary, a large reservoir and miles of ditches or wooden flumes must be built, so the first expense is large. The water usually comes from higher up in the mountains, and is forced under great pressure through iron pipes, the nozzle or "giant" being directed at the hillside, which has already been shattered by heavy blasts of powder. The water tears thousands of tons of earth and gravel apart, and the muddy stream flows through sluices, where the gold is left. In this kind of mining a great quantity of débris, or "tailings," must be disposed of.

For years this débris was washed into the rivers or on farming lands, filling up and ruining both, and leading to endless quarrels between farmers and miners. But at last the courts stopped hydraulic mining except in northern counties, where débris went into the Klamath River, upon which no boats could run and near which was little farming. But all the mines in the Sacramento and San Joaquin river-basins were idle till, in 1893, Congress appointed a débris Commission. These mining engineers issue licenses to work the mines when satisfied that the débris will be kept out of the rivers. There are in the state many hundred thousand acres of gold-bearing gravel lands yet untouched, that could be worked by hydraulic mining.

In drift-mining the rich gravel is covered by hard lava rock thrown up by some old volcanic outburst. Tunnels are driven by blasting with dynamite, or by drilling under the rock to reach the gravel which usually lies in the buried channel of an old river. The long drifts, or tunnels, needed are very expensive and only mine owners with capital can work these claims.

Richest of all are the quartz mines, where beautiful white rock, rich with sparkling gold, is found in veins, or "lodes," cropping out of hillsides or dipping down under the earth. The great "Mother-lode" of our state runs like an underground wall across Amador, Calaveras, Tuolumne, and Mariposa counties and has been traced for eighty miles.

Some poor miner usually finds a ledge of quartz-rock and digs down the way the ledge goes. He puts up a windlass, worked by hand, over the well-like hole he has dug out, and hoists the ore out in buckets. But he soon finds, as the hole or shaft goes deeper, that he must timber the sides to keep them from caving in, that he must have an engine to raise the ore and a mill to crush the hard rock. So he sells out to a company of men, who put in costly machinery, deepen the shaft, and by heavy expenditure get large returns.

The quartz ledges dip and turn, so tunnels and cross-cuts are run to follow the golden vein, and all these are timbered with heavy wooden supports to keep the earth and rock from falling in on the men. The miners work in day and night gangs, using dynamite to break up the hard rock, and sending ore up in great iron buckets, or in cars if the tunnel ends in daylight, on the hillside. Sometimes the miners strike water, and that must be pumped out to keep the mine from being flooded.

The ore is crushed by heavy stamps, or hammers, and then mixed with water and quicksilver. This curious metal, quicksilver, or mercury, is fond of gold and hunts out every little bit, the two metals mixing together and making what is called an amalgam. This is heated in an iron vessel, and the quicksilver goes off in steam or vapor, leaving the gold free. The quicksilver, being valuable, is saved and used again, while the gold, now called bullion, is sent to the mint to be coined into bright twenties, or tens, or five-dollar pieces.

Some of the gold in the crushed ore will not mix with the quicksilver, and this is treated to a bath of cyanide, a peculiar acid that melts the gold as water does a lump of sugar. So all of value is saved, and the worthless "tailings" go to the dump. Even the black sands on the ocean beach have gold in them. In the desert also there is gold, which is "dry-washed" by putting the sand into a machine and with a strong blast of air blowing away all but the heavy scales of gold.

Though the Argonauts of '49 found much wealth in yellow gold, our "Golden State," on hillsides, in river-beds, or deep down in hidden quartz ledges, still holds great fortunes waiting to be found.