Mining Stories by Ella M. Sexton

A large book might be filled with the stories told by the men who found gold in the early days. Their "lucky strikes" in the "dry-diggings" sound like fairy tales. Imagine turning over a big rock and then picking up pieces of gold enough to half fill a man's hat from the little nest that rock had been lying in for years and years!

And think of finding forty-three thousand dollars in a yellow lump over a foot long, six inches wide and four inches thick! This was the biggest nugget on record and actually weighed one hundred and ninety-five pounds. The next one, too, you might have been glad to pick up, as it held a hundred and thirty-three pounds of solid gold. Little seventy-five and fifty-pound treasures were common, and a soldier stopping to drink at a roadside stream found a nugget weighing over twenty pounds lying close to his hand.

It paid to get up early those days, also for a man in Sonora, while taking his morning walk, struck his foot against a large stone, and forgot the pain when he saw the stone was nearly all gold. Another man, with good eyes, got a fifty-pound nugget on a trail many people used all the time. One day, after a heavy rain, a man who was leading a mule and cart through a street in Sonora, noticed that the wheel struck a big stone; he stooped to lift it out of the way, and found the stone to be a lump of gold weighing thirty-five pounds. In less than an hour all that part of the town and the street was staked off into mining-claims, but no more was found. One of the largest of these nuggets was found by three or four men, who took it to San Francisco and the Eastern states, and exhibited it for money. They guarded the precious thing day and night, but at last quarrelled so that it had to be broken up and divided between them.

The first piece Marshall found was said to be worth about fifty cents, and the second over five dollars. Almost all, though, that was found was like beans or small seeds or in fine dust. No one tried to weigh or measure such gold more correctly than to call a pinch between the finger and thumb a dollar's worth, while a teaspoonful was an ounce, or sixteen dollars' worth. A wineglassful meant a hundred dollars, and a tumblerful a thousand. Miners carried their "dust" in a buckskin bag, and this was put on the counter, and the storekeeper took out what he thought enough to pay for the things the miner bought. A large thumb to take a large pinch of the gold-dust meant a good many extra dollars to the storekeeper in '48 and '49. Yet nearly every one was honest, and gold might be left in an open tent untouched, for there was plenty more to be had for the picking up. Those who would rather steal than work were driven out of camp.

Some of the "sand bars," or banks of gravel and earth, washed down by the Yuba River were so rich that the men could pick out a tin cupful of gold day after day for weeks. One place was called Tin-cup Bar for this reason. Spanish Bar, on the American River, yielded a million dollars' worth of dust, and at Ford's Bar, a miner, named Ford, took out seven hundred dollars a day for three weeks. At Rich Bar, on the Feather River, a panful of earth gave fifteen hundred dollars.

Yet the miners were seldom satisfied, but were always prospecting for richer claims. A man would shoulder his roll of blankets, his pick and shovel, with a few cooking things, and start off hoping to find some rich nugget, leaving a fairly good claim untouched.

The most extravagant prices were charged the miner for everything he had to buy. Ten dollars apiece for pick and shovel, fifty more for a pair of long boots, with bacon and potatoes at a dollar and a half a pound, soon took all his gold-dust to pay for. A dozen fresh eggs cost ten dollars, and a box of sardines half an ounce of gold-dust, which was eight dollars. There was no butter to buy, for any milk was quickly sold at a dollar a pint. The hotels charged three dollars a meal, or a dollar for a dish of pork and beans, and a dollar for two potatoes.

Lumber cost a dollar and a half a foot, but carpenters would not build houses when they could make fifty dollars a day by mining. As there was no lumber for the cabin floors, the ground was beaten hard and really made a good floor. In Placerville the houses were built along the bed of a ravine, and in sweeping these earthen floors some one saw gold-dust glittering, and found that rich diggings were under foot. Thereupon many of the miners dug up their cabin floors, and one man took about twenty thousand dollars in nuggets and gold-dust from the small space his cabin covered.

Very few women and children came to the mines in early days, and the first white woman to arrive in a camp had all sorts of attentions. Sometimes the town was named for the woman first in the place as Sarahsville and Marietta. If a lady visited a mining-camp, the men far and near would drop work and come in just to look at the visitor. One lady, who sang for the miners on her arrival in their town, was given about five hundred dollars' worth of gold-dust.

A child was a great curiosity, and any pretty little girl was sure to have a collection of nuggets or a quantity of gold-dust presented to her. The theatre and circus companies who visited mining-camps soon found out that a little child who could sing or dance was a great attraction. The miners used to throw a shower of money or nuggets at the feet of such little favorites as we throw flowers now.

As there were no women living here for some time, the men having left their families at home in the Eastern states, miners had to wash and cook and make bread for themselves. Men who had been lawyers or ministers at home, when there was no one else to do such things, washed their dishes or their red flannel shirts. On Sunday no one worked at mining, and the men baked bread and cleaned house, and Sunday afternoons they dried, patched, and mended their clothes. If a minister was in town, he held services on a hillside, or in the dining room of some shanty called a hotel, and all the camp came to hear him speak, or sang the hymns with him.

So the miners lived and worked and wandered along rivers and rough mountain trails on the west side of the Sierras, gathering up gold washed down by mountain streams. These Argonauts, or gold-seekers of fifty years ago, are almost all dead now, but the treasures they found made California known throughout the world. Their golden harvest has made the state richer than they found it, for they used the wealth to build cities, to cultivate farming-lands, and to plant orchards and vineyards where the mining-camps used to be.