Far Western Miners

From an 1869 issue of Charles Dickens' magazine All the Year Round, London, England. The correspondent is unidentified.

    The early miner has never been truly painted. I protest against the flippant style and eccentric heroic of those writers who have made him a terror, or who, seizing upon a sporadic case of extreme oddity, some drunken, brawling wretch, have given a caricature to the world as a typical miner. The so-called literature that treats of the golden era is too extravagant in this direction. In all my personal experience in mining camps from 1849 to 1854 there was not a case of bloodshed, robbery, theft, or actual violence. I doubt if a more orderly society was ever known. How could it be otherwise? The pioneers were young, ardent, uncorrupted, most of them well educated and from the best families in the East. The early miner was ambitious, energetic and enterprising. No undertaking was too great to daunt him. The pluck and resources exhibited by him in attempting mighty projects with nothing but his courage and his brawny arms to carry them out were phenomenal. His generosity was profuse and his sympathy active, knowing no distinction of race. His sentiment that justice is sacred was never dulled. His services were at command to settle differences peacefully, or with pistol in hand to right a grievous wrong to a stranger. His capacity for self-government never has been surpassed. Of a glorious epoch, he was of a glorious race.--E. G. Waite, in the May Century.
Democratic Times, Jacksonville, May 8, 1891, page 1

    One autumn, a year or two ago, in pursuit of my travels, I struck into the wild mountain region of Southern Oregon, just north of the California boundary line. I had not gone far on the trail before I overtook a stalwart, grey-shirted, knee-booted individual. He had a pack of scarlet blankets strapped on his back, and as he trudged along, for want of better company, he held an animated conversation with himself: an oath being most innocently introduced every now and then, when the merits of the case seemed to call for it. He was an old gold-digger returning to his favourite "creek." He had been off, on one of the usual digger wild-goose chases, after some fancied El Dorado at a distance; but was returning, disappointed, to the place where he had mined for many a year. Every locality was familiar to him. As we walked together over the mountain, or by the banks of the creek or stream, down in the wooded valley, my companion would point out to me, with a half-regretful pride, the places where "big strikes" had been made in former times. Pointing to a ruined log cabin, out of the door of which a coyote wolf rushed, he assured me that the owner of that cabin had washed some forty thousand dollars out of a patch twenty or thirty yards in extent.
    "Was he a white man?" I asked; for there are numbers of Chinese miners in that section of country.
    "Wal," was the reply, "not muchly; he war a Dutchman."
    In Pacific Coast parlance, it appeared a "white man" did not altogether refer to the colour of his face but to the quality of his soul, and meant a good fellow and a right sort of man; and that Dutchmen or Germans, and the inhabitants of the north of Europe generally are not classed under that title. They are too saving, too steady, and possibly too clannish; for, though he does become an American citizen as soon as he arrives, this is with no view to any political principles he entertains, but solely to facilitate the preemption of land, the acquisition of a lager beer brewery, or the opening of a corner grocery.
    Cañon Creek, as the locality was named, had once, I was told, been a "bully old diggin'," but the stream having been pretty well washed out, the miners had decamped to parts unknown, leaving no address behind them. Like the Arabs, they folded their tents, and silently moved away. Here was a half-ruined building, choked up with weeds, bearing record that it had been once the El Dorado Saloon--in other words, a gambling hell, or worse--and around it were a few cabins. This had been the town site, and the projectors no doubt imagined that it was to be "the right smart chance of a city." However, fate had decided otherwise, and the only traces of former greatness to be seen were piles of stones and gravel, and long trenches, and half-ruined ditches, which gave the spot the appearance of a place where some great engineering operations had been left half finished. Here and there a solitary Chinese slunk about, intent on his own business, and, if my companion were to be believed, in pursuit of stray cats. As we turned a corner of the rough trail, we suddenly emerged in front of the store; by the door were sitting half a dozen of the old habitués of the creek, lazily talking. My friend was delighted.
    "There they are!" he cried, "loafing about, chawin' baccy, jest as nat'ral as anythin'!"
    He seemed to be a popular man among them. As his friend (friendships are quickly made in the West) I was received with vociferations of welcome, and the choice of half a dozen shanties to "spread a blanket in." In this way I saw a good deal of the honest miner of Cañon Creek, and learned not a little of his ways of life and thought, in this lonely little dell in the Californian mountains. Of course, we have all read about the miner in California, British Columbia, or Australia; about his extravagance, his boisterousness, and his conduct generally; and we are all too apt to think of him only as the roistering blade in the palmy days of 1849 or 1853, when gold could be had for the picking up. The typical miner in 1869 is a very different man from that of 1849, even though he be the same individual. No longer do you, as a rule, see the many fine-looking handsome fellows of the early days of California, fifteen or twenty years ago. They were all young then, but hardship has told upon them; for, in many cases they have pursued, with varying luck, that business of gold digging ever since. The 'forty-niners are the "blue blood" of the coast, but they are proverbially poor. Accordingly, these men, among whom I associated on Cañon Creek, were very different from our usual notion of the gold miner, but were yet at the same time very characteristic types of what is well known on the Rocky Mountain slopes as the "honest miner." He is a peculiar individual, and differs in many respects from the settler of late years. Enter his cabin, and there is always indubitable evidence of a miserable life of single blessedness. The gold-digger is almost universally unmarried. The rough blanket-spread cot; the axe-hewn table, with its scanty array of crockery; the old battered stove, or fireplace built of clay and stones; the inevitable sack of flour, half sack of potatoes and junk of pork; the old clothes and old boots, and a few books and newspapers; go far in making out the extent of the miner's worldly possessions. A little patch of cultivated ground enclosed by old "sluice-box" lumber is sometimes an accompaniment, as well as a dog, a cat, or a few fowls. The inhabitant of this cabin is often rough, grey, and grizzly. He came out twenty years ago, and his residence has, with few exceptions, always been on the gulch where we now find him. Probably it rejoices in the euphonious name of Horse-Beef Bar, Bull Dog Point, Jackass Gulch, or Ground Hogs Glory; by these names it may or may not be found on the surveyor-general's map, but at all events it goes by no other. He "does his trading," at a store at Diggerburgh. Credit he calls "jawbone," and talks about "running his face" for "grub," but sometimes this is objected to by the storekeeper, as the gulch is not "paying" well, and behind the counter you may see a mule's "jawbone" significantly suspended, and below the words "played out!" Here, the honest miner purchases a few pounds of flour, a little tea, coffee, and brown sugar, and as much as he can buy of whisky.
    He can tell where all the rich spots have been in the rivers, bars, gulches, and flats; but that was in the glorious, wicked, cutting, shouting, fortune-making times of yore. He can't tell where there are any rich spots now. He is certain there is a rich quartz ledge in the mountain yonder, and, if he could get water on the flat, he is sure it would pay good wages. Excess of fortune spoiled him in 'forty-nine. Economy is a myth with him, and he cheerfully entertains half a dozen friends, though his magazine of provisions, as well as of money, be in an advanced state of exhaustion. His supper cooked, he thinks of home--that is, the home of twenty years ago. In reality he has no home. Mentally, he sees the faces of his youth, fresh and blooming; but they are getting old and withered now. He sees the peach orchard and the farm-house, from which he wandered, a young rover, when first the news of golden California burst upon the astonished ears of the world. That home is now in the hands of strangers. Were he to "go East," as he calls it, he would find himself a stranger in a strange land. He thinks he'll go back "some time or other." Fortune occasionally favours him a trifle more than usual; and then he may make a trip to "the Bay," as he calls San Francisco. He stops at the "What Cheer House." He may be seen there by hundreds. Poor fellow! He came here to enjoy himself, but he doesn't well know how. The novelty of the city wears off in a day or two. Without occupation, his routine of life broken, he becomes a victim to a disease for which the French could alone have invented a name--ennui. At night he can go to the theatre; but by day he sits in rows in the hall of the hotel, crowds the entrance, and sometimes blocks up the street. If he have money enough, and be so inclined, he may "go on the spludge," and possibly get drunk; but that with this class of miner is not very likely. His face wears an expression of wild bewilderment and intense weariness. Unaccustomed to the hurry and bustle of the city, he collides frequently with the denizens of the metropolis. The spruce, fashionably dressed, frizzle-headed clerks, who flit by, excite in him feelings of contempt and indignation. The swarms of youthful females in the streets astonish, delight, and tantalise him. It is something so new to him. There are few on Jackass Gulch, and they would be better away. When he knew "Frisco," it was not much more than a collection of cotton tents on some sand-hills. Now, it is a fine city of one hundred and fifty thousand inhabitants. Females were almost unknown, and the announcement by a steamboat proprietor of "four lady passengers tonight" was quite enough to ensure a crowded patronage for his vessel. But the digger of the auriferous soil often leaves the city with the knowledge that the world has gone far ahead of him during his lonely residence in the mountains. He had far better not have come. In Diggerburgh he is somebody. In San Francisco he is lost among the crowd, or at best is only a "rusty old miner"; those who thus contemptuously talk of him, forgetting that he and such as he were the founders, and are yet, to a great extent, the stronghold, of California.
    I fancy I do not really wrong the honest miner in saying he does not possess much religion. Yet, if a clergyman by any chance come into his camp, he makes a point of attending "meeting," on much the same principle, and with feelings of about equal reverence, with which he would go to a dogfight or a tight-rope performance: because he looks upon it as the right thing to patronise the affair. If the parson look on as he is washing for gold, he will ask him if he would like to "wash out a pan," and as this invitation is usually accepted, the worthy fellow will contrive to slip in among the gravel a tolerable nugget, so that the washer may be nothing the worse for his clerical visit: custom in such cases providing that the contents of the pan go to the visitor. At one time there was a "revival of religion" among the miners. Never was there such a demand for tracts. Indeed, so great was the demand, that a special appeal had to be issued by a certain religious body, whose mission it was to look after such matters, for increased contributions to the "dear gold-diggers' tract fund." To use the words of the "appeal," "the cry comes o'er the western wave, more tracts, MORE TRACTS!" At last the painful truth oozed out (though I hardly think it was related at the May meetings) that the miners used the tracts to paper their log shanties! A friend of mine, whose lot it was to officiate as a clergyman among them at one time, used often to tell me that he had to ring a bell in the morning, all through the apology for a street, inviting his parishioners to divine worship, and that, finding nobody in church when he came in, he first looked into one gambling saloon or tavern, and then into another, inviting those assembled there to come to church. "All right, parson," would be the good-natured reply; "we'll be there as soon as we've played out this hand for the whiskies. Jest be goin' ahead with the prayers and things, and we'll be along for the preachin'!"
    This taking of "drinks" is characteristic of the miner. No bargain can be made, or any other matter of business or sociality settled, without the indispensable drinks. The same clerical friend, whose experience I have just related, was shocked on his first arrival among the miners at being asked to "stand drinks," after he had received a very liberal subscription towards the building of his church. Two mining companies that I know something about threw dice to determine which of them should treat the "whole creek" to champagne, and as that wine was sold at fifteen dollars per bottle, the cost to the loser may be guessed. In most mining localities it is looked upon as a cause of mortal offence to decline drinking with the first fellow who shouts, "Let's put in a blast, colonel!" In some places it is quite a serious breach of etiquette not to ask all who are sitting round in the bar-room of a tavern, though total strangers, to "Step up and take a drink." Sometimes they do not require any invitation. A friend of mine, having had a long ride one day, dismounted at a tavern to take, more Americano, some refreshment, when, to his utter astonishment, fourteen men who were sitting around stepped up, and "'lowed they would take sugar in thar'n." He paid for the fifteen "drinks," as it was in strict accordance with the custom of the country; but he took care not to go back to that hostelry again.
    The Australian gold-digger is in many respects different from the Californian, but still he evinces the same carelessness of money. It used to be the custom for these men to come down to some village after they had made a slight "pile," go each.to his favourite public house, and give the money into the landlord's hands, with the information that he "shouted" (or asked all and sundry to drink) until it was finished. Then the landlord at intervals would say, "Step up, boys, it's Jim Jenkins's shout!" Then they all wished Jim luck, until Jim's shout was out, and then he went back to his gully, proud that he had "spent his money like a man." On one occasion a miner came down and handed his money over to the landlord; but, contrary to expectation, nobody would respond to his shout. He had been a convict, and "lagged" for some grievous offence. The man was at his wit's end. At last he struck upon the brilliant expedient of engaging an idler at labourer's daily wages--eight shillings--to drink with him. And so he got through his holiday!
    No one can tell where a rich mine will be discovered, or where it will not. Even quartz mines, which require skill to diagnose, have been equally discovered by chance. A robber fired at a man standing with his back to a rock, but missed; as the ball splintered the moss-grown quartz, the miner who was attacked saw specks of gold sparkle in the moonlight. It afterwards proved one of the richest mines in California. Two miners about to leave the country, just to celebrate the event, got "on the spludge" the night before their intended departure. As they were coming home to their cabins, in mere foolishness they commenced rolling stones down a slope. One of these struck off the point of a rock: which, on being examined, was found rich with specks of gold. This changed their plans, and they stayed, and stayed to some purpose, for they afterwards became very wealthy men.
    The honest miner is far from being what may be called a "domestic character." If he were making five dollars per diem to "the hand" at "Greaser's Camp," and heard that somebody was making six at "Hellgate Cañon," in "Mountain Goat Gulch," the chances are that he would presently disappear to the new El Dorado. Now, Gold Bluff was the point to which all were rushing; that failed, but it didn't dishearten the men. They next rushed in thousands to Gold Lake; and then the cry was Fraser River; which disappointed so many thousands that eventually it became a matter of as serious personal offence to ask a gentleman if he had been to Fraser River, as to tell him to "Go to Jericho." In 1863, the infuriated miner was blocking all the mountain trails and Washoe was the cry. In 1864, it was Blackfoot. In 1866, I saw hundreds rushing through slush and snow for Big Bend, in the heart of the Rocky Mountains, declaring that "Cariboo wasn't a patch on it," and that at all events they would "see the elephant." It is curious that men who have been on the Pacific coast since the commencement of gold mining, who have knocked about the Rocky Mountain slopes, and have been the victims of a dozen disappointments, should be so easily tempted again to risk fortune; but it is so, and the country would never have been what it is, if they had all been as sensible as they might have been. This vagabond propensity will fasten on a man who allows himself to sit in front of a frying pan and a bundle of blankets on the ridgepole of a sore-backed horse, and I verily believe there are many men who, if their history were known, have travelled more and endured greater hardship in this way than many whose names are famous in the annals of travel, and whom the Geographical Society delights to honour. The true seeker after El Dorado does not stop at distance or difficulties.
    The Pacific coast gold miner does not care to be called, like the Australian, a "digger": the term in the former region being applied to and associated with, a miserable race of Indians who inhabit the mountains. He likes to be called by the title I have put at the head of this paper, "The Honest Miner." That he is honest enough, as honesty goes in America, nobody will deny to the profession as a whole, but still there is occasionally the dishonest miner. We do not speak of the rascal who is caught stealing gold out of the "sluice-box," and gets lynched for his pains; but of the equally rascally individual who "salts" a claim before selling it. That is, he scatters a few pieces through the gravel before the buyer comes to test it. In California some of the claims are wrought summer and winter; indeed the winter is more favourable than the summer, because water is more plentiful; but in British Columbia and in the Rocky Mountains, the frost causes working to be suspended. Then the claims are "laid over" and the great body of the miners come down to Victoria and other towns to pass the winter months, and to spend the money they have made during the summer. They also try to dispose of rather doubtful claims at this time, and one of the means adopted is to report having "struck a good prospect" just before leaving. It is remarkable, to say the least of it, how many good prospects are "struck" in this way. The endless swindles connected with quartz companies are, I dare say, vividly enough in the memory of certain gentlemen in the City of London and elsewhere, whose purses were longer than their foresight.
    Gold mining will always be a staple industry of the Rocky Mountain slope, and the increased immigration and attention excited by the Pacific Railroad will greatly increase the business; but the old miner will be "killed off." Large companies will work his "claims," and shoals of new hands will crowd his solitary valleys--men who know not the old traditions and have no sympathy with the old manners. He himself will meet them half-way, and will unconsciously lose many of his characteristics and peculiarities. He will get toned down to the duller routine of other workmen, as his pursuit takes its place among the "industries."
All the Year Round,
September 18, 1869, pages 367-370

Last revised January 5, 2010