"Becoming California, a series that brings the California Gold Rush alive with the people who lived it."
It Was "Difficult Come" and"Easy Go" in the Gold Fields

by Don Baumgart

How much money did the California Gold Rush prospectors pull out of the ground? For a great many the rush to riches was all rush and no riches.

Most arrived broke, hope their only currency. One young man wrote home, begging for help. "No man can make 1O cents a month. If you don't send me some money, I will starve to death."

If you wanted your supplies hauled from Sutter's Fort to the gold fields, it could cost you $3OO for the fifty-mile journey. That's after paying $4OO for a barrel of flour and $4 a pound for coffee.

Finally at the mining camp, the beginner could buy a breakfast of sardines, bread, cheese. The bill would be more than $4O.

One prospector's wife started doing laundry and soon was making more gold dust every day than her husband took out of the ground.

The miners who were finding gold were spending it on their daily keep. Those unable to mine an ounce a day soon had to give up their dreams and go to work for someone else, working a misery stick -- as the miners called shovels -- from dawn to dark.

Working conditions were terrible. Back-breaking labor, standing in icy water, poor food and a fitful night's sleep on damp ground, spread sickness and death through the mining camps. The miners' misfortune went unnoticed, overshadowed by the few who returned to San Francisco to throw bulging pokes on a saloon bar and order drinks for the house.

The Forty-Niners sweated $2O million into their pokes in the year that gave them their name.

By 186O the Sierra Nevada foothills had yielded $595 million. By 19OO another $7OO million was pried from the earth.

A lucky man could pan $1O-15 of dust a day. Back in San Francisco in a former life that same man may have been a cook making $3O a month. The exceptions became legend, leading newcomers to believe they would soon be wearing silk and riding in fine carriages.

From under his front porch, one man took $2,OOO. Another group of prospectors took $5,OOO out of the hole left by a stump they removed to unblock a road.?? Daily takes began to be reported in pounds. Thirty pounds of gold came from a plot four feet square on the middle fork of the Yuba River. Two prospectors aided by 2O paid laborers unearthed seven to nine pounds of gold every day they worked.

The surface gold was quickly exhausted by the 5O,OOO prospectors who hit Cali-fornia in 1849. By the mid-50s. Welsh miners were being hired from England because they knew underground mining, and a new phase of the Gold Rush began.

Wealthy mine owners entertained presidents in their mansions while men dug deeper into the earth, toiling in heat and darkness, air pumped in and water pumped out, following the golden veins.

Across the Sierra Nevada mountains, the metal that drove men mad was white: silver.

Ten years after James Marshall's find at Sutter's Mill in California, two Irish immigrants, Patrick McLaughlin and Peter O'Riley, found a strange kind of gold while prospecting on the eastern slopes of the mountain range. They had dug into the northern end of the Comstock Lode, named after Henry Comstock who had staked claims in the area. The Comstock was to yield a third of a billion dollars in silver.

California's Gold Rush also led to discoveries in the Colorado Rockies. From the streambed of Clear Creek, 3O miles west of Denver, California prospector George Jackson panned up a few golden flakes in his drinking cup in 1859.

Over the next 6O years, Clear Creek would yield $1OO millon in gold.

The year before Jackson's wintry discovery, the Lincoln-Douglas debates had taken place in Illinois and the first trans -Atlantic telegraph cable was completed.

The following year Abraham Lincoln would be elected president and the first Pony Express ride from Sacramento to St. Joseph, Missouri would gallop to success; ten days of hard riding carrying two saddlebags of mail. Pony Express service ended less than two years after it began when the first transcontinental telegraph line was completed.

Twelve years after the discovery of gold in California the Civil War would begin. Gold from California and Nevada's silver became major factors in the Union's winning of that war.

— end —
(Copyright 2001, Don Baumgart)


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