"Becoming California, a series that brings the California Gold Rush alive with the people who lived it."
The Gold Rush Became History's Most Literate Mass Migration

by Don Baumgart

Moving the mail has always been an American success story. In World War II, thin sheets of Victory Mail kept troops around the world in touch with the folks at home. It was no different during the Gold Rush.

Mail, that essential commodity, flooded into San Francisco headed for the inland gold hunters. Late in the summer of 1849, the first wave of letters from home broke on the city's shore when the steamer Panama arrived with 25,000 letters. Coming from loved ones left behind, tons of mail continued to pour into San Francisco's post office.

It took a six-hour wait in a long, long line to pick up mail. Places near the front of the line often sold for as much as $25. Vendors roamed the line, selling coffee, newspapers and sweets to the postal hopefuls.

A few miners left their back-breaking claims and set themselves up collecting mail at the San Francisco and delivering it to the camps. They charged the news-hungry miners $2 when they delivered a letter, and the miners gladly paid the fee in gold dust.

A great deal of what we know about the conditions in the California gold fields comes from letters written to the folks back home.

When she followed her doctor husband to California in 1849, Mrs. Fayette Clappe began a series of letters to her sister back home in New England, signing them "Dame Shirley." The communiqués were reprinted locally in the Marysville Herald and in The Pioneer in 1851 and '52. This was a monthly magazine published in San Francisco whose editor saw both great human and historical importance in what soon became known as The Shirley Letters from the California Mines.

One letter described conditions in the gold fields: "Imagine a company of enterprising and excitable young men, settled upon a sandy level about as large as a poor widow's potato patch...living in damp, gloomy cabins." She described the winter's rain as a remorseless force "...which set itself to drive humanity mad."

Her letters were written at Rich Bar on the East branch of the Feather River's north fork. It was September, two years and a summer after the Gold Rush started. She was at the highest point at which gold had so far been discovered, 50 miles from the Sierra Nevada Mountains' summit.

"Through the middle of Rich Bar runs the street, thickly planted with about forty tenements; among which figure round tents, square tents, plank hovels and log cabins," read her second letter back "to the States."

About the beginnings of Rich Bar, she wrote, "...two men turned over a large stone, beneath which they found quite a sizable piece of gold." They staked a claim and before nightfall the entire bar had been claimed. "In a fortnight from that time, the two men who found the first bit of gold had each taken out six thousand dollars. Two others took out thirty-three pounds of gold within eight hours."

There could be no other name given to this wondrous place than "Rich Bar."

Others kept their writings to themselves, maintaining journals of their gold field adventures. One was Henry Bigler, who was there when James Marshall made his famous discovery.

"The first that I had any knowledge of gold being found in any other place aside from the race [of Sutter's Mill] was on Sunday the sixth of February. That morning I said I was going over the river opposite the mill to see if I could find any, pointing to some bare rock directly opposite the saw mill."

Using a jackknife given him by John Sutter on a recent visit, Bigler and a partner picked out about five dollars worth of yellow apiece. A small amount, but an important one; it signaled the beginning of the expansion of the great California Gold Rush.

Six days later Bigler set off to "hunt ducks" and found a likely spot -- but it wasn't ducks he was after. A half mile below the mill he saw a recent landslide. "The river was pretty deep and rapid. I ventured across by taking off every rag I had on." Bigler admitted to his diary that he "had gold badly on the brain." He wouldn't be the last to be afflicted.

— end —
(Copyright 2001, Don Baumgart)


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