"Becoming California, a series that brings the California Gold Rush alive with the people who lived it."

It Was a Dark and Stormy Night And the Nuggets Fell Like Rocks

by Don Baumgart

Fall winds were whistling down the Yuba River canyon as the handful of Downie's Flat miners gathered in Bill McGhee's tent saloon for a large portion of the house special. McGhee made only one drink and it was raw corn meal, brandy and water -- served hot. The canvas slapped like a ship's sail and the warm yellow from lanterns was the only light to be seen for 20 miles.

William Downie, who was called Major, was a Scotch sailor who jumped ship in San Francisco Bay and headed for the gold fields of the high Sierra. He was putting himself around one of McGhee's specials, which cost an ounce of gold dust -- $16.

With him in the tent was a Bullard's Bar horse trader known as Cut Eye, as Robert Wells Richie tells the story in Hell-Roarin' Forty-Niners. The party included another man claiming to be related to royalty in the Sandwich Islands, and five black men. This small band of miners spent their nights in the saloon tent and their days chipping gold out of the river rim rock with butcher knives, harvesting $300 a man, every day.

The year of the Forty-Niner was heading for winter fast and the warmth, both of the tent and McGhee's mixture, was a welcome day's end ritual for the miners. That ritual was interrupted by the arrival of a stranger, starved and frozen who had made his way toward the light.

Robert Stoddard had caught gold fever in Philadelphia and set off on the six-month wagon trip across the Great Plains. Coming up and over the eastern side of the Sierra mountains his party had come upon the Feather River and a mammoth gold discovery. At least that was the tale the exhausted man told to the Downie's Flat miners. It was good for a couple of McGhee's specials and a bit of beef.

"We stopped to drink. I leaned over the edge and saw nuggets lying like pebbles on the mossy bank." To prove his story Stoddard reached in his pocket and dumped on the table a clattering handful of water-worn nuggets, some the size of bird eggs.

The boys were convinced. They were sure that up over a few more mountains was the biggest strike they could imagine. But, winter was on them and soon food became more important than gold. They survived by making their way to Bullard's Bar and restocking their vanished supplies.

Stoddard was long gone. He left after fortifying himself with McGhee's Mind Mash, saying he had to meet his partner in San Francisco. Spring of 1850 found him at Deer Creek Dry Diggins --which would one day become the town of Nevada City -- recruiting men to go back for the gold. Half the Deer Creek camp followed him and before Stoddard reached the middle fork of the Yuba River, half a thousand men were trailing him.

Word of Stoddard's find spread through the gold fields, becoming transformed into a "Lake of Gold" in the telling. Miners heard about it at Mokulumne and along the American River.

Snow still covered the ground, obscuring the landmarks the lucky Philadelphian had committed to memory the previous fall. Now high in the Sierra the 500 men who had rushed off to find Gold Lake were having second thoughts. They called a campfire council and expressed their disappointment. Stoddard said he was sorry for the plight of the hundreds of uninvited guests, but reminded them he had promised them nothing. His deal was with the 24 men he recruited back at Deer Creek.

So the followers made a new deal: If Stoddard didn't find his way to the gold in 48 hours they would use his neck to stretch the wrinkles out of a hangin' rope.

He was there when they hit their bedrolls that night but the next morning he was not, having slipped into the cold night the same way he had mysteriously appeared at Downie's Flat.

The stranded miners did what miners do; they scratched around and started finding gold. Their disappointing journey's end turned out to be in some of the richest gold bearing land yet scratched by a Niner's pick. Stoddard was never heard from. If he did relocate his riverbanks of nuggets, this time he kept his mouth shut.

— end —
(Copyright 2002, Don Baumgart)


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