|"Becoming California, a series that brings the California Gold Rush alive with the people who lived it."
by Don Baumgart
When Christmas came the Forty-Niners found themselves a continent away from family and friends. The holiday became a time of sad remembrances and, occasionally, furious partying to help ease the loneliness.
Even though many of the young men came from religious eastern families, the rush for gold had outpaced the organized forces of worship. A miner could plan a trip to Mission Dolores in San Francisco or the wait for the appearance in the mines of an occasional travelling man of God. Most waited.
Many personal diaries kept by miners make slight mention of Christmas, a particularly sorry day for the homesick. Most chose to ignore it, plunging into the daily work of building flumes and small dams, digging ditches, cutting wood and sometimes washing pay dirt out of the gravel or dirt out of worn clothing.
A Placer county miner listed Christmas Day as just another work day. The following year he entered a note about the weather, but no word of a celebration.
Another man come West to find his fortune sent a Christmas note back home to a friend. Inside he tucked a small, shiny nugget of gold.
A young miner from Canada, William Perkins, wrote in 1849, "My first Christmas in California I spent up to my knees in mud..." walking from Stockton to Sonora in the rain.
Of his second yule season in the mines, Perkins wrote, "Christmas Day! But why mention it in this country! It makes me sad to write the words, for they bring memories of home and civilization and household affections."
A Foresthill area miner recorded the 1857 holiday in his diary, mainly because it was also his birthday. "Well, Christmas is come again and today I am 29 years old," Aaron Lambert wrote. "Went this morning to Yankee Jim's...spent for self on clothing $22.50." The day before Christmas Eve he wrote, "I worked today as usual at mining. Nuthing new nuthing mutch is said about Christmas, some few parties is all." For some there was little reason to celebrate.
A party of Forty-Niners who would become known for their desert misadventures came upon rocks their wagons could not cross. It was Christmas. "No one felt Merry," one wrote, "but awful sad, when he could put in his hat his allotted part of the grub still left." Up ahead lay a valley that would not only consume the emigrants' little remaining food, but their endurance as well. They would be remembered as the Death Valley Party.
In other places the miners made do with what they had, and fashioned their own roughshod holiday celebrations.
"Imagine a company of enterprising and excitable young men," wrote Louise Clappe to her eastern friends, "settled upon a sandy level about as large as a poor widow's potato patch, walled in by sky-kissing hills -- absolutely compelled to remain on account of the weather."
Clappe, whose writings became known as the Shirley Letters, described a mining camp "Saternalia" during which the idled miners rewarded themselves for their endurance.
Christmas Eve 1851 at the Humboldt, a local gathering spot up the Feather river from Marysville, followed the first-ever washing of the establishment's wooden floor, a feat which required 50 pails of water. The event was fueled by mule-loads of brandy and champagne.
"At nine o'clock in the evening they had an oyster and champagne supper in the Humboldt...I believe the company danced all night; at any rate they were dancing when I went to sleep and they were dancing when I woke the next morning." The celebration went on for three days, "growing wilder every hour."
Eventually the fiddlers became exhausted, as did the oysters and wine.
There also was holiday merriment on shipboard among those eager gold hunters sailing to California. A woman headed for San Francisco reported Christmas cheers accompanied by much liquid cheer in the form of champagne. They were dancing on board the Orleans as it took them closer to their golden dreams. One ship's passenger set down this marvelous line about his Christmas afloat: "Besides a good dinner and the sight of whales, there was the prospect of a storm."
Those freshly arrived would spend a lifetime remembering their first Christmas in California, dining on wonderful foods they would have thought very ordinary "back East."
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