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

Gamblers Flooded In To Lighten Miners' Loads


by Don Baumgart

They were better dressed than the grubby miners and their financial fates in the Gold Rush mining camps were largely better than those who turned soil or busted rock looking for gold. These men found their gold neatly packaged in pokes waiting at their talented clean fingertips.

They were the gamblers who invaded the camps and made their fortunes sitting down.

It started in Panama, where hopeful Forty-Niners who had trudged across the Isthmus waited for space on northbound ships headed to San Francisco. "There were several large gambling saloons, which were always crowded, especially on Sundays, with natives and Americans gambling at the Spanish game of monte," J.D. Borthwick wrote of the beginnings of his Gold Rush adventures.

The War with Mexico led President James Polk to dispatch troops to California, one of whom penned a long report to the New York Herald. The correspondent reported the gold discovery but his eastern editors paid no attention to his claim that California was about to "...reap a Peruvian harvest of the precious metals..." referring to the fortunes taken from the Incas by the Spaniards.

He also reported on the other "G" word, gambling.

"The men are generally lazy, fond of riding, dancing and gambling. Their chief game is called monte; it is a mere game of chance, and it is not unusual to see $200 staked on the turn up of a single card. The women will gamble as well as the men."

In the mining camps a plank laid across two barrels made a tent into a saloon and the addition of another plank made it a gambling hall. The miners were tailor-made prey for gamblers; they had come west hoping for a fortune and after a day of grinding labor they hoped to increase their meager accumulation of gold dust using cards or dice instead of shovels. The dream of easy gold that had drawn them to California drew them nightly to the gambling tables.

In San Francisco the gambling houses were more ornate and more crowded. Mexicans in serapes stood shoulder to shoulder with poncho-clad Peruvians and bearded American miners around the city's hundreds of monte, faro and roulette tables. Coins clinked, entertainers played and sang and the bar was always open. Many a miner's hard-won fortunes disappeared in an evening.

"Now counting their winnings by thousands, now dependant on the kindness of a friend for a few dollars to commence anew..." wrote one spectator. "Here are lost, in a few turns of a card or rolls of a ball, the product of...months of racking labor..."

It's estimated that one fourth of the men who flooded California during the Gold Rush were gamblers. Trying to keep gambling out of Gold Rush California would be, as one Forty-Niner colorfully put it, like standing at the Golden Gate and trying to keep the tide out with a pitchfork. Millions of dollars changed hands across the gaming tables the winter of 1848. Pounds of gold dust were wagered as if it had been so much gravel.

At first gambling was called a "diversion" or "entertainment" by the miners. They were soon making daily trips as the need to "win back" became stronger and stronger. Most ended up double losers, finding fortune in neither the ground nor the gambler's cards.

Busted miners frequently left the table and went back to their claims, vowing to return. "There's lots more gold up in the hills!" was the prevailing attitude in the camps.

One gambler, calling himself "Old Ned," set up his table on the porch of a crowded mining camp saloon and gathered a crowd by shouting, "Oysters! Fresh clams! Hot corn!" All impossible to get. When a crowd gathered he said, "I'm just a plain old devil like all of you, and if you bet on Old Ned's little game, you'll win!" He offered money for a final drink to any gambler who lost. A miner threw down a quarter, lost, claimed he was busted, and tapped the gambler for the half-dollar cost of a drink.

"You got me there a leetle, you did!" Ned told him, buying the drink.

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Copyright Don Baumgart, 2003


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