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

Cornish Miners Brought Family Life to the Gold Rush

by Don Baumgart

The Cornish miners who came to the Gold Country to tunnel for gold-bearing quartz brought something contributed by few of the other gold seekers: families.

In 1842 more than a million people in England were on relief and a major exodus was underway.

An ad in a British publication proclaimed, "Gold is to be found in almost every locality, on the lands, on the mountains, in valleys, in rocks and streams, in rivers, gullies and holes."

The ad went on to say that California's gold region was, "...capable of employing 200,000 individuals for centuries to come."

In the same paper were ads placed by shipping lines touting passage to America.

The shipboard accommodations were far less than described, the surface gold was disappearing fast, and the employment predictions were sheer fantasy.

What was true was that the chase for the bright yellow metal had gone underground and opportunities did exist for the Cornish miners to use their hard rock mining skills in California.

In Cornwall, miners had worked in teams and many of these partnerships held fast as the men emigrated together and headed for the Gold Country. Since they had little hope, or interest, in returning to England and its ruined economy, many of the miners brought along their wives.

The fare by ship from Liverpool to New York was $18 and included bread, water, flour, oatmeal, salt pork, sugar, tea, and molasses.

The hard rock miners and their families then faced a long journey overland to get to the mines. Word of the gold discovery also reached Cornish miners who had come to the United States earlier and were working down in the coal mines in Wisconsin, Michigan, and Illinois. They set out on the trip across the country to Grass Valley to mine gold bearing quartz.

In 1869 the completion of the transcontinental railroad cut the travel time from six weeks to 18 days.

At the end of the long trail for many Cornish miners and their wives was a small town in California's Sierra Nevada mountains; Grass Valley.

The first white child born in Grass Valley was Selena Bice, who arrived on August 15, 1853. Both parents, Nicholas and Rebecca Bice, were born in Cornwall.

Quartz mining quickly had become Grass Valley's most important business. Support industries sprang up to supply the mines. One was logging timber for tunnel beams and to power the steam engines that lower men into the mines and pumped air down to them. Another was a metal foundry to make the tools and parts needed to operate an underground mine.

Things had gotten a lot more complicated than the earlier days when a pan and a running stream were all the equipment needed to gather gold. A shovel sometimes was added to the single miner's tool kit, and perhaps a sluice box to shake and separate greater amounts of gravel in the quest for gold.

Quartz mining required special machinery. Much of it was imported from England, where hard rock mining had been underway for a long time. With it came the Cornish miners who knew how to use the equipment.

Now the Cornish miners and their families were giving a civilized aspect to what had been a rough-and-tumble atmosphere where single miners works all day, then drink and gambled most of the night (and most of their day's dust) away.

In 1853 the Grass Valley Telegraph called the town a "...moral and peaceful village."

Shirley Ewart describes this new atmosphere brought to gold mining in her book, Highly Respectable Families. She describes an 1858 Grass Valley with miners' families living in neat cottages with well-trimmed yards and gardens. There was a school teaching more than 400 children.

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Copyright Don Baumgart, 2006


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