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

Old Gold Rush Memoir Reclaimed

by Don Baumgart

James De Pue wrote letters home from the Gold Rush and these 155-year-old comments on those tumultuous times have been reclaimed from the original by his great, great grandson, Steve De Pue. "The original document is in excellent condition," Steve says.

The story begins with a letter dated January 1, 1850, written in Hangtown, California, now known as Placerville.

"Dear wife, I wish you a Happy New Year." The elder De Pue continues, "I am happy...but I think I might be more happy if I could enjoy your company but I cannot at present so I must be content with my lot." He goes on to describe his part in the great search for gold, "I am now in Hangtown mining...We are doing very well for this season. We have been here one week."

The next day he wrote, "This winter, it does not seem like winter, but more like April. It freezes very little every night and it is warm through the day."

Telling his wife that tales of instant riches often omit the days of drudgery it took to claim that gold, De Pue writes, "This is the way many are led to this country but I mean to write the truth as near as I can. We have dug a hole today and we are expecting tomorrow to wash out some gold,...but it may not pay. It is like a lottery. I expect to strike a prize but I advise all my friends to stay at home. I have heard that there are a great many coming next spring but they had better stay home with their friends."

On the third of January, De Pue wrote, "I will give you a list of the amount of gold that we have dug each day since we commenced work. Dec the 24th, dug $9.50, 25th $57.50, 26th $9.38, 27th $20.62." De Pue and his partners were digging for gold in the streets of Hangtown, and they spent the 28th filling in the holes.

"Some holes pay big and some pays nothing."

To find the elusive gold, "...we have to dig from 6 to 10 feet deep. There is what is called the bedrock and the gold is on it and in it."

On January 5th, the weather turned bad.

"Today is Sunday and it has been raining and it looks like it would be a wet spell and we must go and finish our hole or we shall loose four or five days work and probably $100 of gold because it will all cave in tonight. I am wet and cold."

Rain was followed by snow.

De Pue wishes he were home, but comforts his wife with a brief description of good friends in the gold fields.

"I do believe I have friends here that would not see me suffer if I should be sick but I hope I may not have to trouble them. But I do not know how soon I may be sick. I have seen more sickness since I have been here than I ever saw before."

Thoughts of home keep popping up in his letters.

"I imagine to myself many times my return home and sometimes I think I am there...and quite comfortable too."

By mid-January the good weather had returned. "We are glad to get in the shade to work." The January warm spell seemed to improve the miner's luck. "Today I have washed $156.35, this is the biggest days work that I have ever done. I am afraid that we shall not get another as good."

James De Pue was at the forefront of the great California Gold Rush, but already he could see the end of the dream. "I understand that there will be great immigration next Spring but I know that none will be encouraged by me as they have been by some others. If any of my friends come, I advise them to start early."

He continued, "I advise them to not start with less than 3 first rate mules. I should prefer mules if I was coming again for they will endure more hardships and I did not see half as many dead mules as horses but I say stay at home."

Toward the end of January, 1850, De Pue described in a letter to his wife hardships that befell miners, in addition to the weather and the work.

"Last night there was one man killed and another wounded. The man that was killed was in a house about 1 1/2 miles out of town and within a few rods of Thatchers Williams cabin. He was sitting before the fire with 3 others. There was a clapboard raised up and an arrow shot. It went through the upper part of his heart which killed him instantly. Williams helped take the arrow out. The other man is able to be about. There was a man killed last Sunday, six miles out at Johnsons Rancho. I am afraid there will be trouble with the Indians this summer. The whites cannot do anything with them. It is so mountainous, they hide and shrink in the bushes.

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Copyright Don Baumgart, 2005


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