Gold mining in California: A firsthand report (1849)

Date: November 29, 1849
Categories: 1840s, Events, Newspapers, Places
Tags: , , , , , , ,

In this first-person report, take a look at the harsh conditions the Miner ’49ers faced — both in getting to California, and what they found when they reached the gold fields. “All writers who have written on the subject of crossing the plains have greatly misrepresented the trip.”

California’s Gold Rush portrait

Letter from California: Gold mines, North Fork

Sept 7, 1849

Dear Sir — You have, no doubt, heard before this, of my safe arrival in the gold mines of California, as I wrote my wife the next day or two after we arrived; and as the mail only departs once a month from this to the States, I have delayed writing to you so that I might the better give you such information as you would feel anxious to know.

After our arrival, our company, by mutual consent, was dissolved. Matthew Alford and Samuel Dunlop going to themselves, separately, and FPH and myself continuing together. After spending a few days in preparing for mining, we left Coloma, (where we first landed), in search of a place to commence digging for gold. We accordingly packed our mules with provisions and our implements for mining, and each of us leading a mule, we steered our course down the South Fork.

There are 3 forks to the American river, the south, north and middle forks. We would travel some three or four miles down the river, and when we would see a place that promised fair, we would unload our mules and prospect for gold until satisfied that “it would not pay,” and then we would again re-pack and travel on. Not finding the prospect fair on the South Fork, we struck our course for the North Fork, and here we have remained, as we supposed we could do as well here as anywhere in the wet diggings.

The place where we now work is called the “Oregon Bar,” from the fact that Oregon miners first found and worked on it. Here we commenced work and have made from $10 to $50 per day. Some days yield much better than others; but none of them yield as abundantly as we expected.

There is a New York company turning the river at this bar, and when they get their dam finished, I have no doubt they will make a large amount of money. The gold is most abundant in the beds of the river, and when companies succeed in turning the stream, they almost always make fortunes. A company about three quarters of a mile below us have just finished turning the river, and they are now getting out from six to ten pounds of gold per day, but the expenses attending an undertaking of this kind are very great. Companies for this purpose consist generally of from 15 to 50 men, and for all help they hire they have to pay from 8 to 10 dollars per day, per man, and board him; besides it is rather expensive boarding at the mines, as you will learn from a list of prices I will give you before I close.

There is quite a difference in the gold found in the wet diggings from that found in the dry diggings. The particles found in the former are very small, while those in the latter are large, weighing from fifty cents to an ounce, and sometimes much larger.

We have not been so fortunate yet as to strike on a good “streak” as they say in this country, but we expect to do so every day, and we hope to make this fall and winter a sum that will take us home a little better off than when we came here. Large fortunes are not made every day — some make fortunes in a few months, but hundreds make very little money during a whole year.

It requires hard labor to make money by digging — some are unable to stand it, while others labor hard, but from some cause or other, make comparatively nothing. The labor in mining may well be compared to that of canaling through a rocky country, for gold is always found among the rocks, and to get it you must remove them, and then, in a wooden bucket, pack your dirt to the water so as to wash it in your machine.

(Article continues below)

A bucket full of the dirt and stones will weigh about 40 pounds, and has to be carried from 5 to 25 feet, and then the path along which you have to carry it is generally over a bed of stones of various sizes, making the “road to wealth” a very rugged one. I have in this was, carried to our machine more than 3000 pounds per day, and then at night, as you may suppose, I would feel a little fatigued.

My health notwithstanding this, to me, very severe labor, is very fine, and I eat my “humble meal” with an appetite very becoming one of my profession. My bones, however, of a night, ache as though they were out fitting my frame for a severe attack of bilious fever. Men who make the most are generally those who deal in provisions, groceries and the right kind of dry goods and clothing, and we think this winter of commencing something of the kind ourselves.

It will be almost impossible to mine in the winter and rainy season, and that is the time miners spend the most money. Rents are very high in the mines, but we can in two weeks put us up a log house and in that we can trade with much success as if it were a four story brick. I called to see one of the old Matthew Alman’s sons the other day, and he has a little establishment of this kind, and on enquiring of him about his business, he said he was doing well — that he took in from one hundred to four hundred dollars per day. I had a long talk with him about old times — while there I sold ten grains of tartar emetic to a sick man for one dollar as the fellow appeared to be poor and very sick at that.

We have now been mining about three weeks and have cleared five hundred dollars. This, in the States, would be called fair wages, but we do not look upon it in that light here. We think we ought to make at least $300 a week, and hope we shall do so in a short time.

Weimer and Brown at Round Valley Reservation c1853

September 14, 1849

Since writing the foregoing, we, in company with four others, have been engaged in turning the river by means of a dam partly across the river. We will complete the dam in two or three days more, and then we think we will make money very fast. Our bar is about one hundred yards below that of the New York bar where they are doing so well; and judging from what we have seen, we think ours will yield better than theirs. They say that our prospect is much better now than theirs was when they commenced work.

Today, after we quit work for dinner, we took a large spoon and in less than half an hour dug up and washed $12 worth of gold. This has encouraged us very much, and I doubt not in my next, I shall be able to give you an interesting account of our doings on the bar.

The gold mines in this country are almost inexhaustible, but the gold is very difficult to get at and always will be so. The accounts heretofore given by writers have been greatly exaggerated. It is true that there is an abundance of gold in the mines, but the stories about men getting it in such large amounts and in so short a time is not true now, nor do I believe they ever did. But still, hard as it is to get, men can make more money here than any place I ever saw before.

The country, so far as I have seen it, is one of the most desolate, poor and unpromising countries I know of anywhere. The soil, if soil can it can be called, looks like the dust about a brick kiln, and it certainly cannot produce any kind of grain, fruit, or anything else, except the pine, the scrub oak, and some few other trees and shrubs. It is said that grass grows well in the rainy season, which commences about the first of December, but this looks unreasonable to me as the nights are already very cool, so much so that four heavy blankets can be borne very comfortably. The country, however, is nothing, the gold is all, and this will keep people here while it lasts.

It may be a little amusing to you to know how we live in the mines, and as I am giving you rather a sketch of things than a regular historical account, I will tell you. We have located under the shade of a little shrub tree. Here we dug away the rocks, scraped away the dirt so as to make it level, and then spread down our Buffalo skins and blankets. This constitutes our habitation, and the few leaves on this little tree are our only protection from the inclemency of the weather.

Our meals consist generally of fat pork, bread and coffee; sometimes, when we are lucky, we purchase a small piece of fresh meat, so as not to forget entirely how fresh meat tastes. We generally get our breakfast by sun up, and then put off to work. After working hard until about 11 or 12 o’clock, we return to our dwelling place, and prepare for dinner, which consists of the same viands as we had for breakfast, and then, after resting an hour or two, we return again to work — then we work until night, and on returning we prepare our “tea,” which consists of the same precious articles as those we enjoyed at breakfast and dinner, and in this way we work and live; and notwithstanding we live on the diet above described, and sleep in the open air, we enjoy fine health.

The greatest trouble I have to encounter is the hard pallet on which I have to sleep. It affords very little rest to my tired bones, and instead of that sweet sleep which a clean, comfortable feather bed affords, I roll and tumble about for nearly half the night; but such is the miner’s fare, and I enjoy it as best I can.

The machine we brought with us, being one of Leavenworth’s patent gold washers, proved to be perfectly worthless and we had to throw it away. This was a severe loss to us, as it nearly broke down our team to get it here. The machines manufactured in the States are unfit for mining in this country, and those who deal in them must know it, and knowing it, they swindle those who buy them, knowingly.

Our government is greatly at fault too, in granting patents quite so liberally as they do. When an article is offered for sale with a patent attached to it, the people of course have some confidence in its utility, and at the same time the machine, thus patented, is worthless — and in this way the government becomes particeps criminis in this swindling operation. I would advise all emigrants to this country not to accept of a gold washer, if even patented by the government of the United States, should it be offered to them as a gift, as the transportation is worth more to them than the machine.

It will be out of my power to give you an account of our travels to California before I return home — I would not undertake a trip across the plains again for ten thousand dollars — indeed, I could not be hired to do so. It is a journey of great length, of great toil and great danger — and no man can describe it as the emigrant will find it to be. Many men have died on the route and many more who are now toiling along with the hope of reaching here, will, I fear, not be able to do so.

All writers who have written on the subject of crossing the plains have greatly misrepresented the trip. Bryant’s work on California is a fancy work — well-written and well calculated to allure those who read it into difficulty if they start here on what he says. We found scarcely any truth in what he has written, and hundreds of emigrants cursed him and his work from Dan to Bersheba.

And this is true of most of the writers. They have written to make money, and they have accomplished all they desired. I have just heard from our friend Rev Mr Owen and his train. The man who saw them told me he left them about six hundred miles from here. I have not heard from Aaron Orr and his company — they may possibly have reached the mines as they have had abundant time to do so; and yet I may not hear of or see them for a month to come, so extensive are the gold regions of California. Dr Ackley and Dr Graydon are mining somewhere on the South Fork and how they succeed is more than I can tell.

I have now given you the particulars of the mines, country, etc, as far as I can crowd them into this letter. I will write you monthly and keep you advised of all things here that I think will interest you.

I have, as yet, had no letter or paper from home. I feel a great anxiety to hear from you all, as I fear the cholera has visited our place and taken to the grave some dear friend. I will write to James and give him a history of my practice and my success in a short time, and you can see his letter. I have not heard from the States since the 30th of June. I saw the NY Tribune of that date and I found it full of interest.

Yours truly,

AW Harrison

Photos generally from the gold rush era, not necessarily from 1849


See books created by our team in the Click Americana shop!



Publication date: November 29, 1849

Notes: Indianapolis Indiana State Sentinel


Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

More in california, first report, first-person, gold, gold miners, gold rush, history
lennon-ono-aug-1980
The shocking murder of Beatle John Lennon (1980)

John Lennon, the former Beatle whose music set the beat for a revolutionary youth generation in the 1960s, was shot...

Close