“A Man Without Worthy Aims and of Weak Principles Will Go to Perdition”: Mining Life in California in Harper’s Weekly, 3 October 1857

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

The discovery of gold by James Marshall at Sutter’s Mill on 24 January 1848 was, obviously, an epochal event in California, particularly when conjoined with the ratification, just nine days later, on 2 February, of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, formally ending the Mexican-American War, by the Mexican Congress.

It wasn’t just the staggering amount of wealth generated from the mines, but also the migration of roughly a quarter of a million people to the new American possession (admitted to the Union as the 31st state in September 1850), the diversity of that “motley assemblage,” the tensions and tragedies that ensued among these varied ethnic groups in a place that had only the barest traces of a functioning government and legal system, and much else, that marked the first phase of the Gold Rush through the mid-Fifties.

By “first phase” is generally meant the placer mining, done largely by individuals and small groups using rockers, pans and other basically rudimentary equipment to extract gold from the surface or not all that far below it. What came next was the introduction of hydraulic mining involving enormous volumes of water blasting away hill and mountain sides and other areas to expose underlying deposits of the precious metal.

For the Workman and Temple family, it does not appear that much effort was made toward mining because some members had other ways to benefit financially from the boon of the famed rush. Even when the first major discovery of gold was made in March 1842 in a canyon east of today’s Santa Clarita, young F.P.F. Temple, who’d only been in Los Angeles for about eight months but was settled in as clerk at his brother Jonathan’s store (the first to open in the Angel City) took the opportunity to buy gold dust from the diggings and ship it to the east coast for his brother, Abraham, to deposit at the national mint at Philadelphia.

When the 1849 discovery happened, it appears that Temple went up to investigate possibilities, but decided instead, with many other greater Los Angeles ranchers that the best opportunity for consistent, steady cash flow was to sell cattle in the mining regions, enjoying the highly inflated prices the animals fetched. Yet, he went further than his contemporaries by not just selling cattle “on the hoof” and then heading back home, but by investing in land for grazing, slaughterhouses for killing the steers, and butcher shops to sell meat to miners and other residents of Tuolumne County towns like Sonora and Columbia (this latter now a state historic park.) In fact, even as mining production slowed, Temple kept some of his investments in that area until as late as the mid-1870s.

Some interesting context for the transition from placer to hydraulic mining is provided by an article in the featured artifact from the Homestead’s holdings for this post, the 3 October 1857 issue of the popular Harper’s Weekly magazine, which denoted itself as a “Journal of Civilization.” The piece, “Mining in California,” not only has a lengthy exposition on aspects of the industry, the people and other aspects, but has a quintet of great woodcut engraved illustrations that, whether accurate or not in their representations, are vivid and enjoyable images.

The article begins by claiming, “there seems scarcely a limit to the future production of gold in California . . . for deposits are now being reached by the new processes of exploration which stagger all calculations.” It was added that there should be at least $50 million unearthed each year through the end of the century “and most probably for a much longer period,” though “to make good such an assertion,” the unnamed author went on, more explanation of hydraulic mining (increasingly controlled by corporations) was needed than could be provided in the article. In any case, that technique controlled two-third of all mining in the Golden State, “excepting the cases of the Chinese, who continue to use the old methods, rockers, cradles, and the like primitive machinery . . .”

“The old exploded process of the rocker and pan,” the writer noted, meant that “the laborer in such soil would reap but a scanty return” and “the surface diggings have been, to a great extent, ‘cleaned out.'” This necessitated that “the new agent introduced was water,” some of which was conveyed by canals, of which there was some 5,000 miles in the state, up to 100 miles to the prospecting site. Then, “the water is led from an elevation sufficient to admit of its passing with immense force though a hose and pipe, which, in the hands of one workman, is directed against the base of the hill intended to be worked” with the process likened to be “precisely that of a fire-engine playing upon a burning house.”

As the hill was blasted, “great landslides or fall of the superincumbent mass takes place, thus bringing down an amount of earth in proportion to the number of hose in us” so that “hundreds of tons are thus tumbled down in a day, and washed through wooden sluices charged with quicksilver [mercury], which . . . catches and retains the greater part of the gold.” To better inform folks in the east, the writer continued, it was to be understood that “the desultory and hap-hazard style of mining known in the early days of surface washing has given place to more certain and effectual operations, yielding more uniform profits . . .” Not mentioned, of course, was the staggering environmental damage done by hydraulic mining.

To reinforce the point, it was observed that “instead of the solitary cabin and savage manner of living in isolated, miserable tents and huts,” miners often resided with their families in houses with “the comforts and pleasures of society.” Yet, the article noted, “there is much of the ludicrous in life in the mines, and the strange adventures, fights, amusing incidents, and variety of camp-life are yet to be found in the more retired [remote?] places.”

Next discussed were the Chinese, who, when migrating to San Francisco, “organize under the direction of a resident chief, whose orders are implicitly obeyed” and who then arranged for conveying the new arrivals to the mines where “they generally take up abandoned claims, and form little villages sometimes of a hundred persons.” Because of hostility from Americans “who regard them as nuisances, and often drive them violently away from any rich diggings they may have happened upon,” the Chinese kept to themselves.

The author, however, allowed that “there is perhaps some grounds for this enmity” as “it is urged that the Chinese are of no benefit, either by industry or trade, to the community” as they were said to be “jealously hoarding every ounce of old, and returning to China with it,” as if no Americans or Europeans extracted mineral wealth or other resources and returned home with their bounty. Moreover, it was claimed that the Chinese did not buy American clothing, cattle or rice.

What was noted, though hardly accurate in its claims and interesting in its view of future immigration, was that,

An immigration tax [Foreign Miners Tax], almost amounting to prohibition, was once imposed, but was so repugnant to the views of many conscientious persons that it was not rigidly enforced, and the prejudice against the Celestials and Mexicans is happily fast wearing away. The broad principle of universal toleration is the only one which can be consistently adopted in America; but in California particularly, whose progress is so greatly dependent on an increase of population to develop her resources, immigration of industrious people should be carefully encouraged.

Aside from the absurd claim that prejudice against people of color was diminishing, there were some positive comments made about the Chinese, though heavily qualified as it was allowed that they made money wherever they went, but this was “more owing to their plodding industry than to any tact or energy they may display,” whatever that meant.

Still, “their camps are wonderfully clean” and “passing though one of the larger ones, you will find many of them at their toilets [dressing areas for grooming], getting their heads shaved, or platting each other’s pig-tails.” When it came to eating, it was asserted that “at meals they squat in groups around queer little black dishes and pots, helping themselves with their fingers” and rapidly consuming rice such that “one hardly knows which most to admire, their dexterity in the use of the chopsticks, or the unaccountable manner in which the food disappears.”

Notably, it was claimed that “there has been from the first an inveterate hatred between the Chinese and the Indians,” so that the latter found it futile to fight whites, “but the sight of a Celestial pig-tail set their bristles on end in a twinkling” and the enmity was reciprocated. The fights between the two groups were accounted as “some of the funniest battles on record” because of the meager weapons deployed. Still, it was reported, “on several occasions there have been half a dozen of the belligerents left dead on the field” even as some of these engagements were “a sort of holiday and general merry-making” purportedly took place.

More troubling was the assertion that authorities looked the other way as “a thinning-out of either party is considered a public benefit.” It was claimed the Indians usually won these fights “and when they [the Chinese] turn tail to run, no language can describe the laughter and hurrahs of the multitude.” Yet, the writer cautioned that not all mining life was violence and chaos and averred that “so many have brought with them and retained the New England propriety of conduct, that their influence is recognized as powerful in every public matter.” Still, violence in the mines was, especially earlier in the decade, rampant.

One reason for the reported change in mining life was that women were far more numerous than in previous years, including those “whose exclusive manners and air of refinement show that from this retirement [to the mines] they look for a renewal of the scenes of luxury and comfort from which they have transiently exiled themselves.” Then there was the “Pike” lady, who was a “nervous, hard-featured, harder working Western woman, who boasts that she does more work than her laboring husband” and whose daily tasks “would appall any but a Californian woman.” The author continued,

These are the real pride and hope of the country, and to their noble presence is due the thousands of comfortable cottages, or humble cabins, where the miner repairs with a light heart after the healthful labors of the day. These are the true homes of California, whence is springing up the finest and most robust generation of children on this continent.

Idealistic as this may sound, the account went on that “there is a marked deference shown to women in California,” perhaps due to the much smaller contingent of females in the population “or from a natural gallantry to be expected among a nation of young men.” As for an example of how females “can do no wrong,” however, a story was told of a woman convicted of murder and sentenced to hanging. While a “cockney” spoke in favor of the execution, a Missourian and a Texan called for life to be preserved, while gunfire scared the Brit away and the purported murderess allowed to run and escape.

Who knows whether this had any semblance of truth to it? But, it served the point that “no matter what crime she had committed—she was a woman, and she should not be executed,” or, apparently, punished at all. While this was said to be from “the earlier days of California” and “the supremacy of the law is now fully asserted,” though certainly not yet in Los Angeles, it was noted, almost as an afterthought, that “one unfortunate Mexicana has thus expiated the crime of murder.” This might refer to the 1851 lynching at Downieville of Josefa Segovia.

The account noted the often scattered settlements of solitary miners, but also observed that “occasional balls were made up in the early days of the diggings” including the fact that “the music generally consisted of a fiddle or two, sometimes assisted by the guitar or some itinerant Mexican, who tendered his services for the prospective ‘drinks,’ always the perquisite of the musicians.” The fiddler would handle the calls, including “set to your partner,” or “Lady’s chain,” as represented in one of the drawings before the final one was “promenade to the bar and treat your partners!”

It was accounted “a strange sight to see a party of long-bearded men, in heavy boots and flannel shirts, going through all the steps and figures of the dance with so much spirit, and often with a great deal of grace.” Even more interesting was the description of the construction of “ladies” made of “every gentleman who had a patch on a certain part of his inexpressibles should be considered a lady for the time being.

Lastly, the author wrote that “the curse of California, if there be one, and which has done more to retard its social advancement than fires, floods, or any other public calamity, is gambling.” Supposedly, this was far worse in the mines, because prospecting was largely a matter of chance, though it was also attributed to the “limited means of amusement” in the diggings. Additionally, it was reported that “more gambling is done on Sunday . . . for then the miners have collected from the various diggings, and are ready with their ‘piles’ to tempt the Blind Goddess.” While gambling went on all day, it did not get “fast and furious” until nightfall.

The writer described a room of 1500 square-feet “lined inside with flashy calico, with a ceiling of white cotton to resemble plastering as nearly as possible.” The rough miners carried plenty of guns and knives, which were “the most scrupulously neat articles about their persons,” and the account looked to describe a typical scene:

The clanking of coin, loud voices, snatches of songs, curses, laughter, and the rattling of glasses at the bar, fill the air; but over all, occasionally, comes to voice of the wide-awake dealer, who, intent on his game, and remembering that Sunday comes but once a week, is diligently gathering his harvest.

Faro was a French-derived card game dominated by “the intelligence of the practical sharper,” while Monte was “the favorite pastime of the Spanish Americans, the cards being mostly dealt by Mexicans,” but the general result was that “it was a common thin for a miner to lose his last dollar” as well as amass significant levels of debt.

It was concluded that, “a few years of a sober and prudent life in the mines of California will insure a competency, if one chooses to bring himself down to the ordinary customs of civilized life,” though, “there, sooner than in any other place, a man without worthy aims and of weak principles will go to perdition.”

Yet, the piece ended,

The time, however, is approaching when, the surface diggings being exhausted, the great system of hydraulic mining and the consequent growth of companies will place the most available places under the control of capitalists. Thus the single adventurer will not enjoy the unbounded field to be offered in the next eight or ten years. The intervening space, which may with truth be reckoned among the palmy days of California, should not be unimproved by the gold-seeker. The mines truly are inexhaustible, but they are still open to the whole world.

However romanticized, exaggerated, idealized or truthful, the account is a fascinating one and it turned out the author and the illustrator was John David Borthwick (1824-1892), a native of Scotland who received an inheritance at age 21 and went on a dozen years of travel, including the years 1851 to 1854 in Gold Rush California. While he published his accounts in magazines like Harper’s Weekly, he collated his California travelogue, including a visit to Sonora where F.P.F. Temple had some property, into Three Years in California, published on his return home in 1857.

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