My work in progress takes place in the remnants of a once thriving gold mining camp. I’ve been doing mountains of research, trying to find a likely location in the right time frame. I’ve rummaged through any number of books on mining towns in the west. And I have all kinds of tidbits to share.
It seems backward that the gold rush began in California and moved eastward rather than the reverse. But California was where the first gold was found, and it seemed the world was bound to follow.
The many thousands who headed for California at the first cry of gold in 1848 swelled the population from 14,000 to a census of 112,856 in 1852. “The whole country,” wrote one San Francisco newspaper editor, “resounds with the sordid cry of ‘gold, GOLD! GOLD! while the field is left half planted, the house half built, and everything neglected but the manufacture of shovels and pick axes.”
The gold rush spread from Sutter’s Mill both north and south, from southwestern Oregon toward Mount Shasta and along the eastern side of California’s central valleys. Towns sprung up at every find, and rewards were sometimes extraordinary. One lump of gold unearthed at Sonora weighed twenty-eight pounds. A small group from Monterey took two hundred and seventy three pounds from the Feather River in seven weeks.
For lack of a functioning government, the Forty Niners turned to themselves for governance. As soon as any considerable number of them reached a new strike, they gathered at a central point amidst their tents and shanties, elected officers and selected a committee to draw up law governing their ‘district.”
From the beginning, one feature was common: every one was to have equal opportunity to dig and not be thrust aside by hogs. The exception was the the discoverer who sometimes was awarded two claims. No one individual could hold more than a single plot, though contiguous claim holders might operate their ground in common. Boundaries were carefully defined in a book kept by the camp recorder. An owner held title only so long as he actively worked the ground. Wherever he failed to meet requirements concerning the amount of labor to be expended during a given period, the claim reverted to the public domain and could be reappropriated.
Because the first camps were often very rich, the area allotted was small, sometimes as little as ten feet square per claim. In later days, after the best ground had been picked over, claim sizes increased but remained smaller than in other mineral sections of the West,
Jails did not exist, and justice tended to be summary. Trials were held promptly and a jury arranged. Punishment consisted of flogging, banishment, the cutting off of ears or immediate hanging.
But by 1852, most of the easy-to- handle placer gold had been skimmed away, and new sources had to be found. The individual miner was replaced by companies that damned rivers and used high pressure nozzles to wash mountains of gravel into batteries of sluice boxes and by sheer volume wrung a profit from the light dusting of gold the material contained. By 1858 the annual yield of gold dropped from eighty one million to forty six million, and the individual miner had little hope of earning a living. Thousands of restless miners milled about waiting impatiently for the “next California.”
The mining camps, often situated in heavily wooded mountain areas, were abandoned or destroyed by wildfires. Their inhabitants moved on in search of the next big strike. Miners were, if nothing else, optimistic.
Traces of gold was found in Colorado in 1848 but there was not enough to divert the migration to California. It wasn’t until 1858 that a modest strike was found up the Platt River. So many previous finds had been dismissed as rumors or hoaxes, that new claims were disbelieved. But in 1958, the New York Times declared this gold rush real, and thousands headed for the rugged Colorado mountains. Dozens of camps and towns popped up only to meet the same fate as those in California. Most had a life expectancy of no more than pthree years.
In Colorado, the same governmental structure existed. Miners organized the area into a mining district and laid down some rough rules. These rules usually decided that no one except the man who first discovered a particular gold field could hold by right of discovery more than one creek (placer) one gulch (patch) and one mountain (lode) claim. The dimension of a placer claim was larger than those in California, usually one hundred feet square.
Many of these towns had colorful names: Fairplay, Fiddletown, Drytown, Hell’s hollow, Jackass Hill, Pokerville, Poverty Gulch, Tin Cup and Buckskin Joe. Fairplay was a typical tent city and in the manner of boom camps everywhere it had a handful of rough-hewn log cabins, a hotel, three newspapers and twelve whorehouses.
Finding gold in either California foothills or the Colorado mountains depended a great deal on luck. Getting the gold out of the ground depended on hard back- breaking work. Panning was the simplest way to separate placer gold from dirt and rocks, but it was slow, back-breaking work in icy streams.
Not fun. Most of the miners who eagerly raveled to the gold fields expecting to pick up nuggets turned away disillusioned when they realized the amount of hard labor required for a day’s wages. Thus, most mining camps became ghost towns.
For time reasons, my little ghost town has to be located in Colorado rather than California. I know where it is, but I’m haven’t yet found a great name for it. Suggestions are welcome, and the best one will earn two of my westerns.