What it took to be a miner like the forty-niners

The California Gold Rush of 1849 was a heady time. Some 250,000 men from across the globe journeyed to the remote wilderness of the Sierras with as little as a pan, pick and shovel, for their chance to strike it rich. If you’ve ever wondered what it took to be a gold rush miner, here are five amazing facts to ponder:

1. It took months and a lot of hard work—if not necessarily a lot of money—just to get to California in 1849.

If you lived on the East Coast of the United States, you had three options for traveling to the California gold fields. If you were wealthy, you could go by ship, but that was a 17,000-mile trip around Cape Horn at the tip of South America. It was a journey that could easily take five months.   

Not so wealthy? You could sail a shorter route—to Panama. From there, your choices were to travel by horse or foot across the Isthmus of Panama to the Pacific. The next leg of the journey meant negotiating passage by ship from Panama to San Francisco.

Those with no money for sea passage were left to cross the Great Plains by wagon along the Oregon Trail. In the summer of 1849 it’s estimated that 25,000-30,000 people did just that.


2. Out at “the diggings” it was a Spartan life.

Once out in the mountains, there were few places to load up on supplies, and all of them gouged on prices. Thus, miners’ gear tended to be pretty minimal. 

Those who didn't lug their pan, pick and shovel there had to buy them upon arrival. A canvas tent was a necessity for staying dry (or at least somewhat dry) at night. Bacon, coffee and beans were staples, while salt pork ran upwards of $150 a barrel. A pair of boots cost $25. Considering the average forty-niner made about $6-$10 a day, the cost of living out in the gold fields put the pressure on for a hard day's work. 

And work hard, they did. To learn about the realities of gold panning, check out this great instructional video. Over 9 minutes, this fellow drops a bit of gold into a pan and then shows you how to find it through successive steps of washing through silt and sand. When the gold shows up at the 8:00 minute mark, it’s exactly where he said it would be. Given that this is what the average gold panner’s day was like, you can imagine that at night he may well have dreamed of sand.

When cold weather set in, miners left the hills and wintered over either in the big city (San Francisco) or a nearby mining town…presumably passing the time playing cards and drinking whiskey. The mining towns were custom-made for parting miners with their hard-earned gold as quickly as possible. And for many of the miners—after many long months away from home and family—it was pretty tough not to give in to the many temptations of whiskey, women and gambling. 

3. The odds were against you from the start.

Despite what the advertisements of the day led one to believe, the Sierras were not crusted in gold. There was only so much gold that could be easily had, most of which had been found in 1848 and 1849—long before most folks even had time to get there. Given that the surface gold accessible by shovel and pan had long been nabbed, the Gold Rush effectively ended in 1852. After that point, prospecting required ever more elaborate equipment and operations in order for it to “pan out.” Notwithstanding modern technology, it’s estimated that as much as 10 percent of the total gold in the Sierras still remains hidden to this day in its sand and stream beds.


4. And if mining failed?  

Many who traveled to the gold fields never intended to make their fortunes from mining. Instead, their aim was to set up shop catering to miners. There were a number of services the miners needed, including tools and equipment, food, clothing, banking, transportation and entertainment. Those who chose to turn their hand toward entrepreneurship set their prices high…and stood to make a tidy sum. 

It’s where Levis Strauss got its famous start. Philip D. Armour came to California to work as a ditch digger—earning enough to open a butcher shop in Placerville that became the Armour Meat Company.

Miners who couldn’t make a profit in the hills joined the ranks of the merchant class. Others went on to become farmers. All in all, the influx of population from the Gold Rush helped quickly build California. Almost overnight, it seemed, San Francisco went from a sleepy encampment to the biggest shipping port on the West Coast.

5. The man who first discovered gold at Sutter’s Mill never made a profit from it. 

James Marshall was hired by John Sutter to build his mill at Coloma, California. It was Marshall who in 1848 discovered gold in the creek there—spying shiny flecks one morning in the channel bed. The discovery had an immediate and negative impact on Marshall, who watched helplessly as all of his able-bodied labor left the milling business to look for ore. 

John Sutter himself—the prosperous owner of Sutter’s Mill—couldn’t make a profit, either. He quickly saw his lands overrun and nearly destroyed by prospectors. To avoid losing everything, he turned over his land to his son, who saw its commercial potential and started making plans for a new town, called Sacramento.

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