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Miners Describe Life and Business in the California Gold Rush

Unlike earlier generations of Americans, many of the ‘49ers could read and write. Not surprisingly, thousands recorded their observations and experiences in letters and journals. Miners often reflected on changes in mining that made it difficult for ordinary people to make a fortune in the California gold fields.

Joseph Warren Wood, journal entries, February—November, 1850 

To sum up the whole mater of our winter’s labor so far, we have made nothing… How green I have been. It is too bad to speak of. I wrote home great stories about money making in California. Poor Goose! How little I knew of the true state of things… 

I am lonesome this cold dark rainy night. I have wet blankets to sleep in. I would give an ounce to crawl into my old bed at home & remain there until morning. It would feel good to feel dry and safe. My feet are wet, my back is wet & I am not well. 

John Kinkade in letters to James and Hannah Kinkade, March—September, 1850 

[The risks in setting up a mining operation are great] for in order to turn a river bud men must expend a great amount of labor, the principal part of the year without any income. So all the capital they may have collected last year is exhausted by the time they are ready for digging. 

Seldon Goff in a letter to his wife, 20 December 1850 

Mining will pay here for some time to come but it will have to be conducted differently than what it now is. I think all of the old mining ground that is now called worked out will yet pay millions of dollars by working them Systematically it will be attended with much hard labor but Capitalists will take hold of it and make money out of it. 

Robert La Mott, in a letter to his father, 25 March 1851 

It would astonish you to see, in this golden country the number of poor men that there are—men who when working for wages do well both for themselves & employers, but can never make their expenses when working for themselves… There are hundreds here now, who if they could raise their passage money would put off home & give the country a bad name. 

John Kinkade in a letter to James Kinkade, 1854 

All I have managed to make is a comfortable liveing [sic.]. And that is as much as the mining population can average if not a little more. Mining is now Reduced to a system. What is commonly termed placer diggings being principly exhausted. The miners are seeking in the bowels of the mountains for primitive leads. This is the most uncertain system of mining yet followed. But the miner who is fortunate enough to strike it reeps this immense fortune. If he is not successful in finding a leed his only reward is an empty pocket and compleet disgust. Besides a very large amount of personal experience.

Source | Quoted in Malcolm J. Rohrbough, Days of Gold: The California Gold Rush and the American Nation (Berkeley, University of California Press, 1997).
Creator | Various
Item Type | Diary/Letter
Cite This document | Various, “Miners Describe Life and Business in the California Gold Rush,” HERB: Resources for Teachers, accessed June 19, 2019, https://herb.ashp.cuny.edu/items/show/1737.

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