San Francisco History

The Annals of San Francisco


WHILE San Francisco, like so many other parts of the country, was forsaken in the manner described in the foregoing chapter, the neighborhood of the American River was overflowing with people, all busily engaged in gold hunting. The miners by the middle of May were estimated to be about two thousand. In another month they had increased probably to three; and, two months later, their number was supposed to be about six thousand. From that period the arrival of persons at the different auriferous districts, which were known to extend over a large space of territory, was constant; but no sufficient materials existed to form a correct opinion of their total number. The vast majority of all the laboring classes in the country had certainly deserted their former pursuits, and had become miners, while a great many others—merchants and their clerks, shopkeepers and their assistants, lawyers, surgeons, officials in every department of the State, of the districts and in the towns, runaway seamen and soldiers, and a great variety of nondescript adventurers—likewise began the search for gold. The miners were by no means exclusively American. They consisted of every kindred and clan. There were already tame Indians, Mexicans from Sonora, Kanakas from the Sandwich Islands, settlers from Oregon, mixed with the usual dash of Spanish, British, German and French adventurers that had for a long time existed in California. Later months were to bring other Mexicans, Chinese, Peruvians, and Chilians, and all these before the great impending immigration of Americans and Europeans.

At first the general gains of the miners, though great, were little compared to what shortly afterwards were collected. But any positive statement on this matter is naturally subject to error, since none could personally know more than what was taking place around the scene of his own operations, or where he was immediately travelling.  If however, we compare different accounts, and endeavor to form from them something like a fair average, we might find that from ten to fifteen dollars worth of gold dust was about the usual proceeds of an ordinary day’s hard work. But while that might have been the average, people listened more to the individual instances of extraordinary success. Well authenticated accounts described many known persons as averaging from one to two hundred dollars a day for a long period. Numerous others were said to be earning even from five to eight hundred dollars a day. A piece of four pounds in weight was early found. If, indeed, in many cases, a man with a pick and pan did not easily gather some thirty or forty dollars worth of dust in a single day, he just moved off to some other place which he supposed might be richer. When the miners knew a little better about the business and the mode of turning their labor to the most profitable account, the returns were correspondingly increased. At what were called the “dry diggings” particularly, the yield of gold was enormous. One piece of pure metal was found of thirteen pounds weight. The common instrument at first made use of was a simple butcher’s knife; and as every thing was valuable in proportion to the demand and supply, butchers’ knives suddenly went up to twenty and thirty dollars apiece. But afterwards the pick and shovel were employed. The auriferous earth, dug out of ravines and holes in the sides of the mountains, was packed on horses, and carried one, two, or three miles, to the nearest water, to be washed. An average price of this washing dirt was, at one period, so much as four hundred dollars a cart load. In one instance, five loads of such earth sold for seven hundred and fifty-two dollars, which yielded, after washing, sixteen thousand dollars. Cases occurred where men carried the earth in sacks on their backs to the watering places, and collected eight to fifteen hundred dollars in a day, as the proceeds of their labor. Individuals made their five thousand, ten thousand, and fifteen thousand dollars in the space of only a few weeks. One man dug out twelve thousand dollars in six days. Three others obtained eight thousand dollars in a single day. But these, of course, were extreme cases. Still it was undoubtedly true, that a large proportion of the miners were earning such sums as they had never even seen in their lives before, and which, six months earlier, would have appeared a downright fable. When the “Californian” newspaper resumed its issue in July, the editors said, that the publisher of the paper, “when on a tour alone to the mining district,” (probably in June,) “collected, with the aid of a shovel, pick and tin pan, about twenty inches in diameter, from forty-four to one hundred and twenty-eight dollars a day, averaging one hundred dollars.” This is a fair specimen of the moderately fortunate miner.

The story has a shady as well as a bright side, and would be incomplete unless both were shown. There happened to be a “sickly season” in the autumn at the mines; and many of the miners sank under fever and diseases of the bowels. A severe kind of labor, to which most had been unaccustomed, a complete change of diet and habits, insufficient shelter, continued mental excitement, and the excesses in personal amusement and dissipation which golden gains induced, added to the natural unhealthiness that might have existed in the district at different periods of the year, soon introduced sore bodily troubles upon many of the mining population. No gains could compensate a dying man for the fatal sickness engendered by his own avaricious exertions. In the wild race for riches, the invalid was neglected by old comrades still in rude health and the riotous enjoyment of all the pleasures that gold and the hope of continually adding to their store could bestow. When that was the ease with old companions it could not be expected that strangers should care whether the sick man lived or died. Who forsooth among the busy throng would trouble himself with the feeble miner that had miscalculated his energies, and lay dying on the earthen floor of his tent or under the protecting branch of a tree? There were no kind eyes to gaze mournfully on him, hearts to feel, lips to speak softly, and hands to minister to his wants. His gains were swept away to buy a hasty and careless medical attendance; and too generally he died “unwept, unknelled, unknown.” Selfishness that heeded not the dying might perchance bury the dead, if only the corrupting corpse stood in the way of working a rich claim—scarcely otherwise. Many, not so far reduced, were compelled to return to their old homes, the living spectres of their former selves, broken in constitution and wearied in spirit; thoroughly satisfied that the diggings were not fit abiding places for them.

The implements at first used in the process of gold seeking, were only the common pick and shovel, and a tin pan or wooden bowl. The auriferous earth when dug out was put into the last, and water being mixed with it, the contents were violently stirred. A peculiar shake of the hand or wrist, best understood and learned by practice, threw occasionally over the edge of the pan or bowl the muddy water and earthy particles, while the metal, being heavier, sunk to the bottom. Repeated washings of this nature, assisted by breaking the hard pieces of earth with the hand or a trowel, soon extricated the gold from its covering and carried away all the dirt. But if even these simple implements were not to be had, a sailor’s or butcher’s knife, or even a sharpened hard-pointed stick could pick out the larger specimens—the pepitas, chunks, or nuggets, of different miners—while the finer scales of gold could be washed from the covering earth in Indian willow-woven baskets, clay cups, old hats, or any rude apology for a dish; or the dried sand could be exposed on canvas to the wind, or diligently blown by the breath, until nothing was left but the particles of pure gold that were too heavy to be carried away by these operations. Afterwards the rocker or cradle and Long Tom were introduced, which required several hands to feed and work them; and the returns by which were correspondingly great. Every machine, however, was worked on the same principle, by rocking or washing, of separating by the mechanical means of gravitation, the heavier particles—the gold from stones, and the lighter ones of earth.

A Mining Scene.Provisions and necessaries, as might have been expected, soon rose in price enormously. At first the rise was moderate indeed, four hundred per cent. for flour, and five hundred for beef cattle, while other things were in proportion. But these were trifles. The time soon came when eggs were sold at one, two, and three dollars apiece; inferior sugar, tea, and coffee, at four dollars a pound in small quantities, or, three or four hundred dollars a barrel; medicines—say, for laudanum, a dollar a drop, (actually forty dollars were paid for a dose of that quantity,) and ten dollars a pill or purge, without advice, or with it, from thirty, up, aye, to one hundred dollars. Spirits were sold at various prices, from ten to forty dollars a quart; and wines at about as much per bottle. Picks and shovels ranged from five to fifteen dollars each; and common wooden or tin bowls about half as much. Clumsy rockers were sold at from fifty to eighty dollars, and small gold scales, from twenty to thirty. As for beef, little of it was to be had, and then only jerked, at correspondingly high prices. For luxuries—of which there were not many; if a lucky miner set his heart on some trifle, it might be pickles, fruit, fresh pork, sweet butter, new vegetables, a box of seidlitz powders or of matches, he was prepared to give any quantity of the “dust” rather than be balked. We dare not trust ourselves to name some of the fancy prices thus given, lest we should be supposed to be only romancing. No man would give another a hand’s turn for less than five dollars; while a day’s constant labor of the commonest kind, if it could have been procured at all, would cost from twenty to thirty dollars, at least. When these things, and the risks of sickness, the discomforts of living, and the unusual and severe kind of labor are all balanced against the average gains, it may appear that, after all, the miners were only enough paid.

About the end of May we left San Francisco almost a desert place, and such it continued during the whole summer and autumn months. Many ships with valuable cargoes had meanwhile arrived in the bay, but the seamen deserted. The goods at great expense had been somehow got landed, but there was nobody to take care of them, or remove them from the wharves where they lay exposed to the weather, and blocking up the way. The merchants who remained were in a feverish bustle. They were selling goods actually arrived at high prices, and could get no hands to assist them in removing and delivering the articles. By and bye, some of the miners came back to their old homes; but most of them were emaciated, feeble and dispirited. Here, therefore, as at the mines, the prices of labor and all necessaries rose exceedingly. The common laborer, who had formerly been content with his dollar a day, now proudly refused ten; the mechanic, who had recently been glad to receive two dollars, now rejected twenty for his day’s services. It was certainly a great country, this—there was no mistake about it; and every subject was as lofty, independent, and seemingly as rich as a king. No money indeed could now buy the servile labor of many persons who had lately been glad to receive the meanest employment; and thus many necessary acts, and much manual business had to be done by principals themselves, or not done at all. Real estate, meanwhile, had rapidly advanced in value, and generally was considered worth from five to ten times its former price.

Within the first eight weeks after the “diggings” had been fairly known, two hundred and fifty thousand dollars had reached San Francisco in gold dust, and within the next eight weeks, six hundred thousand more. These sums were all to purchase, at any price, additional supplies for the mines. Coin grew scarce, and all that was in the country was insufficient to satisfy the increased wants of commerce in one town alone. Gold dust, therefore, soon became a circulating medium, and after some little demur at first, was readily received by all classes at sixteen dollars an ounce. The authorities, however, would only accept it in payment of customs duties at ten dollars per ounce, with the privilege of redemption, by payment of coin, within a limited time.

When subsequently immigrants began to arrive in numerous bands, any amount of labor could be obtained, provided always a most unusually high price was paid for it. Returned diggers, and those who cautiously had never went to the mines, were then also glad enough to work for rates varying from twelve to thirty dollars a day; at which terms most capitalists were somewhat afraid to commence any heavy undertaking. The hesitation was only for an instant. Soon all the labor that could possibly be procured, was in ample request, at whatever rates were demanded. The population of a great State was suddenly flocking in upon them, and no preparations had hitherto been made for its reception. Building lots had to be surveyed, and streets graded and planked—hills levelled—hollows, lagoons, and the bay itself piled, capped, filled up and planked—lumber, bricks, and all other building materials, provided at most extraordinarily high prices—houses built, finished and furnished—great warehouses and stores erected—wharves run far out into the sea—numberless tons of goods removed from shipboard, and delivered and shipped anew every where—and ten thousand other things had all to be done without a moment’s unnecessary delay. Long before these things were completed, the sand-hills and barren ground around the town were overspread with a multitude of canvas, blanket and bough-covered tents,—the bay was alive with shipping and small craft carrying passengers and goods backwards and forwards,—the unplanked, ungraded, unformed streets, (at one time moving heaps of dry sand and dust; at another, miry abysses, whose treacherous depths sucked in horse and dray, and occasionally man himself,) were crowded with human beings from every corner of the universe and of every tongue—all excited and busy, plotting, speaking, working, buying and selling town lots, and beach and water lots, shiploads of every kind of assorted merchandise, the ships themselves, if they could,—though that was not often,— gold dust in hundred weights, ranches square leagues in extent, with their thousands of cattle—allotments in hundreds of contemplated towns, already prettily designed and laid out,—on paper,—and, in short, speculating and gambling in every branch of modern commerce, and in many strange things peculiar to the time and the place. And every body made money, and was suddenly growing rich.

The loud voices of the eager seller and as eager buyer—the laugh of reckless joy—the bold accents of successful speculation—the stir and hum of active hurried labor, as man and brute, horse and bullock, and their guides, struggled and managed through heaps of loose rubbish, over hills of sand, and among deceiving deep mud pools and swamps, filled the amazed newly arrived immigrant with an almost appalling sense of the exuberant life, energy and enterprise of the place. He breathed quick and faintly—his limbs grew weak as water—and his heart sunk within him as he thought of the dreadful conflict, when he approached and mingled among that confused and terrible business battle.

Gambling saloons, glittering like fairy palaces, like them suddenly sprang into existence, studding nearly all sides of the plaza, and every street in its neighborhood. As if intoxicating drinks from the well plenished and splendid bar they each contained were insufficient to gild the scene, music added its loudest, if not its sweetest charms; and all was mad, feverish mirth, where fortunes were lost and won, upon the green cloth, in the twinkling of an eye. All classes gambled in those days, from the starched white neck-clothed professor of religion to the veriest black rascal that earned a dollar for blackening massa’s boots. Nobody had leisure to think even for a moment of his occupation, and how it was viewed in Christian lands. The heated brain was never allowed to get cool while a bit of coin or dust was left. These saloons, therefore, were crowded, night and day, by impatient revellers who never could satiate themselves with excitement, nor get rid too soon of their golden heaps.

We are, however, anticipating and going ahead too fast. We cannot help it. The very thought of that wondrous time is an electric spark that fires into one great flame all our fancies, passions and experiences of the fall of the eventful year, 1849. The remembrance of those days comes across us like the delirium of fever; we are caught by it before we are aware, and forthwith begin to babble of things which to our sober Atlantic friends seem more the ravings of a madman, than plain, dull realities. The world had perhaps never before afforded such a spectacle; and probably nothing of the kind will be witnessed again for generations to come. Happy the man who can tell of those things which he saw and perhaps himself did, at San Francisco, at that time. He shall be an oracle to admiring neighbors. A city of twenty or thirty thousand inhabitants improvised—the people nearly all adult males, strong in person, clever, bold, sanguine, restless and reckless——But really we must stop now, and descend to our simple “annals.”

Source: Frank Soulé, John H. Gihon, M.D., and James Nisbet. The Annals of San Francisco. 1855: San Francisco.

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