(Gotta love the old timers.)
My last post on pocket gold mining generated some astute and interesting comments that make worthwhile reading and provide food for thought. I recommend you take a look at those comments when you get the chance. That said, let's move forward here.
Challenge and Opportunity
Lest you think I'm blowing hot air about the ins and outs of placer pocket gold mining, even literary luminaries and folk heroes like Mark Twain observed old time pocket miners in action and commented on the vagaries of this small-scale mining pursuit, albeit tongue-in-cheek. Twain essentially shook his head in wonder at the implied madness of pocket mining as he watched it unfold in front of his eyes in the southern part of the Motherlode Region long after the heyday of the California Gold Rush.
Small-scale gold mining was a much different enterprise back in those days. There was still plenty of open ground available to work and miners came and went as they wished for the most part in terms of pocket mining and placer gold mining in general. Sure, ground was claimed up or being worked by large "companies" of individuals, but nowhere to the extent that available gold ground is claimed or worked these days. Lastly, the old time pocket miners didn't have to labor under the host of BS bureaucratic rules, regulations, and dictates that govern small-scale mining today. It was still a time of challenge and opportunity...even for pocket miners.
Reaching for the Handle
I mentioned the fandango or fan search approach that pocket miners used back in the day and now I'll try and develop that issue for you. The old timers would begin their their pocket search by first finding a likely looking area in a streambed, wash, terrace, hillside, or in bench gravels.They would then envision a fan (much like a lady's hand fan) spreading out before them with the broader part of the fan directly in front of them and the handle of the fan at some distance in front or above them. Depending on the terrain this could be upstream, downstream, uphill or downhill. Most generally, it was upstream or uphill.
Now here's where you need to listen closely and visualize things a bit. The fan itself could be quite large in area or, conversely, could be quite small and localized. I think the tendency is to automatically assume that the old timers were working "fans" that were very large in scale, but this wasn't necessarily the case. In fact, some fans could be only a be a dozen yards in width (at the broadest part of the fan) or sometimes even a few dozen feet. It all depended on the actual or expected richness of the ground the old time pocket miners were working.
(Pockets were expected to be at or near the tip of the fan's handle.)
Armed only with picks, shovels, and a gold pan, the old timers would begin taking samples from the broadest part of the fan at measured distances. If color showed up in their pans in most or all of these tests, the old time pocket miners would move forward (or upward as the case may be) to a narrower part of the fan and repeat the process. If reasonable color was found, they'd repeat the process again and again and again until they reached the "handle" of the fan itself. The handle area, especially the extreme tip of the handle was where they hoped a pocket could be found and this is where they really went to work. If the old timers were lucky or had guessed correctly, more and more gold showed itself in their pans as they dug the handle area deeper and/or side-to-side.
You Old Salts Already Know
Here's where the debate seems to be lively among you commenters. Mention has been made of the necessity of digging down to bedrock (a right-minded approach in most instances) or the difficulties (if not impossibilities) of pocket mining in an active, running stream. Both of these issues are valid and to question them in terms of pocket mining is a good thing. But here's the deal. Pocket mining was never an exact science...for the old timers themselves nor will it be for you, should you decide to try your hand at it. In fact, in researching pocket mining what I found out is that the old timers went about it with about 50% experiential knowledge and the other 50% based on blind faith. They knew how to play the game but where the dice came to a stop was anyone's guess. You need to keep this in mind when debating the finer points of this hit-or-miss small-scale mining process.
In the historical accounts I've read of pocket mining the old timers rarely worked active or running streams. That should temper the comment debate some. This makes perfect sense to me because attempting to shovel gold-bearing gravel from a running stream or even standing water is an exercise in futility to a great degree and something I don't recommend to any of you newbies or greenhorns. The old salts among you already know this. Twain, in commenting on his observations of pocket miners in the Motherlode, suggests that the old timers worked dry gullies, hillsides, and terraces where water would not hinder their search for gold pockets. I've worked placer areas in the southern Motherlode and unlike their northern counterpart, the southern mining region contains fewer flowing streams and a lot more dry gold ground, especially during the height of summer. So this information may help cool down the debate on this particular issue. However, small-scale miners today have suction dredges and highbankers with suction attachments that could...and I say could...allow a budding pocket miner to work running streams.
(Pocket mine this stream? I'll pass.)
Now we come to bedrock. No small-scale miner, pocket or otherwise, is going to pick and shovel his or her way through 10, 15, 20, or 30 feet of overburden gravels to get to bedrock. Those of you that have done this (very few, if any, I suspect) have my lasting admiration. Do you think the old time pocket miners were any different in that regard? Based on what I know and have learned, the old timers only tried to dig down deep once they had found decent gold at the fan's handle, NOT while they were working the broader parts of the fan search area. All they needed to know while testing the fan was that consistent color was showing up in their gold pans...nothing else. Their theory (and hope) was that the good gold or pocket was somewhere near the fan's handle and it was there that they would commit the bulk of their labor. Make sense? Did they miss gold pockets this way? Probably, especially those that may have lain at depth during the fan testing phase. But it was what it was and is what it is...
When Things Go Boom
Again, I've never tried my own hand at pocket mining per se. I think it would be an interesting thing to do sometime...not with the expectation of hitting a pocket itself, but for the lesson it could teach me about the fundamental nature of pocket mining (a crapshoot?) and the historical framework it would provide me with an understanding for. That's me though. The fact of the matter is that pocket mining was practiced by a select few in the old days with mixed results...sometimes boom, more often bust. But when things went boom they went boom in a big way.
My overall intention in this series was to introduce you to pocket mining, undoubtedly something totally new to many of you. Every little bit of small-scale gold mining knowledge and experience you gain makes you better at what you love to do. Give pocket mining a whirl sometime. Who knows what the fates may bring your way...
Best of luck out there.
(c) Jim Rocha (J.R.) 2015
Questions? E-mail me at email@example.com