Pocket Gold Mining (Conclusion)

 (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 jr872vt90@yahoo.com


  1. JR, well I guess I'm confused.....it the fan's handle upstream or downstream? I can see it working both ways. A pocket of gold that has been washing out and spreading out in a fan shape, or a fan shape funneling the gold into a collection pocket. Dry or low water streams makes perfect sense. The creeks I've been working are small, but I'm still limited by the height of my boots how deep I can go. Anyway, as always, very interesting. Something to scratch yer scalp over to be sure! Thanks!

    1. What is your main method of working your creeks Muskrat? Like when you first arrive and then towards the end of the day or weekend.

  2. Muskrat, the pocket hunters usually looked for pockets on the hillsides where the gold coming out of a vein is concentrated in cracks or anything that would catch the gold as it worked its way down the slope.The handle would be where the gold comes out of the vein. The gold then spreads out like a fan as it travels down the hill.
    Pockets in creeks or streams are different. They are formed in cracks in the bedrock or around boulders where the currents swirl creating low pressure areas for the gold to settle out, or where the slope of the stream flattens out. The concept of a fan doesn't apply in a stream.
    Rattlesnake Jim

  3. I see now how Muskrat's dry panning technique could come into play now. If I were to follow the fanning pattern that could lead to quite a bit of extra footsteps just to get to waters edge. Assuming Muskrat's way is the best for the least amount of work, here's 3 other ways I'd go about it. I'd use my metal detector to try to find a paystreak, I'd settle for old nails and pieces of barbed wire for starters. Hopefully, there'd be some. When found, I would mark the spots with markers that have something reflective or real colorful. Red is tough to see, it should be an easy color to spot when you go back looking for them. This should work up where Muskrat works or where the s.w. desert areas are, or wherever. I'd classify material first at either region but it seems a mini-drywasher/puffer would be easiest in the desert if doing the fanning method. Then, I 'd just take the heavies back home and hope for the best. Where Muskrat is- more than likely, I'd dig and classify 2 or 3 premarked spots until I have a 3/4 full 5 gallon bucket and traverse to waters edge. I would have a sluice or rocker box ready to go. The tough thing about that is when it's time to move if nothing is found. Self discipline, I guess.

  4. Anonymous, well..... my approach is pretty much hit and miss. I have two good spots I found by sampling up and down the creek with a gold pan.(separate creeks) The spots I found the most, I switched to a sluice box. I tried upstream until I found no more gold, but what I found was less than I found where I'm sluiceing down stream. Bedrock so far has been unreachable. Since I don't have a lot of time, I either go back to my best spots, or try a new spot entirely hoping for a new "best spot". Winter nights are spent studying the records from my area where gold has been found as well as Google Earth. My second best spot, looking at the satalight picture, it looks like a very old rock slide could have changes the stream bed. This summer, I want to look into that closer. Things look different at ground level. My best spot, I don't think there is a true source where the gold is coming from. The ground is made up of reddish, granite like rock that has decomposed into a fine gravel. The spot had been bucket dredged at one time, but has since washed out about 20 feet deeper than they were able to go.....still no bedrock. I suspect this is a glacial deposit and not eroding from a vein. Any Ideas? I wish there was a way to post a few pictures on here. Thanks, Gary "Muskrat" Thomas

  5. First thing that comes to mind was if where the dredging took place was on a straight run/slower current dropout area? or a bend in the creek. Is it possible that the reddish, granite like rock was the host rock of the gold with the gold being released during decomposition? The could explain the glacial deposit part of the deal. Are the 2 spots you work reasonably close to one another? At the best spot, the rock slide area, could there possibly have been a vein or stringers close to exposure or even present up high before the rock slide happened? My best idea- make each footstep count. By the way, are there tailing piles on top of unchecked ground there?

  6. Anonymous, The areas are around 25 miles apart, and very different from each other. The better of the two (the dredged one) is fairly flat, the other is in a rocky, steep canyon. If you care to look on Google earth, the first is on Dump Creek near the gold mining town of Leesburg Idaho. (North of Leesburg before you get to the river.) The other is on high up Freedman Creek East of Carman Idaho. Both are in the area of Salmon Idaho. The town of Salmon actually started out as a supply camp for the now ghost town of Leesburg. Until just a few years ago, they were still mining gold there. It is straight West/N.W from Salmon. I live at the Fairgrounds between these two spots. In the early 1900's and again about 1970, Moose creek caused Dump creek to wash out badly, cutting through the old tailing piles in some places 50 feet or so deeper. From what I have been able to find out, they used a floating bucket dredge there,so I believe we are deeper than they were able to get back then. This summer once the snow melts, I'll try to find a way to post pictures through JR if you are interested. Thanks

  7. What about the area around Sharkey Creek at the end of Old Leesburg Rd Muskrat. From Google maps it appears a third of the mountain side slid down towards the east or it's an intrusion of sorts maybe pushing up some good stuff. I couldn't find Dump creek or the old mining area. We'll wait for pictures from you assuming J.R. allows.

  8. Anonymous, I have not tried Sharky Creek, but I have tried several spots on Napias Creek. (Napias is the Indian word for gold and is where gold was first found near Leesburg). I'm surprised you couldn't find Leesburg. Try typeing in "Leesburg Idaho". It should zoom right into the mine. There will be two square settling ponds, a lot of worked ground and a open pit that is now half full of water. From there, straight North to Moose creek road (NF-023), follow it to the right(East,N.East) to where it starts to turn South. There is a fork that go's straight North(NF-046) that one is Dump creek. Leesburg was one of the biggest gold strikes in this part of Idaho and was worked until the 1960's I believe. It was re-opened around 2000, and just closed 3-4 years ago. They called it "Bear Track Mine" the last time. There is talk of re-opening it again.

    1. I found it. Appears your place offer a better chance than Sharkey creek. Earlier today I followed the Salmon R. to where it confluences with the Snake R. Then followed the Snake until it runs into the Columbia. What a trip. thanks Muskrat.

    2. Anonymous, You bet! fun to have someone that is interested to show off to. Now if you want to see the 2nd best, way more rugged spot. Type in "Freeman Peak, Idaho" and fly on a tour! I'm in the canyon on the North side. Very different country than the other spot. Anyway, I suppose we better not fill up all of Jim's post area! This will be the last one. Thanks again for your interest! Gary

  9. Hay J.R.
    This sounds like a process we call here in Australia "Loaming"
    Here's a link to an old 1934 newspaper article about the process. http://trove.nla.gov.au/ndp/del/article/84198039
    There is also a book published on the subject called Looaming for Gold by San J Cash ISBN 0 85905 431 4 Hesperian Press.



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