Crime and Punishment in the Gold Camps (Conclusion)

 (Life in the early gold camps was hardscrabble at best.)

There's little doubt that life in the early gold camps of the American West was harsh. So was the justice meted out to criminals or those accused of crimes in and around the camps themselves.

Cynicism and Ruthlessness

Overall, there was little empathy (or sympathy) in the gold camps and boom towns of the day for those justly (or unjustly) convicted of crimes. Even crimes considered innocuous or of a lower order of severity by today's standards could bring the death penalty, a punishment typically carried out with a length of rope looped over the nearest tree branch strong enough to bear a person's weight. For example, thievery became such a significant problem in the early camps of the California Gold Rush that legislation was finally passed allowing the death penalty for those convicted of stealing property worth more than $100.00 (USD). Bad enough as this sounds, it becomes even more serious when you realize that the hyper-inflated costs of supplies and goods in California's early gold camps could mean that stealing two pounds of sugar or a barrel of salt pork could result in death by hanging. Harsh justice indeed, my friends.

As I mentioned in the first post of this two-part series, many of the young men who formed the bulk of gold camp inhabitants were ill prepared for the "adventure" they had embarked upon. Bitterness and disillusionment were only the tip of the iceberg as these would-be Argonauts struggled to survive under the harshest of conditions imaginable with poor food, unsanitary living conditions, and the cruel, unforgiving drudgery that small-scale gold mining is (or can be) most of the time. These things considered, it should come as no surprise that some of these individuals eventually broke down physically, psychologically, emotionally, and spiritually. A nasty cynicism replaced golden dreams for many and a steely hardness or ruthlessness emerged that affected people's perceptions and behaviors in the camps. Add vices like liquor, gambling, drug abuse (yes, it existed then too), and whoring and the entire mixture becomes extremely volatile and explosive. Violence became a steady undercurrent in the camps and miners never quite knew when they might be the target or the dispenser of it.

A Potent Deterrent

Once the early gold camps were established, crime began to grow like a cancerous tumor, sometimes slowly and surely and at other times rampant and uncontrollable. Homicides were frequent and often the result of anger, harsh words, baseless accusations, extreme intoxication, or simply self-perceived slights of any magnitude or order. Since entertainment of any sort was a means of forgetting their harsh daily routines momentarily and letting the dogs loose, most miners eventually ended up with their hard-won gold pokes in a jury-rigged tent saloon or gambling establishment. Or, if they still retained a bit of gold after the fact, perhaps a prostitute's "crib." Since it was highly atypical for anyone to walk around unarmed in the camps, most miners carried their firearms with them on these social forays. You can easily imagine what might take place next.

(Saloons figured prominently in every gold camp and Cripple Creek, Colorado was no exception.)

Many miners lost their hard-earned gold dust to professional gamblers, cheats, or hustlers in the saloons and gambling "houses" where liquor flowed in seemingly endless amounts. What resulted was a steady stream of unpremeditated murders. During one four-month period alone, at least one killing (and often multiple killings) took place every weekend night in the saloons of the old gold camp of Mokelumne Hill in Amador County, California. Now listen closely to the following. By contrast, the level of theft, burglary, or property crime in the early camps was either equal to or lower than that found in most cities back East. Why? Because armed citizens willing to defend their property formed a potent deterrent that most criminals took very seriously, knowing full well that even the theft of a shovel or gold pan could bring about their untimely demise. I rest my case.

 (Violence and unpremeditated killings were common occurrences in gold camps.)

Quite a few murders were committed in the camps by young men who couldn't control their tempers or passions when it came to the issue of women, "decent" or otherwise. Throughout the gold camps of the American West and Southwest prostitutes plied their age-old trade bartering their bodies for gold dust (most of which ended up in the hands of their pimps or those of saloon keepers). Neediness and jealousy forced many of these miners into gun play and some ended up buried with their boots on in the hardscrabble and unkempt cemeteries of the camps. Others were strung up for taking the life of a fellow miner and no small number were flogged or driven out of the diggings. A select few of the prostitutes themselves ended up on the wrong side of camp justice as well, usually for theft but on occasion for becoming murderesses or accomplices to a robbery and killing. These particular ladies of the night were hung until dead just like their male counterparts. The lucky ones were run out of the camps on a rail and sent packing. You see, sentimentality (even where females were concerned) was not typical of gold camp justice.

Destined for a Bad End

Now here's the real zinger. Up to this point we've only been considering crime and punishment as it relates to "white" men in the camps. Or, if you prefer, Anglos. Native Americans, Hawaiians, Samoans, Chinese (or Asians in general), Mexicans, Spaniards, Frenchmen, South and Central Americans, or anyone else not fitting the ethnic bill as far as white miners were concerned were liable to be run off their claims; shot, stabbed, or beaten to death if they refused to vacate their ground; or strung up on the flimsiest of criminal "charges" by an angry mob fueled on alcohol and liberal amounts of race hatred and prejudice. In other words, if you weren't white or accepted into the mining camp as such, you basically had no legal rights whatsoever and could be dealt with accordingly. Many a successful "ethnic" miner or company of miners were forced to give up workable (and often profitable) gold ground to white miners or else face possible lynching (an act that was carried out in on more occasions than many in the know care to admit). Racism certainly had a lot to do with these sorts of depredations on ethnic miners, but I myself suspect that greed and avarice on the part of white miners was also a substantial part of the mix here.

 (Violence against the Chinese and other "ethnic" miners was accepted as a matter of course in the gold camps.)

No matter how you look at it, crime and punishment in early gold camps was a cut and dried affair with little thought given to so-called "due process" or the idea of punishment fitting the crime. Times were rough and tumble back then and so were the miners that inhabited those camps eventually. Life in the camps was hard and essentially about survival, not striking it rich, so those who chose to deliberately defy the unwritten laws of the camps were destined for a bad end. Unfortunately, the innocent suffered right along with the guilty in certain instances. Early gold mining camps were ultimately microcosms of the existence of both good and bad, and darkness and light. Maybe that's true of everything in this life of ours for rarely are things ever what what we imagined them to be.

It's that age-old comparison between the dream and the reality, the good and the bad, the crime and the punishment...

(c) Jim Rocha (J.R.) 2015

Questions? E-mail me at


  1. JR, Dang I'm enjoying these last few posts!
    It seems severe by today's standards, but you have to imagine life in the mid 1800's. Having your shovel stolen meant you can't work. If you can't work, you can't make money to buy another.....if there was another to be bought. Supplies were limited, and expensive. You worked hard for what little you had and would not tolerate someone taking it from you. Something people today can hardly understand with their high paying jobs. Life didn't seem to mean as much then either. Most folks didn't live long enough to die from old age. If other people didn't do you in, you could die from accident disease, or any number of things. A lot of folks died from dissentary.....simple diarrhea,....crappy way to go!
    The other races, I think a lot was pure frustration. You are working hard, yet finding little and barely getting by. Then you see some "Chinaman" that seems to have more than you do and you don't understand what he is saying or his way of life......easy to imagine what could happen next. Especially after half a bottle of whiskey on a dark night.
    Go's back to your post awhile this romantic? Maybe imagining it today might be, but the truth is, that it was a hard miserable life. Yet it must have been worth it. There were plenty that lived and died just this way. Gary

  2. Terrific story. I went to Foothill College in 1971 - 1975 (off and on) and I wish this course had been taught then, as I have seen that there is a California Goldrush course being taught there now-abouts, but can't remember where I read it. Great historical facts and perspective here, and looking forward to more!

  3. Thank you for commenting Catherine. I'm glad you got something out of this series of posts.

  4. JR, are you the one who taught this course at Foothill College in Los Altos Hills, CA?

  5. No Catherine, that wasn't me. I've been in New Mexico the past 26 years.


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