And We Think We Have it Tough...(Part 1)

(Old timers hydraulicking for placer gold in Alder Gulch, Montana Territory.)

In case some of  you readers didn't already know it, I'm not only a small-scale gold prospector and miner but a student of western mining history and fairly well knowledgeable in that regard. My fascination with gold mining history here in the United States (and a few other countries) began almost a soon as I began swirling a gold pan around for color. To this end, I'll be providing you with some historic mining images in this post along with brief write ups on each. So stick'll enjoy this.

(A sourdough "rocking the cradle" for gold, Montana Territory, 1871.)

A Simple Tool

Of all the tools and equipment that emerged from the early days of Western mining, the rocker box or "gold cradle" (as it was known back then) was one of the simplest and most efficient. No, it couldn't process as much gold-bearing material as a sluice box or its extended variant, the Long Tom, but an experienced placer miner could process five-to-six times the amount of material he or she could move armed only with gold pan (which, by the way, is a prospecting tool and not a piece of mining equipment). Even the most adept Argonauts with a gold pan could only process about one cubic yard of gold-bearing gravel a day, so any improvement over that amount was a God send...not to mention less wear and tear on the operator. Another plus of the rocker box was that it required very little water, unlike its greedier cousin, the sluice. Gold miners from the early strikes in Virginia, the Carolinas, Georgia, Alabama, and Tennessee brought variations of the gold cradle with them, first to the Gold Rush in California and then elsewhere in the West and Southwest. Me? I kept a wooden rocker box in my small-scale mining arsenal for over twenty years until I finally passed it along to a friend.

(Gold mining camp, Colorado Territory, 1875.)

A Brutal Grind

In the 1800s the western and southwestern U.S. was a lonely and potentially hostile environment, replete with wild animals like grizzly bears and mountain lions, not to mention fiercely independent Native American tribes who despised miners and attacked them at nearly every opportunity. Although boom towns replete with hotels, shops, and stores (not to mention drinking, whoring, and gambling establishments) sprang up near the sites of major gold and silver strikes throughout the American West, most small-scale miners found themselves living a hardscrabble existence at best. For many of these would-be Argonauts, it was a primitive existence lacking any real comfort or safety where bad food and poor sanitation created disease, illness, misery, and even death. Some prospectors or miners simply disappeared into the vast tracts of pine-covered forests never to be seen or heard from again, while others died of thirst or heat exhaustion in scorching deserts like Death Valley, leaving behind their mummified remains and nothing more. Then there was the nature of the work itself. Gold mining, placer or lode, was very hard, demanding, and unrelenting work that required both physical and mental strength and aptitude. All in all, mining was a brutal grind and it left many miners dead in its wake through horrendous accidents or unfortunate missteps. Stir copious amounts of isolation and the loneliness into this pot, add it together with the previous issues, and you ended up with an extremely potent stew. Some miners just couldn't take it any longer and resorted to alcohol, laudanum, or the Chinese opium pipe. Others took their own lives or the lives of others in murderous acts of rage or drunkenness. In the end, only the strong and the resilient survived and perhaps not surprisingly, most of these never fulfilled their golden dreams. We all tend to romanticize the old days somewhat but from what I've read and studied, there was very little romance in working the mines of the Old West.

(Placer gold miners near Deadwood, South Dakota, 1876.)

Fame or Infamy?

Of all the mining boom towns of the American West or Southwest, Deadwood has to rank at the top in terms of sheer fame (or infamy, if you will). At the time, the United States was in the midst of a severe financial recession that many pundits thought could only be solved by a large influx of gold into the American economy. Enter stage right Lt. Colonel George Armstrong Custer. Yep, I said Lt. Colonel, not General. Custer's rank of Major General during the U.S. Civil War was a brevet (temporary) rank, meaning he'd revert to his former rank of lieutenant colonel once the war ended. In open violation of a signed treaty with the Sioux Nation deeding the Black Hills of South Dakota to the Sioux as sacred land in perpetuity, the Federal government sent Custer and his 7th Cavalry Regiment into the Black Hills in 1874 to look for, among other things, gold. And lo and behold, expedition members found the yellow metal in substantial quantities near the community of modern-day Custer. Once the word got out about these gold finds, the rush to the Black Hills was on...first as a trickle and then as a flood sweeping everything before it. Things would never be the same for the Dakota Territory, the Sioux and Cheyenne, and last but not least...for Custer and the 7th Cavalry. You see, he and a good part of his command were "rubbed out" by vengeful Lakota at the Battle of the Little Big Horn two years later. Payback's always a bitch, don't ya know? Anyway, part of the hordes invading the Black Hills searching for gold ended up in what eventually became known as Deadwood Gulch. Sometime early that spring of 1876 miners Fred and Moses Manuel found gold nearby and the town of Deadwood sprang up literally overnight. By May, Deadwood had sprouted gambling establishments, brothels, and saloons that lined both sides of lower Main Street. Theft, violence, and murder were commonplace in Deadwood's early days and lawlessness reigned supreme. Even famous scout and pistolier "Wild Bill" Hickok met his demise in Deadwood. It was a wild and dangerous place for miners and and the general public. Within a few years the gold placers played themselves out and many miners left Deadwood Gulch for more promising ground elsewhere. Many of the camp followers who exploited the miners left also without knowing that in 1890 the major gold veins that produced the rich placers at Deadwood Gulch (and at other locations nearby) would be transformed into the Homestake Mine, one of the largest gold producers this country has ever known.

(Ore wagons, Arizona, 1897.)

A Rare and Hardy Breed

The mining technologies of the late 1800s were undoubtedly crude and inefficient by today's standards. Transportation was always a major issue in the West and Southwest, and virtually everything associated with gold mining, including ore and bullion shipments, moved by wagon or wagon train. As if this wasn't bad enough, the roads leading to and from various large mining operations often left much to be desired unless you took perverse pleasure in bouncing and jolting over unpaved, washboard roadbeds that could break wooden axles as easily as destroy your kidneys. But the teamsters of those wagons were a rare and hardy breed...almost as rare and hardy as the miners they supplied and supported. Life on the road back then was by no means safe and secure either. In Arizona and New Mexico, Apache warriors often targeted individual wagons or small wagon trains, and if these same Indians came upon a solitary miner or two those gold seekers would do well to save the last bullet for themselves. You see, the Apaches were not shy about torturing captives and their favorite method was hanging someone from a tree alive and then building a nice, hot fire beneath the unlucky captive. Nope, back then the old timers didn't race down some paved superhighway in an air-conditioned machine with tinted windows, GPS maps, and hip-hop boom-booming from expensive bass speakers. There were no colorful neon signs beckoning them to buy, sell, consume, or rest their weary bones. Just long stretches of dusty, washboard desert road or muddy hairpin turns along some steep mountainside. And we think we have it tough...

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

Questions? E-mail me at


  1. JR, You are right, I love this stuff! I have to wonder about that first picture. The one of the guy in Montana with the rocker box. I don't see any water, not even waste on the ground. All of these I've seen use a small amount of water and a dipper. Could this be some sort of dry washer/rocker box hybrid? Is there even such a thing? Maybe he is only posing for the picture and not really using it? I dunno......
    Deadwood......must have been both a wonderful place, and a horrible place. If the HBO show was even close...WOW!
    A great show, but a bit too much cussin'. I have heard rumors they might make a made for TV movie or mini-series to kind of wrap up where the show left off. It was canceled before it was really finished. I'm keeping my fingers crossed that the rumor is true! Most likely, just a rumor......
    PS: I like your new "prove I'm not a robot" thing. Much easier to use that trying to figure out what those fuzzy number were supposed to be!

    1. If you look closely, there's a small pool of water below the Montana miner's dipper Gary.

  2. Another great read Jim. Since you are a student of western and mining history do you have any particularly favorite reference books on the topic? I want to share with you a favorite of mine: Holabird Kagin Western Americana auction catalogs. I know it sounds silly to collect auction catalogs, but these are beautifully illustrated and knowledgeably written covering a wide array of western and gold rush coins, tokens, money, scrip, ephemera, maps, equipment, minerals, etc. They really take you to another world while imagining who previously owned them. I usually pick mine up on eBay.


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