(Most miners formed small groups or "companies" during the California Gold Rush.)
Ephraim Thompson left his family's farm in Indiana in late1853, bound and determined to "strike 'er rich" in the newly discovered goldfields of Northern California. Like many other young men of the era, Ephraim believed he could create a better life for himself and his family through gold mining in one of the richest gold strikes of all time. In this post I'll be quoting edited passages (in italics) from this would-be Argonaut's letters home and commenting on salient passages. So stick around...this should be an eye opener for many of you.
Full of the hope and dreams of youth, Ephraim left the family farm and climbed aboard a series of flatboats that carried him from Evansville, Indiana down the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers to New Orleans where he was able to book passage on a steamship headed for the brand-new city of San Francisco. After an arduous and perilous voyage of 24 days that included massive storms and a cholera epidemic, among other hardships, Ephraim stepped ashore at the busy port once known as the sleepy coastal village of Yerba Buena.
Not Very Well Built Up
"The town is about as large as New Albany and not very well built up at that. The streets are muddy and full of all kinds of rubbish but many of the people appear to be well off. You don't see but a few poor looking people."
(San Francisco during the early days of the California Gold Rush.)
In five short years San Francisco had grown into a bustling community that supplied the goldfields with all the necessities and contained no small number of grifters, swindlers, thieves, and assorted ne'r-do-wells who preyed on the newly arrived Argonauts. The well-to-do people Ephraim describes were probably part of the emerging mercantile and financial classes who were rapidly becoming rich off the mines and miners in one way, shape, or form or another. In other dairies and letters of this period I've read descriptions of bust-out miners from the goldfields who were reduced to menial jobs or begging or thievery in the streets of San Francisco. Many of these unfortunates were only trying to raise enough money for passage back to the homes and farms they'd left behind earlier. Their golden dreams had already been shattered.
Gold on Gambling Tables
There is enough gold on the gambling tables here to buy the entire county back home."
Drinking, gambling, and violence were everyday occurrences in San Francisco and the hundreds of small mining camps and boom towns that had mushroomed along the streams, creeks, and rivers of the Sierra Nevada foothills of Northern California. Ditto for just about any other vice imaginable. After reaching Marysville nestled between the gold-bearing Feather and Yuba Rivers, Ephraim wrote home to describe the place.
A Hard Place to Do Right
"Marysville has the hardest set of hombres in this country. Every night gambling, drinking, fighting, and shooting are carried on to great extent. This is a hard place to do right. Gaming and drinking are virtues here but I shun both as I would a serpent."
(Beautiful downtown Marysville in the early days.)
Temptations abounded in the California goldfields of this era and what Ephraim has to say about them underscores his Indiana farm upbringing which emphasized hard work and solid family values. Only the universe knows how much hard-earned gold was thrown away at the gambling tables or on strong drink and loose women during the California Gold Rush. Violence and murder were always a short step away as well. It was a hard life in all respects, as Ephraim himself was to eventually find out. In his next letter he sends a warning to his brother back home in Indiana. (Remember, Ephraim himself has yet to start mining for gold.)
Don't Think I Am Discouraged
Good cows here are worth 100 to 175 dollars. Hogs are worth 10 to 75. Some I talk to say this is the place for them and would not live any place else. But my brotherly advice to you is not to come. It is not worth a 1,000 dollars to come here either by land or water. There are a thousand things you would not think of, so don't come. Don't think by this I am discouraged but in tolerable spirits all the same. With good health I can make a living any place I think. I can't tell you how I can do that yet but I push along and hope for the best.
What I see reflected here is that Ephraim's golden dreams are beginning to become a bit tarnished. The ideal image he held of California and the goldfields back home is turning out to be something else again. I think he is also somewhat bewildered by the newness and strangeness of everything, and perhaps suffering from pangs of homesickness...a not uncommon reaction to those recently arrived in California. One positive note here is that Ephraim expresses a certain amount of will and perseverance at the end of this passage.
It Has Been Decided
This beautiful climate is as cold as Blixim today. The ice has not thawed in the puddles and looks like it will not for some time. It has been decided now that me and the Duncan boys and a sailor we come across in San Francisco will mine together as soon as we get to the diggins.
(Life in the diggings.)
Unlike San Francisco and the Bay Area, the Sierra foothills are not under the mantle of a gentle climate. I know...I mined and dredged there for many years. Winters are typically very cold and the area can get pretty significant amounts of snow. Summers can be brutally hot, sometimes hitting triple digits and during the height of the dredging season along the North Yuba River it ranges from the high 80s to low and mid 90s on many days. (I have no clue whatsoever who, what, or where "Blixim" is.)
Ephraim had taken the smart course and teamed up with three others to form a small mining "company" as they were called back then. I think the Duncan boys were acquaintances from back home in Indiana and the un-named sailor? He probably jumped ship in San Francisco (as many other sailors did) to try his hand at gold mining in the nearby Sierra diggings. Forming small groups like this in the California goldfields helped ensure mutual safety, combined effort, and the sharing of knowledge.
There's more to come about Ephraim's experiences in the California goldfields, so stay tuned.
(c) Jim Rocha (J.R.) 2016
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