An Eye Opener for Some (Part 2)

(California's Sierra Nevada Mountains not only contain gold but some pretty rough terrain as well.)

I meant to get another post published on Saturday or Sunday but it was one of those weekends, so forgive the delay. Anyhoo, let's get back to Ephraim Thompson and his experiences in the California goldfields of 1854. When we left off in the previous post, Ephraim was heading inland with his three pards for the gold diggings in the Sierra Nevadas.

Do Not Be Uneasy

I have concluded to write you Father the first of every month if I am in a situation to do so. If I do not, do not be uneasy for we will be off in the mines eight or ten miles from any place that we can get writing materials. We have been in this place more than two weeks and have not made anything yet. We pay ten dollars a week for board but we intend moving into a cabin as soon as we find diggings. 

Most of the better "diggings" in the northern part of California's Motherlode Region were located in remote areas containing little in the way of developed roads, stores, hotels, any sort of practical medical care, and the like. I'm a bit mystified by Ephraim's reference to boarding, but you can pretty much bet that he and his friends were paying ten dollars a week for crude lodgings at best. However, early on (1849-1855) in the Gold Rush wood was plentiful along the steep slopes above the gold-bearing streams and rivers, and building your own cabin or "shebang" was a must. I've seen old photographs of the ravines and hillsides above the North Yuba River near Downieville, California that showed those same ravines and hillsides totally devoid of any tree growth whatsoever. All the perennial pines and deciduous trees had been cut down for use in building flumes, mining equipment, and rudimentary housing of one sort or another.

 (Mining cabins of the era were rudimentary affairs at best.)

A Complete Failure

We have taken up some claims in the North Fork of the American River but we cannot work them until June or July when the river is very low. There is a complete failure in the mines this winter. It is no use to believe what the papers say; they only hear the best of everything. There are thousands of men in California at present that don't pay more than board and a great many that don't even do that (like me for instance).

The North Fork of the American River was rich in gold at the time (and remains a good place to mine) but getting at the gold was (and is) the problem. Most of the streams and rivers of the Northern Motherlode run high and fast due to spring snow run off higher up in the Sierras and typically don't settle down and lower their water levels until later. The larger rivers like the American, the Yuba, and the Feather and their forks and tributaries are not easily accessible for proper mining (or dredging) until June or later in most seasons. I know this because I worked (dredged and mined) many seasons in the Northern Motherlode. Water conditions could remain somewhat "iffy" right up until the middle of June at times, or even later. So what Ephraim is relating here about he and his pards claims on the North Fork of the American holds up over time and makes absolute sense. There were no suction dredges in 1854...all the gold-bearing material had to be moved by hand. The problem was, however, you couldn't move it or process it until you could reach it or get at it.

 (California's American River in flood stage. Gold is moving around in it but you aren't gonna get at it until low-water conditions prevail.)

You dyed-in-the-wool "Can I make a living gold mining?" types out there take note of what Ephraim writes here. He is essentially saying you can't really mine in the winter in the Motherlode (true) and that the hype about gold mining in California was just that, and little more. Even on some of the richest, virgin placer gold ground ever discovered in the known world most would-be miners of the era could not pay for a roof over their heads or food in their stomachs through mining. Ephraim is rapidly finding this fact out.

Mining is the Hardest Work

It is hard for the best miners to find diggings let alone green hands. A man with capital in this country might make a fortune in ten to fifteen years but a poor man can't make a fortune in a lifetime. Mining is the hardest work that mortal man has ever done. Just think of going down a hill a mile steep it would be hard to stop along a little footpath with a long tom on your shoulder. I tell you that it is exercise that gives a feller an appetite. The ravines in this country look a good deal like the Gully Branch but only forty times as deep.

In this passage Ephraim passes along some of the physical challenges experienced by miners in the Northern California goldfields. As I've told you myself many times, small-scale gold mining can be (and usually is) very hard work that's not for slackers or lazy asses. I know only too well the steepness of the ravines and hillsides above the main gold-bearing rivers in the northern Motherlode region. I've had to pack my gear and supplies in, up and down and up and down again in some of the steepest ground I've ever had to traverse in my mining career. I'm assuming Gully Branch is a location that Ephraim was familiar with back home in Indiana.

I Made Two Dollars

I have not had a chance to work much. It commenced snowing the day we got here and it fell to the depth of 18 inches and laid on the ground about a week. I have worked hard the last week prospecting but have not found any good diggings yet. I made two dollars (gold) one day and that is the most I have made yet. Money is about as hard to make here as it is at home. You can make more here, but the expenses are much more in every way.

As most of you already know, gold mining is not like a desk job or any sort of 40-hour per week gig. Some days you can work, other days maybe not...especially if Ma Nature decides not to cooperate. This is what many newbies (greenhorns) don't understand. You can't predict the outcome of your efforts to any reasonable degree, let alone plan on gaining a "steady" income from your small-scale gold mining efforts. Granted, Ephraim is not an experienced miner as is the case for many of those working around him. But the fact he's only recovered two dollar's worth of gold to this point is telling. That's a little under four grams when gold went for $16.00-$22.00 per troy ounce. More importantly, Ephraim's little bit of earnings doesn't go far in the mines, where price gouging and extremely inflated prices for common goods was common. For example, a shovel cost $37.00 at the time. In today's economy the equivalent of that same shovel would be over $1,200.00! A warm blanket cost $5.00 (nearly $150.00 at today's price equivalent). Lastly, a pound slab of beef would run a miner $10.00 (nearly $300.00 per pound equivalent today).

(Two dollars in gold...that's what Ephraim recovered to this point in time.)

Ephraim left the family farm in Indiana seeking a better life, including an improved financial condition. In this respect he was no different from tens of thousands of other hopefuls who flocked to the California goldfields. What he's finding out, however, is that the golden dream he decided to chase is rapidly becoming tarnished...

Take care out there.

(c) Jim Rocha (J.R.) 2016

Questions? E-mail me at


  1. JR, there was a story about a guy in the nearby town of Leesburg Idaho in the 1860's,that used his head for more than a hat rack. He broke a bunch of dairy cows to pack. Then used the cows to pack in all his gear. Once he got to Leesburg, he opened a store and sold fresh milk among other things. When a cow quit giving milk, he butchered it and sold the meat! I'm betting he did much better than most! Gary

  2. That's a good one Gary. But entrepreneurs like him are the folks who found gold in the old-time rushes, not the miners.

  3. JR, That's the sad part really. The miners that were the cause of the boom towns, the ones that did the real work, very rarely came out on top. Life was different back then though. To some of those guys, if they found enough to keep fed and have a little fun, that was "good enough". Folks today will never really know the freedom they had back then. Taxes, mandatory health insurance,and government interference, has forever changed that. No longer can we just pick a spot, build a cabin and do a little prospecting without trouble. Alaska or Siberia, you might get away with it, but not in the lower 48. Damn shame....

  4. I hear ya Gary. What you've said here has been my lament for the past 10-15 years or so...

  5. My retirement goal is to move out west to northern Arizona and just prospect the desert and mountains of the southwest as much as I can. I loved the freedom of just being outdoors.

  6. Chris that's an admirable goal and I wish you well in carrying it out.


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