(Would-be Argonauts working the gravels of the American River near Placerville, California.)
In this post I'll be wrapping up the story of Ephraim Thompson's trip to the California goldfields of 1854 where this idealistic Hoosier was soon disabused of his "strike-it-rich" notions, like so many others before and after him.
I Hope for Better Things
This country shall never be my home if I can make enough money to take me out of it in two years. I may come home poor or I may not be able to come home at all, but I hope for better things. My heart almost sinks within me some times but I will be industrious and try to live right under all circumstances.
Like so many other Argonauts of the era, the reality of his circumstances has taken hold of Ephraim. This sort of "melancholia" as it was called at the time, was the result of a combination of factors, not the least of which were homesickness, depression, and disillusionment. In many instances, poor physical health was also a contributing factor. Despite the overall richness of the Motherlode's goldfields, few would-be miners recovered enough gold to pay for their passage home, as Ephraim's words indicate.
One of the Richest River Claims
I have obtained through the influence of Robert Perkins a situation in a provision store in this place with a man named Cheeseboro. He pays me fifty dollars the first month and if his business will justify it he will give me seventy five the next. Maybe I will stay with him all summer. I have not seen the Duncan boys for more than a month since we quit mining together but I heard that Thomas has set in to work for a man that owns a mill down below for seventy dollars a month. Max Perkins and "Moots" have been doing well for the past year. Perkins owns a share in one of the richest river claims in the county. It is valued at thirty thousand dollars and he owns one tenth of it. "Moots" says he will come home this fall. Their claim is the best mining place that I have seen and yet half the people there are not making much more than a living.
I Suspect I Will Have to Quit
I'm still clerking for Cheeseboro but business is so dull that I expect I will have to quit. Perkins sold out his claim share that I spoke about in my last letter for five hundred dollars. It was a low price but they were "lawing" about it at the time and he thought he better take that than run the risk of losing it. He has another claim in the river that he wants to work as soon as the water falls low enough to put in a flume.
(Flumes were built in the Motherlode to divert river water or bring it to dry gulches.)
What Ephraim is finding out here is that even steady jobs are not so steady in the gold camps. Once miners departed for "better" ground elsewhere the sutlers supplying them had to move to or face financial extinction. By this time (1854) there were many sutlers and suppliers and store owners in the California Motherlode so competition became fierce as well. Emphraim's mention of the "lawing" taking place over Perkins's gold claim means that legal disputes were rife among the co-owners of the claim or, alternately, that outsiders were trying to take the claim away via legal maneuvers. Because of this fact, Perkins opted to take $500.00 cash in hand for part of the claim rather than the $3,000.00 he should have received. All this said, it appears Perkins is making a go of things in the mines which a very small percentage of Argonauts did. What is different about Perkins and Ephraim or the Duncan boys? Persistence, better mining knowledge, or good ground? Finally, wooden flumes ("water chutes") were used to divert the water from gold-bearing rivers or streams so that miners could access their centers, remove overburden, and recover the gold resting on or in bedrock.
Boys Have Men's Faces
I still feel as though I did right to leave home although I do not expect to make anything. This has stopped me from building castles in the air and made me feel the painful reality of life without a home. A little of the same would do good for several youngsters back home. Men grow older in this country faster than any place I ever saw. I think it is the exposure and the hardships that they have to encounter. Boys have men's faces and men of thirty look like men at home of forty. Nearly everyone at the store and boarding house I have found would all like to return home if they only had enough money to take them.
There's a bit of self-justification in Ephraim's words here, but I think he feels he made a mistake in coming to the California goldfields. He readily admits now that he has learned about building "castles in the air" and the pain and heartache that homesickness can bring. His observations about the impact on the faces of the men and boys around him are quite telling. The hardships and loneliness they endured took its toll on young and old alike. Everyone seems to want to go back home, but many find themselves "stuck" and without the funds to get there.
It Seems Like a Golden Dream
Before leaving home it seems like a golden dream where a feller don't wake up until he finds himself out of money and digging in mud and water to make enough to buy grub. There are plenty of men here who will work for fifty or sixty dollars a month and down in the valley the average wage is thirty dollars. The newspapers blow and gas as much as ever but the only time they tell the truth is by accident.
(Sometimes even the brightest dreams are shattered.)
Ah, the golden dream. It was the driving force for Ephraim and other would-be Argonauts of the time but the dream they held so close to their hearts soon became tarnished. Once again he comments on the work needed just to buy food from gold mining and he reaffirms how many like him have been reduced to working for wages to make a go of things. The "valley" he refers to is the Sacramento Valley and he notes that wages are lower there. He also comments on the newspaper press of the day and how much they are given to blowing things out of proportion and not being able to tell the truth about the goldfields (or tell the truth about anything...not unlike the media of today).
As best I can determine, Ephraim Thompson spent a little over a year in the California goldfields before buying passage back home to Indiana. Like many others, he had failed to strike it rich. He alludes in later letters that the grass is not always greener on the other side of the hill and that sometimes we fail to see the real gold around us. Ultimately, he was glad to get back home to Indiana.
Love those closest to you and take joy in their presence.That's the real gold out there...
(c) Jim Rocha (J.R.) 2016
Questions? E-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org