Passages From the Diary of Alfred Jackson (Part 1)

I'm not just an old timer when it comes to small-scale gold prospecting and mining, I'm also an avid student of the mining history of the United States (and other parts of the world as well). In this series of posts I'll be presenting diary excerpts from Alfred Jackson who found himself working placer claims in the Northern Motherlode Region during the California Gold Rush. I haven't been able to glean much about Jackson's background but his writing is clear and literate, unlike many other first-hand accounts I've read of this period since literacy was not a widespread asset in those days among the farming and working classes. That said, Jackson's writings provide great insight into the daily life of a small-scale miner using hand methods...and therein lies the "gold" at the heart of this series of posts.

 May 19, 1850

I will sell no more gold dust to "M." He allowed for only $17.00 an ounce and then blew out two dollars' worth of fine gold saying it was not clean enough. Jerry Dix, who is only two claims above me on the creek, gets $18.50 for his gold at the store, but it always ends up weighing short. They are all in a ring to rob us poor miners:

Sack of flour, $14.00 
10 lbs. pork, $6.00
One lb. tea, $2.50
10 lbs. beans, $3.00
Two cans yeast powders, $1.00
Five lbs. sugar, $2.50
20 lbs. potatoes, $6.00
Five lbs. dried apples, $1.50"

(Note: The top gold price per troy ounce at the mines in 1850 was $22.00 USD. This was the "standard." As you can see by what Alfred writes, local merchants and vendors always undercut this price. After all, in most instances they had a "captive audience" and could afford to be picky about "clean gold." Note that at today's gold prices that sack of flour at the top of Alfred's list would cost around $680.00 USD! J.R.)

There is another man here who is making money. All of our letters come by mail to Sacramento and are then sent by express to Hamlet Davis, the storekeeper on Deer Creek, who acts as postmaster although he has no legal appointment. He is the biggest gold dust buyer of the camp and can afford to do the work for nothing, as it brings most of the miners to his store. Johnny Latham, the express rider, contracts to carry letters and papers for two bits (50 U.S. cents) each and rides the trails and creeks for miles around delivering them, besides selling newspapers to such as want the latest news from the 'States.' We are always pleased when his mule heaves in sight and would gladly give him the weight of the letters in gold if we had to. How heartsick we get for news from the old home way off here out of the world, and there is no disappointment quite as bad as when he passes us by without handing over the expected letter.

 May 26, 1850 

Rocked 60 buckets of dirt and gravel each day during the week and got 7 and 1/2 ounces. Only worked half a day Saturday. Did not go to town. Sent over by Jim Early for some tobacco; five plugs for two dollars.

(Note: There isn't a man or woman among us today that wouldn't be dancing for joy if we recovered that much gold in a day using small-scale mining hand methods. Today's [03/05/2018] spot gold price is a bit over $1,300.00 USD per troy ounce. In equivalent money terms, Alfred recovered over $10,000 USD in those 60 buckets! J.R.)

Went hunting this morning and killed 17 quail and four pigeons. They make a good stew if the rotten pork didn't spoil it, but it's better than the bull beef the butcher packs around here. Took a snooze in the afternoon till the squawking of the blue jays woke me up. I don't mind them so much, but when the doves begin to mourn it seems as if I can't stand it. I get to thinking of dear old mother and dad and the old place, and wondering what they are all doing. I know...they went to church this morning, and then set around and did nothing until chore time. I'll bet they didn't forget me.

I hear there are three women over on Selby Flat. Selby's brother keeps a boarding house there and in it is a grass-widow from Missouri, a skittish old woman who is looking for another husband. The camp has more people than the settlement at Caldwell's store on Deer Creek. What we miss more than anything else here is that there are no women in the country, or comparatively few. Barring the greasers and the squaws, I don't suppose there are 20 in all of Yuba County, outside of Marysville. With few exceptions, they are of no particular credit to their sex. To one who was born and brought up where there were more women than men, it is hard to realize what a hardship it is to be deprived of their company. To hear some of the miners talk—the married ones—you would think their wives were angels, and maybe they were, but I guess it is because they are so far away. Still, when I recall Hetty North, it seems as if she was the dearest girl in the world, and, although we used to have lots of quarrels and tiffs and broke off our engagement a dozen times, I don't believe we would have a cross word if she were here with me now.

(Note: Caldwell's Store is now Nevada City, California...the county seat for Nevada, not Yuba, County. Extremely rich gold finds at Deer Creek first brought would-be Argonauts to the area and you can still pan or sluice gold in the Creek, which runs right through parts of Nevada City today.  A
"grass widow" was a nickname of the time for those women whose husbands were gone or away from home for extended periods of time due to business, military service, or perhaps even those who were attempting to strike it rich. By the way, women and children were a very rare sight in the early days of the California Gold Rush and their presence was sorely missed by the miners whose days were filled with back-breaking labor, monotonous drudgery, harsh living conditions, and loneliness and homesickness. I've read other accounts of this phenomenon where miners are said to have readily handed over a poke of gold just to talk with a woman or hold a baby in their arms. Other points to note in this passage are Alfred's epithets about "greasers," squaws, and certain women being of no credit to their sex. Most Anglo miners at this time were very xenophobic or downright hostile toward other racial groups or cultures, including Asians, Hispanics, Blacks, Polynesians, or even "white men" such as the French. And, as Alfred suggests in rather vague terms, the few women near the mining camps were those of ill repute. However, as a counterpoint, he ends this diary passage expressing a certain "idealization" of women, especially those left back home. J.R.)

 ("Caldwell's Store" today.)

There's more to come so stay tuned.

(c) Jim Rocha 2018

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  1. Love it JR! First hand accounts from the Old West is always a big interest to me.
    I have heard the term "Grass Widow" to mean a "divorced woman" as well.

    1. Thanks for another meaning of "grass widow" Gary.


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