Passages From the Diary of Alfred Jackson (Part 3)

Judging from the comments regarding this series of posts, Alfred Jackson's diary is a hit. So I'll continue to tell his amazing story. As a recap, Jackson was from Litchfield, Connecticut and is working his own tributary or creek claim near modern Nevada City, California in the Northern Motherlode Region.

July 21, 1850

It's been two weeks since I took up my pen. My hands are all calloused and I can do better work with a shovel than writing diaries. Have had bad luck; only cleaned up a little over four ounces and the claim is pretty near played out. Anderson has offered me a share in his claim. He's working a dry gulch just about half a mile north of the cabin. It's rich on the bedrock but he has to strip off about 10 feet of top dirt and then pack the gravel down to the creek a couple of hundred yards. He's offered me one-half a share in the ground if I will help him cut a ditch from the creek to the claim to carry the water to it. We will have to dig about a quarter of a mile. He says there is a new way of taking out gold by a machine called a Long Tom. He saw one working at Kellogg's claim on Brush Creek and as much dirt can be put through it in a day as one can with a rocker in a week. I will go over and look at it tomorrow. Anderson is a good fellow and the only one on the creek I care much about. He is from Syracuse, New York and has a good education. If I take his offer we will cabin together and it won't be so lonesome. Haven't heard a word from Henry North and I don't know where to write him.

(Brush Creek, Nevada County, California. Jackson speaks of Brush Creek in his diary and of its richness in placer gold. Part of it is now off limits to small-scale mining thanks to the "greenies" at the Nature Conservancy.)

(Note: The "Long Tom" revolutionized small-scale gold mining during the California Gold Rush. The "Long Tom" was not a was simply a very long wooden sluice box or series of sluices strung together with a "hopper" or feed box at the upper end lined with iron. Holes were punched through the iron bottom piece to allow the smaller gold-bearing material to pass through. Larger rocks could then be shoveled or "forked" out, or tossed away into tailings piles if the hopper was removable. Remember, most individuals or small groups of miners at this time used the rocker box or "miner's cradle" to process gold-bearing material. The rocker was a vast improvement over the gold pan [never meant to be a piece of mining equipment], but it was still a laborious and time-consuming affair to use one. The advent of the extended sluice box or "Long Tom" meant that miners could now process much more auriferous gravel during the same amount of time and with the same amount of effort. The drawback to the "Long Tom," however, was that it was not easily employed by a solitary miner like Alfred Jackson. To run a "Long Tom" at peak efficiency required, at minimum, two people and lots of water. But even a duo of capable miners would struggle mightily to keep it "fed" with gold-bearing material and keep the riffles from backing up. That's why many old photos from this period show four, six, eight, or even a dozen or more miners posing before their "Long Toms." Gold mining in California was already changing from a solitary effort to a group or team effort, and those approaches would eventually be replaced by larger, more organized mining funded by the larger capital of companies. J.R.)

(Working a "Long Tom.")

July 28, 1850

I went over and saw the Long Tom working. It will revolutionize mining if it will save the gold. Took plans of it. I'm handy with tools and knocked one together without much trouble. The blacksmith charged me four dollars to punch holes in the sheet iron plate. Set it up on the claim Friday and took about two ounces that day. Worked a strip about eight feet square. This is as much as I did in a week with a rocker. All the miners up and down the creek came to see it working. I had offers of two ounces apiece to make three of them, but I've promised Anderson to begin work on the ditch as soon as I get through with the claim. Had a letter from Dad that gave me the blues. Dear old Mother is ailing and pining to see me. She's afraid something will happen to me. I wrote her a long letter cheering her up and promising I would come back as soon as I got $6,000 together. Dad says Hetty North is a good girl and I could not pick out a better wife. She comes over to the place regularly and asks Dad and Mother to read her my letters. Some of the married miners are planning to bring their wives here. About the only thing holding them back is the certainty that it will not take long to clean up all the gold there is in this country and then there would be nothing left to do except go back home again. Some argue that they can go farming in the valleys, but with the mines worked out and the miners gone out of the mountains, where would they have a market for what they raised?

August 4, 1850

Had a great streak of luck last week. Worked out the claim and before I moved the Long Tom I tried some of the rocker tailings. They were as rich as if the dirt had never been washed out and I took 19 ounces out of the riffle box besides a nugget that weighed nearly an ounce. I've taken out of the claim about 120 ounces and have sent Dad $1,500. It's cost me about $500 to live and I've got six ounces in the yeast powder box under the big stone in front of the fireplace. I am worried about Henry North. I don't care about the $50 I sent him, but it's singular that he doesn't show up or write.

(Old Miner's cabin in California.)

(Note: Jackson's stashing of his gold poke is something for all to take notice of. When I was mining in the Northern California Motherlode in the 1980s [Sierra County, to be exact] I know of two instances where placer gold stashes were found locally by miners/treasure hunters. Where did they find that gold? Buried beneath hearths at the sites of old cabins. The cabins were long gone by then but the stone hearths remained. So Jackson's hiding place was the same one chosen by other miners of the 1800s as well. J.R.)

August 11, 1850 

Anderson moved his things over to my cabin and we are living together. It makes a lot of difference having a pard with you...somebody to tell your troubles to, although he laughs at me and swears I don't know what real troubles are. I have told him about the folks and Hetty, and my plans to buy the Slocum Farm. He says, "Don't worry about the girl. She will wait for you fast enough as long as you are sending money home. And as for troubles...when you are married then you will begin to know something about them." I asked him if he was married and he said "Yes," and then shut up like a clam. We have dug more than half of the ditch and will finish it this week. There are a couple of gray squirrels that frolic around in the big pine tree near the cabin. I got the shotgun out, but Anderson said, "Why kill God's creatures? Let them live their lives." He's strange in some things. He laid there half the afternoon watching them scampering around the limbs or setting up on their hind legs eating pine nuts, and said there was more satisfaction in enjoying their antics than eating squirrel stew.

August 18, 1850

We finished the ditch on Thursday and turned in the water. It carries a lot more than we need and when we ran it into the gulch, Anderson got a new idea. We put a trench down through the middle of the ravine and there was a pretty heavy fall. The top dirt is nothing but red clay and he began picking and shoveling the dirt, and watching it run off into the creek and then he said, "What's the use of shoveling this all off when the water will do it for us?" Sure enough, it worked like a charm. We pulled off our boots, turned up our overalls, jumped into the trench, and worked away like beavers. The water did more in one day that both of us could have stripped shoveling in a week. By Saturday noon we had cleared off a strip 40 feet long and 10 feet wide, and will set the Long Tom tomorrow and clean it up. It looks like pretty good ground as we could pick up lots of pieces of gold...some of them weighing two bits. 

(Note: What Anderson and Jackson ended up doing is something called "ground sluicing." It's a quick way to move dirt or overburden away and expose placer gold farther down. In fact, this is exactly how James Marshall found gold at Coloma, the discovery that started the California Gold Rush in the first place. However effective it may be at moving dirt or overburden, ground sluicing also swept a good amount of gold away. J.R.)

(c) Jim Rocha 2018

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  1. HMMmm........lots of old mine cabins around here. My metal detector ain't much, but it's worth a try! I hare read (as well as here written by you) that the Chinese were well known for hiding their gold, since nobody thought much of killing them for it. Bound to be some hid someplace still!


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