"As Free as the Air They Breathed..."
The late Western treasure legends writer J. Frank Dobie once wrote that there were three basic driving impulses for men and women: 1) to reproduce the species; 2) to protect offspring or the family unit; and 3) the obsession to wrest gold from the earth. He also suggested that in earlier days the latter pursuit held a "romantic" allure for many. To a great extent, history has proven Dobie right in this regard.
Of course, you and I know better. There's nothing romantic about digging for gold, whether that yellow metal comes in the form of rich gold ore or natural flakes and nuggets. But there is definitely an allure to gold. The searching, the sampling, the digging, the processing, and most of all...the recovery of it. This holds true whether you consider yourself a miner, a treasure hunter, or a little bit of both. Some say that the obsessive search for gold is a particular type of greed or "money grubbing," as Dobie put it. I don't necessarily agree with Dobie on this point, but I understand where he was coming from when he stated it. I've never had the opportunity to get greedy about gold, despite the fact I've been searching for it in various forms for over 40 years now. Sure, I've had some good "hits" along the way and in one instance greed on the part of another person robbed me of half of a very good find simply because I trusted someone who was undeserving of that trust. But for the majority of my mining and treasure hunting "career" I've never found enough gold in one fell swoop to cause greed or money grubbing to rear its ugly head. I will say this, however. History is replete with tales (both true and suspect) of the madness gold can create in the hearts, minds, and spirits of otherwise good men and women. Gold not only causes this particular form of madness in certain people, but it seems to blind many to "reality," however you may define that term. Myself? Gold and the finding of gold have always been more about the searching for it than the finding of it. And I think I can safely say that if money or riches were the heart of the reason for what you and I do out there then we'd have quit this gold thing years ago to become Wall Street investment hustlers.
A highly literate visitor to the goldfields of the California Gold Rush once wrote of his experiences there:
"I felt as though I had been transported to another planet. There was nothing there that I had ever seen or heard before. The great forests, the deep canyons with rivers of clear water dashing over boulders, the azure skies with never a cloud were all new to me and the country swarmed with game. Elk, deer, and antelope with an occasional grizzly bear. Tall, bearded men were digging up the ground and washing it in long toms and rockers. On the banks by their sides were sheet iron pans in which various amounts of yellow gold lay. These men had neither tents or cabins. They camped under the lofty pines or spreading oak trees, for it never rained there in the summertime. These men were strong and healthy and lived a life as free as the air they breathed..."
There is some beautiful truth to this written passage but you and I both know the writer was a die-hard romantic. That crystal clear water he describes was soon diverted or muddied by sluice tailings; the beautiful and pristine environment he chronicled was to be dug up so completely or washed away by hydraulic monitors that it would never be as it once was again: and those lofty pines and oaks? They were felled to supply wood for the cabins and town sites to come, and for use in sluice boxes, rockers, long toms, and flumes. Entire hillsides were denuded of trees in this process and there is plenty of old photographic evidence to prove my allegation here. Those deer, elk, antelope, and bears would become fewer and fewer as they were killed for meat or chased away by the hordes of gold diggers rushing in to try and get their slice of the golden pie. The small Indian tribes in the California Motherlode Region were soon exterminated or reduced to a pitiful hand-to-mouth existence dependent to a great degree on the largess of these gold-crazed interlopers. The writer fails to mention the deadly respiratory diseases many of these "tall, bearded men" contracted from working in icy cold water all day, poor diets, and then sleeping exposed under the stars until they built proper shelters. Nor does he mention the mining accidents or the violence, drunkenness, and murders that took the lives of many in the California goldfields and in the goldfields of Australia, Canada, Alaska, South America, and elsewhere. And as far as it never raining in this idyllic place? The writer was pretty much right about the summertime except for an occasional thunderstorm. But in the late fall and winter months cold, torrential rains flooded out the diggings and often washed away the flumes, long toms, and workings. This is the reality of those early gold fields, not the romance of them. And things haven't changed all that much even today.
Beholding to No One
But it's the last sentence of the writer's passage that finally hits the nail on its proverbial head. They "lived a life as free as the air they breathed." No matter who they were or where they came from these men and the few women who took the same risk were free. They could come and go and work as they pleased to the greatest extent as long as they recovered enough gold to put beans and bacon over a camp fire. They were beholding to no one as long as they remained debt free and earnest in their efforts. They weren't reliant upon bureaucratic idiocy or even the law of the time, since no law existed at all in the early mining camps. These were free men and women who developed their own unspoken laws for governing the diggings and their own unique form of justice for thieves, claim jumpers, and murderers. And that justice was often swift and brutal...as it should be in certain instances.
No, romantic illusions do not apply to the searching for and digging of gold. The romance is in the thought of it and the moments of freedom it brings.
(c) Jim Rocha 2018
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